Impulsive Behavior as a Mediator Between Childhood Maltreatment and Emotional Disorders


avatar Rabeeh Azarmehr 1 , * , avatar Behzad Shalchi ORCID 2 , avatar Ezatollah Ahmadi 2

Departement of Education and Psychology, Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University, Tabriz, Iran
Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University, Tabriz, Iran

how to cite: Azarmehr R, Shalchi B , Ahmadi E. Impulsive Behavior as a Mediator Between Childhood Maltreatment and Emotional Disorders. Iran J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2020;14(4):e105726.



Impulsive behavior plays an important role in mediating the relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders.


This study aimed to determine the relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders, considering the mediating role of impulsive behavior.


This descriptive cross-sectional study was conducted on a statistical population, including all students of Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University, Tabriz, Iran. A total of 316 students were selected randomly and completed the Inventory of depression and anxiety symptoms (IDAS), Impulsive Behavior Scale (UPPS-P), and Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). The collected data were analyzed in SPSS version 22 and LISREL.


The correlation coefficient showed a significant relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders, and the structural equation model exhibited a good fit to the data (GFI = 0.9, AGFI = 0.86, CFI = 0.99, and RMSEA = 0.07).


The results showed that impulsive behavior played an important role in mediating the relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders.

1. Background

Psychological disorders, as the most common group of mental disorders, involves high levels of anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms (1). These disorders are extremely common and debilitating, resulting in significant cost and social burden on individuals, as they affect their personal, professional, and social performance (2). According to statistics, they affect a large proportion of the population in different societies (3). Generally, exposure to adverse life events is associated with life-long psychological trauma (4). A wide range of mental disorders, including cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social problems, affect children and adolescents and continue into adulthood, causing various comorbidities in these individuals (3). These disorders can disrupt the lives of young people and their families and have significant impacts during adulthood.

The triple vulnerability theory for anxiety and depression claims that biological vulnerabilities, general psychological vulnerabilities, and specific psychological vulnerabilities play a role in creating and maintaining emotional disorders (5). Experience of emotional problems results in the person’s engagement in impulsive behaviors to boost his/her mood. Impulsivity, as maladaptive behaviors, are significantly associated with or caused by emotional disorders (6). The importance of impulsivity has been recognized in everyday life, given its effects on the decision-making process and many psychiatric conditions. Moreover, it is recognized as a diagnostic criterion for several personality disorders, such as borderline and antisocial personality disorders, eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and substance or alcohol abuse (7).

Childhood abuse is a traumatic experience, associated with various types of abuse and neglect (physical, sexual, and emotional) (8). It leads to altered physiological responses to stressful stimuli, adversely affecting the future socialization of children (9). Childhood maltreatment experiences seem to be associated with impulsive behaviors, such as inappropriate affect, negativity, and reduced emotional adjustment. Evidence suggests that childhood abuse is a major threat to the person’s impulsive control system and leads to the development of antisocial behaviors (10). In other words, childhood abuse may be an environmental risk factor for the development of impulsivity in depressed adults (11).

Considering the clinical problems associated with high impulsivity, besides the relationship between Psychological disorders and childhood maltreatment, it is important to understand the mechanisms involved in the development of impulsivity and explore the relationship between these phenomena.

2. Objectives

This study aimed to determine the relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders, with impulsive behavior as a mediator, and to examine their causes and consequences.

3. Methods

The statistical population consisted of all second-semester students of Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University, Tabriz, Iran, in the academic year 2018-2019. According to the number of cases in Morgan table, a total of 316 students were selected via multistage cluster sampling. For this purpose, some classes were selected randomly from random university faculties. The questionnaires were distributed among the students after obtaining informed consent. The inclusion criterion were willingness to participate in the study and as age > 18 years and < 30 years, whereas the exclusion criterion were unwillingness to participate and incomplete questionnaires. In this study, the students were asked to complete the inventory of depression and anxiety symptoms (IDAS), the short form of Urgency-Premeditation-Perseverance-Sensation Seeking-Positive Urgency (UPPS-P) scale, and Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ).

3.1. Inventory of Depression and Anxiety Symptoms (IDAS)

IDAS was first designed to evaluate the specific symptom dimensions of major depression and anxiety disorders. It was developed by conducting principal factor analysis among three large samples (college students, psychiatric patients, and community adults). It contains ten specific symptom scales: suicidality, lassitude, insomnia, appetite loss, appetite gain, ill temper, well-being, panic, social anxiety, and traumatic intrusions. The scales are all rated on a five-point Likert scale (ranging from 1 = “never” to 5 = “too much”). Also, the scales are internally consistent and define a single underlying factor. Abdi et al. evaluated the factor structure and the psychometric properties of this scale in an Iranian population. They showed strong short-term stability, in addition to good convergent and discriminant validity with other measures of depression and anxiety (Cronbach’s α = 0.79-0.93) (12).

