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Emerging developmental perspectives suggest that adverse rearing environments promote neurocognitive adaptations that heighten impulsivity and increase vulnerability to risky behavior. Although studies document links between harsh rearing environments and impulsive behavior on substance use, the developmental hypothesis that impulsivity acts as mechanism linking adverse rearing environments to downstream substance use remains to be investigated. The present study investigated the role of impulsivity in linking child abuse and neglect with adult substance use using data from (a) a longitudinal sample of youth (Study 1, N = 9,421) and (b) a cross-sectional sample of adults (Study 2, N = 1,011). In Study 1, the links between child abuse and neglect and young adult smoking and marijuana use were mediated by increases in adolescent impulsivity. In Study 2, indirect links between child abuse and neglect and substance use were evidenced via delayed reward discounting and impulsivity traits. Among impulsivity subcomponents, robust indirect effects connecting childhood experiences to cigarette use emerged for negative urgency. Negative urgency, positive urgency, and sensation seeking mediated the effect of child abuse and neglect on cannabis and alcohol use. Results suggest that child abuse and neglect increases risk for substance use in part, due to effects on impulsivity. Individuals with adverse childhood experiences may benefit from substance use preventive intervention programs that target impulsive behaviors.
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