Kids show impulse control problems in a wide variety of ways. They may be restless, hyperactive, inattentive, and have a tough time sitting and doing quiet activities. They may find it hard to prioritize what they need to do and stay on task. They may talk excessively and fidget a lot.

Behaviors like these can disrupt a young life; and if this sort of impulsivity is left untreated, it can lead to more serious issues down the road, including drinking problems and antisocial behavior disorder.

But there’s hope. A new study shows that intervening early to give kids the skills to handle impulsivity can help put a halt to future problems.

“…[W]e’ve found…that you’ve got to start mitigating impulsivity before it starts influencing behavior that leads to substance abuse and antisocial disorders.”

The study was conducted by researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), University of Amsterdam, University of Oregon and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It was based on data from the Philadelphia Trajectory Study, a six-wave study during which participants ages 10 to 12 years were interviewed every year from 2004 to 2010, with a final two-year follow-up in 2012.

The current study relied on five years of self-reported data, from waves three through six from 364 adolescents (at wave three) of diverse ethnic background. During the final wave, the participants were 18 to 21 years old.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found a connection between adolescent impulsivity and later symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, which include dangerous behaviors such as drinking alcohol to excess, breaking the law and reckless disregard for the safety of themselves and others.

“What we’ve found is that you’ve got to start mitigating impulsivity before it starts influencing behavior that leads to substance abuse and antisocial disorders. Once adolescents are on a trajectory of engaging in those behaviors, it may become more difficult to prevent disorders later in adolescence than it is to treat impulsivity itself,” Dan Romer, the study’s co-author and research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a press statement.

Screening for impulsivity is one way to give parents a heads-up about the risks, so they can refer their kids for treatment, the researchers suggest. “Intervening early is critical to further avoid the consequences of impulsivity which are more difficult to reverse once psychopathology has developed.” Mindfulness training might also be helpful, they say.

Since most of the study’s participants were from low-middle income households, it is no surprise that the researchers found economic status was also a significant predictor of impulsivity at each wave of the study.

If your kid is having difficulty with impulse control, the sooner you take steps to help them, the better. Speak with your child’s healthcare provider for guidance on the next steps to take. You can also try the following:

  • Help your child gain some mastery of their feelings by learning to label and express them
  • Ask your child to repeat directions
  • Teach problem-solving skills such as learning how to reframe difficulties in more positive light
  • Teach anger-management skills
  • Provide structure and be consistent
  • Establish household rules and stick to them
  • Model the benefits of being able to delay gratification

The study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.