3.2. Urgency-Premeditation-Perseverance-Sensation Seeking-Positive Urgency (UPPS-P)

This scale was first developed by Whiteside and Lynam in 2001 by performing a factor analysis of self-report scales, measuring different aspects of impulsive personality, that is, perseverance, premeditation, negative urgency, and sensation seeking (lack of perseverance and premeditation). Later, a fifth dimension, called positive urgency, was added, based on a study by Cyder et al. (13). According to their study, although immediate action is marked by severe negative emotions in the model, there are also immediate actions under intense positive emotions that are not well thought out or measured. Therefore, they developed a positive urgency scale, which was incorporated in the impulsive behavior scale (UPPS-P). The items of this scale are all rated on a four-point Likert scale (ranging from 1 = “strongly agree” to 4 = “strongly disagree”). Jebraeili et al. evaluated the psychometric properties of this scale in an Iranian population in Tehran, Iran and reported an internal consistency reliability of 0.52-0.75 (14).

3.3. Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ)

This questionnaire, as a self-report tool for evaluating childhood abuse, was designed by Bernstein in 1994. In 1995, a second 53-item version of this questionnaire was developed, and its short form with 28 items (25 clinical questions and three validation questions) was finalized in 2003. Each item of the questionnaire is categorized into five levels (“never”, “rarely”, “sometimes”, “often”, and “always”) and is scored on a five-point Likert scale. This questionnaire assesses the extremity of emotional abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. It has been used in samples of psychiatric patients and substance users for psychological evaluation (15). The validity and reliability of this questionnaire are relatively high. In Iran, Garrusi and Nakhaee measured the reliability of various scales of this questionnaire in Iranian drug addicts, psychiatric patients, and college students and reported Cronbach’s alpha coefficients of 78-93% (16).

3.4. Data Analysis

All statistical analyses were performed in SPSS version 22 and LISREL version 8.80. Descriptive statistics, Pearson’s correlation coefficient, and structural equation modeling were used for data analysis.

4. Results

The study population consisted of university students, including 178 females and 138 males. The participants’ mean age was 23.4 years, with a standard deviation of 2.5 (range: 18 - 30 years). The means and standard deviations of the variables under study are presented in Table 1. The correlation matrix was calculated and examined for all variables, which are presented in Table 2.

Table 1.

Mean and Standard Deviation of Variables a

IndexGirls (178)Boys (138)Total (316)
VariablesMean ± SDMean ± SDMean ± SD
Negative urgency2.952 ± 0.7222.503 ± 0.9022.576 ± 0.834
Positive urgency3.252 ± 0.6052.822 ± 0.7863.064 ± 0.721
Lack pf perseverance2.264 ± 0.7182.588 ± 0.8142.405 ± 0.777
Lack of premeditation1.963 ± 0.8182.458 ± 0.8762.179 ± 0.878
Sensation seeking3.199 ± 0.6122.663 ± 0.8102.965 ± 0.753
Emotional abuse1.576 ± 0.7492.137 ± 1.0451.821 ± 0.932
Physical abuse1.224 ± 0.4151.730 ± 0.7991.445 ± 0.662
Sexual abuse1.328 ± 0.6271.149 ± 0.3511.250 ± 0.531
Emotional neglect3.434 ± 1.0352.843 ± 0.9563.176 ± 1.043
Physical neglect2.533 ± 0.3632.589 ± 0.3602.558 ± 0.362
Lassitude1.879 ± 0.7292.432 ± 0.9632.120 ± 0.882
Suicidality1.679 ± 0.7721.948 ± 0.8031.769 ± 0.796
Insomnia1.438 ± 0.6511.751 ± 0.7921.574 ± 0.732
Appetite loss1.646 ± 0.7292.072 ± 0.9851.832 ± 0.875
Appetite gain1.642 ± 0.8671.797 ± 0.8761.709 ± 0.873
Temper ill1.966 ± 0.8722.521 ± 1.0212.208 ± 0.978
panic1.849 ± 0.8012.420 ± 1.1012.098 ± 0.984
Social anxiety1.599 ± 0.7461.844 ± 0.7021.706 ± 0.736
Traumatic intrusions1.865 ± 0.8411.962 ± 0.6971.907 ± 0.781
Well-being1.769 ± 0.9182.177 ± 1.0321.947 ± 0.989
Table 2.

