A toddler's inability to exert self-control appears to predict trouble later in life with substance abuse, crime and money mismanagement, reports a team of researchers that include Duke University psychologists.
The findings suggest that early interventions to improve self-control could have lasting and cost-effective results.
In a long-term study that enrolled 1,000 children in New Zealand more than 30 years ago, the researchers measured how the youngsters responded to circumstances that required them to be patient or delay gratification. Parents, teachers and others around them also weighed in with observations.
Another 1,000 children, all twins, were enrolled in England.
Over the decades, researchers chronicled the actions of the youngsters.
Those who had difficulty with self control starting as young as age 3 often grew into teenagers and adults who smoked, abused drugs or alcohol, had unplanned and early pregnancies, broke the law and mismanaged their finances.
The link, while not new, adds strong evidence about the long-term consequences of a child's poor self-control. The findings were reported last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It's so rare to have data that can tell us about such a long period of time," said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill who was not involved in the study. "It offers more direct evidence of what one might suspect than just predicting something that happens a year or two later."
Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke who worked on the research with Avshalom Caspi, said the study showed that even small efforts to boost a child's self-control could have large social benefit.
She said interventions improve health, wealth and crime among all the children, not just those considered impulsive.
"This is a huge debate in policy circles - the question of whether early intervention to enhance self-control should take a targeted approach vs. a universal approach," Moffitt said. "Universal interventions that benefit everyone avoid singling out and stigmatizing anyone."
Child psychologists said one of the biggest issues they deal with is self-control, but their efforts are one-on-one rather than broader interventions at schools or day cares. Still, those efforts can help.
Linda Silber, a child psychologist in Raleigh for more than 30 years, said she urges parents to begin enforcing self control early, even among toddlers.
"It's important that parents don't give in to temper tantrums," Silber said. "The easiest thing to do is give in, but don't. You need to teach that the child is going to have to wait, even momentarily."
Prinstein at UNC-CH said parents should recognize the difference between normal childhood impetuousness and a problem that could lead to teen and adult difficulties.
"That threshold is when self-control issues are starting to interfere with being successful at school or interacting with peers," he said. "It's something that interferes with functioning in a dramatic way."
Moffitt, the study author, said making inroads with self-control could have big payoffs - personally and in society.
"We looked very closely at study members who were nonsmoking, nonparent, secondary school graduates, and there was variation among them in self-control and it still predicted how their adult life would unfold," she said. "This suggests that there might be a better return on investment from early childhood interventions."
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