Joining a club that sparks new interest, playing a new intramural sport, or finding a new group of friends can be just as indicative of a freshman’s loss of self-control as drinking or drinking. drug, according to new research at the University of West Virginia.
Self-control – the ability to exercise self-restraint, inhibit impulsivity, and make thoughtful decisions – during this first year depends in part on the student’s willingness to try new things, including things that adults would call “good”.
It’s a new finding, according to Kristin Moilanen, associate professor of child development and family studies. The study, “Predictors of Initial Status and Change in Self-Control During Transition to College,” observed 569 freshmen aged 18 to 19 at five points in the school year. Participants completed the first wave of the study two weeks before arriving on campus and the remaining four during the year.
The tendency to try new things is one of two indicators – the other is maternal attachment – that can gauge which students would benefit from an intervention, the study found.
“This suggests that one of the goals of college is to get out there and try new things,” she said. “It can be helpful to know who needs to be restrained or trained in the decision making they need to slow down and think.”
Students who were less interested in trying new things maintained stable control throughout the year, she said.
A first grader’s self-control tendencies also depend on the student’s attachment to their parents, especially their mother.
“They are responsive,” she continued. “They tend to get along, their relationship is predictable and they know what their parents are going to do, how they are going to react. They don’t hide their mistakes from their parents.”
Conversely, students detached from their parents were more likely to venture into more dangerous behavioral waters.
Moilanen said it came from unavailable or inconsistent parents, which makes their children tend to push others away and dismiss the importance of parenting attachment.
“Their self-control is eroded more than those who are more firmly attached,” she said.
Screening for insecure attachment and personality dimensions can be useful in identifying freshmen who might benefit from discrete targeted early interventions, especially those who are not so attached to their mothers; these students can benefit from connecting with their peers and building a support system, according to the study.
A third factor, stress, is also likely to be responsible for the loss of self-control in first-year students, although this was not factored into the study.
“This probably reflects the fluctuations in stress over the academic year,” Moilanen said. “Freshmen don’t have the most accurate picture of what to expect, and then they come here and find it fun, but they also find it stressful.”
Stressors, even the smallest, said Moilanen, can be more disruptive to self-control than people realize.
Co-authors of the study included Amy Gentzler and Nicholas Turiano, both professors in the Department of Psychology at WVU, and former WVU graduate students Katy DeLong and Shantel Spears.
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