Self-regulation may hold the key to helping young adults overcome their risk for developing alcohol and drug problems, according to recent research from the University of Georgia.
The study looked at 225 non-college-educated adults aged 18-25 from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who grew up in rural areas in Northeast Georgia. Led by Assaf Oshri, an associate professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, the research team found that young adults who experience abuse as children have a higher risk for developing alcohol and drug problems. These same young adults also have a decreased ability to self-regulate, or avoid impulsive decision-making in socially stressful situations.
Oshri pointed to the results as evidence of the need for family-focused preventive intervention programs for adolescents that target self-regulation, in hopes of better identifying factors that promote resilience among youth.
“If we use delayed gratification, we can do well in life, but it seems like those who have specific early life experiences are less able to perform this optimal decision-making, and that can affect their risk of substance abuse,” said Oshri, who is housed in the department of human development and family science.
Protective factors at the biological and psychosocial levels offer hope that interventions targeting decision-making can help at-risk youth, he explained.
“The goal is to try to identify mechanisms that will help youth who experience adversity in life,” he said
During the study, the young adults were assessed twice over two years. In addition to completing surveys measuring their drug and alcohol use and experiences with child maltreatment, participants completed a decision-making task that evaluated their tendency to make impulsive decisions and ability to self-regulate and delay gratification.
To accomplish this, researchers used a tool called “delayed reward discounting.” The young adults answered questions such as “Would you rather have $14 today or $25 in 19 days?” They also agreed to have their heart rates measured while they completed a series of increasingly difficult math-related tasks in front of an audience of research assistants. These measurements allowed researchers to record stress levels and assess self-regulatory capacities.
Study results found that as participants’ maltreatment experiences as children increased, the higher their inclination toward impulsive decision-making and problems delaying gratification.
The paper, “Child maltreatment, delayed reward discounting and alcohol and other drug use problems: The moderating role of heart rate variability,” was published online in August in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Co-authors are UGA graduate students Sihong Liu and Erinn Bernstein Duprey and James MacKillop from McMaster University in Canada. The work was supported by the UGA Owens Institute for Behavioral Research and the Sarah H. Moss Fellowship for UGA faculty.
The abstract can be found at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.