Correcting anti-social behaviour from children at a young age could help prevent drug or alcohol abuse later on in their life, according to a new study published Thursday.

In an effort to determine whether a two-year prevention program in childhood could stop substance misuse problems in adolescence, Canadian researcher Natalie Castellanos-Ryan, from Université de Montréal and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte Justine sampled 172 boys, all with disruptive behaviour and from low socio-economic backgrounds.

There were 46 boys between the ages of 7 to 9 who took part in the intervention programme with their parents. The programme included social skills training for the boys at school, which helped promote self-control and reduce their impulsivity and antisocial behaviour, as well as parent training to help parents recognise problematic behaviour in their boys and set clear objectives for them.

A further 42 boys received no intervention and acted as the control group.

The remaining 84 boys were assigned to an intensive observation group, where their families were visited in their homes by researchers, attended a half-day laboratory testing session, and were observed at school. They received no intervention.

All the boys were followed up until the age of 17 to assess their use of drugs and alcohol. 

The researchers found that levels of drug and alcohol use after adolesence were lower in those boys who received the intervention. This continued through the boys’ teen years up to the end of their time at high school.

Dr Castellanos-Ryan said: "The intervention appeared to work because it reduced the boys’ impulsivity and antisocial behaviour during pre-adolescence – between the ages of 11 and 13.

"Our study suggests that by selectively targeting disruptive behaviours in early childhood, and without addressing substance use directly, we could have long-term effects on substance use behaviours in later life."

More research is now needed to examine how these effects can generalize to girls, and to explore aspects related to the cost and benefit of this type of intervention, she added.

The study was published online in the British Journal of Psychiatry.