The teenage years are a time of change for both young people and parents as an adolescent experiences physical, mental, emotional, and social transformations.
Transition from a child to a young adult is accompanied by a teens’ desire to increase independence from parents as well as emerging concerns about body image. Teens are also more sensitive to peer influence and may face temptations to experiment with various substances.
For high-risk youth, especially those with a family history of substance use issues, the teenage years can be a pivotal time as unfortunately, this is the time when problem substance use typically begins.
Vulnerability likely stems from at least two changes that occur during adolescence: sensation-seeking and impulsivity.
Although there are rapid increases in sensation seeking during early- to mid-adolescence, gradual improvements in impulse control become evident only during later adolescence.
A new study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, examines how these processes develop in high-risk youths.
Researchers looked at 305 youths (153 girls, 152 boys) who were considered high-risk for behavioral problems due to having fathers with a history of alcohol- or other drug-use disorders.
Their trajectories of self-reported impulsivity and sensation seeking were compared with 81 youths (46 girls, 35 boys) with no family histories of substance-use disorders.
Researchers began assessments at ages 10-12, and continued the reviews for up to 42 months.
Also, a subset of 58 youths considered high risk who began using substances before age 15 were compared with 58 youths considered high risk who did not initiate substance use before age 15.
Investigators discovered high-risk youths had greater impulsivity, which may make them less able to regulate sensation-seeking drives that lead to problem alcohol and other drug use.
Additionally, high-risk youths who initiated early drug use also had greater increases in sensation seeking across adolescence than high-risk youths who were not drug users, which may contribute to more problem substance use.
In short, in youths with a family history of substance use disorders, the combination of greater impulsivity with adolescent sensation seeking may be an important underlying component of the risk associated with a family history of a substance use disorder.
In these individuals, early substance use, which further increases impulsivity, is an additional contributor to the risk of developing a substance-use disorder.