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05-24 Understanding temperament: Temperament predicts substance abuse

Understanding temperament: Temperament predicts substance abuse

Temperament refers to “built-in” tendencies to react to external stimulation in a consistent way over time. These tendencies are shaped either positively or negatively through interactions with others. Part 1 and part 2 of this series discussed how to understand temperament and promote positive interactions that bring out the best in everyone.

Temperament is determined through behavioral assessment, but is not meant to place a label or value judgment on a child. Sometimes behavioral problems are merely a result of a clash or mismatch between a child and his or her environment. Understanding temperament can help prevent behavioral problems by allowing:

  • A child to be loved and accepted for who he or she is
  • The parenting style to be adapted
  • The home/school environment to be adjusted
  • Those with at-risk temperaments to be identified and supported
  • Protective factors to be fostered/implemented for those at risk

Risk and protective factors for substance use

A recent study revealed that unemployment in young adults puts them at risk for alcohol use disorders, especially in those who came from poor families. But not all of those from poor families drink because of other protective factors. All the best parenting in the world cannot protect a child from danger of any kind, including substance use and mental illness. However, risk factors can be reduced and protective factors strengthened.

The fact that temperament predicts the potential for substance use has been reported for decades. Unfortunately, different researchers define and measure temperament differently, which makes interpretation of results a bit tricky. In general, those who are less social and react more negatively are at higher risk for substance use later in life. Those who have a “difficult temperament” are also at higher risk, which could refer to either those with high-maintenance temperaments or those with temperaments that don’t match their caregivers.

Family members can help less social members interact with others and take action to provide a positive environment for one another. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a guide entitled “Risk and Protective Factors for Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Across the Life Cycle,” which offers insight on how to provide a supportive environment through all the stages of development from birth to adulthood.

Getting help early

When behavior problems persist in spite of efforts by parents, teachers and supportive others to create a supportive environment, professional help may be required. The teenage brain is still developing and is highly susceptible to the effects of drugs, alcohol and mental illness. If substance use or suicidal ideation is suspected, emergency intervention can help prevent tragedy.

About us

Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a leader in the treatment of adolescent mental illness, substance use and co-occurring disorders. Our programs integrate state-of-the-art neurocognitive treatments with alternative approaches like experiential therapies, while promoting healthy lifestyle habits and lasting recovery. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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