The Correlation Matrix of Studied Variables a

Total. impulsive behavior1
Total. Childhood maltreatment0.449**1
Appetite loss0.258**0.353**0.57**0.653**0.654**1
Appetite gain0.291**0.308**0.498**0.447**0.367**0.158**1
Temper ill0.458**0.544**0.853**0.85**0.737**0.585**0.468**1
Social anxiety0.261**0.416**0.669**0.658**0.718**0.622**0.351**0.647**0.752**1
Traumatic intrusions0.442**0.606**0.825**0.819**0.747**0.618**0.436**0.651**0.816**0.668**1

The impulsive participants reported higher levels of emotional disorder, including suicidality (r = 0.47, P < 0.01) and lassitude (r = 0.45, P < 0.01). They also reported higher levels of childhood maltreatment (r = 44, P < 0.01). Besides, there was a significant relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders, including traumatic intrusions and suicidality (r = 0.60, P < 0.01). For maximum likelihood estimation, descriptive statistics and Pearson’s correlation coefficient were calculated for all variables. Structural equation modeling was used to evaluate the hypothesized relationships between the variables. Also, the model fit was determined by measuring the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), comparative fit index (CFI), ratio of Chi-square to the degree of freedom (χ2/df), adjusted goodness-of-fit index (AGFI), goodness-of-fit index (GFI), and root mean square residual (RMR).

4.1. Structural Equation Modeling

The structural model exhibited a generally good fit to the data (χ2 = 333.18, CFI = 0.99, GFI = 0.9, AGFI = 0.86, and RMSEA = 0.07) (Table 3). The results indicated that impulsive behavior mediated childhood maltreatment and emotional disorder dimensions (Figure 1).

Table 3.

Model Fit Indices Presented in the Research

Indicator values0.0210.0700.860.900.992.52132333.18
The finalized structural model (N = 316)
The finalized structural model (N = 316)

5. Discussion

The results of the present study revealed a significant relationship between childhood maltreatment and impulsive behavior. This finding is in line with the results reported by Liu et al., Estevez et al., and Mirhashem et al. (8, 17, 18). Since children and adolescents are among the most vulnerable groups in the society, the risk of aggression and neglect of their needs can have long-term detrimental effects and lead to risky behaviors in the future.

There are several possibilities as to how childhood maltreatment can lead to impulsive behavior. The first possibility is the presence of an exchange relationship between the two phenomena. In other words, childhood maltreatment increases the risk of impulsivity and behavioral problems and consequently increases the likelihood of future emotional and physical abuse, especially when the parents themselves are prone to impulsivity. Also, this possibility is increased by the hereditary nature of impulsivity in children with impulsive parents. In other words, parents who have been exposed to wrong parenting practices and maltreatment are more likely to have impulsive children (8). Generally, in exposure to childhood maltreatment and abuse, the developing part of the brain is the most affected part, that is, the hippocampus from birth until the age of two years, the amygdala in early childhood, and the prefrontal cortex during adolescence. It is argued that poor development of the frontal cortex during adolescence, compared to other periods of development, is strongly correlated with the experience of abuse and impulsivity (8, 19).

The present study also revealed a significant relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders, which is in line with studies by Nelson et al., O’Mahen et al., Heleniak et al., Wanklyn et al., and Gaher et al. (20-24). Evidence shows that different types of abuse and maltreatment in childhood are associated with poor mental health outcomes, including increased severity of depression and anxiety (25). Also, children's living environment is especially important in the early stages of their development. Due to chronic exposure to stressful events, children’s neurological development can be disrupted, and as a result, their cognitive function or coping strategies may be impaired in the future (9).

In another study, it was concluded that all types of child abuse are associated with high levels of psychological problems and emotional reactions in the future (22). It has been also reported that childhood maltreatment plays an important role in causing depression, as negative attributions for the future are associated with childhood misbehavior and interfere with the person’s enjoyment of positive events (23). Moreover, studies have shown that people with a history of childhood maltreatment are highly vulnerable to the development of emotional failure and cannot effectively deal with negative emotional stimuli (24). Also, compared to sexual and physical abuse, the experience of emotional abuse in childhood is more significantly related to severe depression. The significant positive relationship between emotional abuse and depression has been reported in the literature (20).

Moreover, the present results indicated a significant relationship between emotional disorders and impulsive behavior, which is consistent with the results reported by Bellani et al. (26). It should be noted that impulsivity is associated with a wide range of personality traits, and there is a strong positive relationship between impulsive behavior and anxiety in impulse control disorders, such as gambling, eating disorders, and behavioral disorders. In other words, the risk of impulsivity increases in patients with mood and personality disorders (26).

Finally, the most important finding of this study was that impulsive behavior had an indirect mediating effect on the relationship between childhood maltreatment and emotional disorders. This finding is in line with the results reported by Oshri et al. and Schaffer et al. (27, 28). Oshri et al. concluded that impulsivity played a mediating role in the relationship between substance use and the experience of abuse and neglect. The negative urgency dimension of impulsive behavior seems to reinforce the relationship between childhood abuse and substance use. Childhood abuse influences the cognitive function and emotional desires of individuals, resulting in impulsive decision-making and subsequent drug use (27). Conversely, Schaffer et al. found that anxiety alone did not lead to suicide, while impulsivity accelerated suicidal thoughts, eliminated intrinsic restraints, and encouraged individuals to quickly select easy mechanisms to avoid stressful situations (28).

5.1. Conclusion

The present results confirmed our theoretical and empirical hypotheses. Sufficient evidence indicated the efficacy of our model for the interaction between child abuse, psychological distress, and impulsivity. In clinical practice, by relying on such findings, necessary measures can be taken to provide effective treatments and useful strategies for reducing these symptoms and increasing people’s awareness.

This study had some limitations. It only examined the students of Azarbaijan Shahid Madani University; therefore, generalization of the results to other individuals and age groups should be done with caution. It is also suggested that future research evaluate a wider geographical scope to provide coherent and consistent findings on the variables under study. Also, further research on other age and educational groups is recommended, as it this enables comparisons. Finally, according to the present results, educational workshops can be effective in raising the parents’ awareness and promoting proper parenting to overcome anger and impulsivity in children.


  • 1.

    Goldberg DP, Krueger RF, Andrews G, Hobbs MJ. Emotional disorders: cluster 4 of the proposed meta-structure for DSM-V and ICD-11. Psychol Med. 2009;39(12):2043-59. [PubMed ID: 19796429].

  • 2.

    Barlow DH, Allen LB, Choate ML. Toward a unified treatment for emotional disorders. Behav Ther. 2004;35(2):205-30.

  • 3.

    Porter S, McConnell T, McLaughlin K, Lynn F, Cardwell C, Braiden HJ, et al. Music therapy for children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems: a randomised controlled trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2017;58(5):586-94. [PubMed ID: 27786359].

  • 4.

    Kraaij V, Garnefski N. The behavioral emotion regulation questionnaire: Development, psychometric properties and relationships with emotional problems and the cognitive emotion regulation questionnaire. Pers Indivi. Differ. 2019;137:56-61.

  • 5.

    Polanczyk GV, Salum GA, Sugaya LS, Caye A, Rohde LA. Annual research review: A meta-analysis of the worldwide prevalence of mental disorders in children and adolescents. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2015;56(3):345-65. [PubMed ID: 25649325].

  • 6.

    Daruna JH, Barnes PA. A neurodevelopmental view of impulsivity. In: McCown WG, Johnson JL, Shure MB, editors. The impulsive client: Theory, research, and treatment. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 1993. p. 23-37.

  • 7.

    Herman AM, Critchley HD, Duka T. The role of emotions and physiological arousal in modulating impulsive behaviour. Biol Psychol. 2018;133:30-43. [PubMed ID: 29391179].

  • 8.

    Liu RT. Childhood maltreatment and impulsivity: A meta-analysis and recommendations for future study. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2019;47(2):221-43. [PubMed ID: 29845580]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC6269232].

  • 9.

    American Academy of P, Stirling JJ, Committee on Child A, Section on A, Foster C; Neglect, et al. Understanding the behavioral and emotional consequences of child abuse. Pediatrics. 2008;122(3):667-73. [PubMed ID: 18762538].

  • 10.

    Thibodeau EL, Cicchetti D, Rogosch FA. Child maltreatment, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior in African American children: Moderation effects from a cumulative dopaminergic gene index. Dev Psychopathol. 2015;27(4 Pt 2):1621-36. [PubMed ID: 26535948]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC4786073].

  • 11.

    Brodsky BS, Oquendo M, Ellis SP, Haas GL, Malone KM, Mann JJ. The relationship of childhood abuse to impulsivity and suicidal behavior in adults with major depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2001;158(11):1871-7. [PubMed ID: 11691694].

  • 12.

    Abdi R, Chalabianloo G, Joorbonyan A. The mediating role of repetitive negative thinking in relationship between negative perfectionism and severity of anxiety symptoms. Iran J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2016;10(4). e5308.

  • 13.

    Cyders MA, Littlefield AK, Coffey S, Karyadi KA. Examination of a short English version of the UPPS-P Impulsive Behavior Scale. Addict Behav. 2014;39(9):1372-6. [PubMed ID: 24636739]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC4055534].

  • 14.

    Jebraeili H, Moradi A, Habibi M. Psychometric properties of Persian short version of the five factor impulsive behavior scale. J Res Health. 2019:516-24.

  • 15.

    Bernstein DP, Stein JA, Newcomb MD, Walker E, Pogge D, Ahluvalia T, et al. Development and validation of a brief screening version of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Child Abuse Negl. 2003;27(2):169-90. [PubMed ID: 12615092].

  • 16.

    Garrusi B, Nakhaee N. Validity and reliability of a Persian version of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Psychol Rep. 2009;104(2):509-16. [PubMed ID: 19610481].

  • 17.

    Estevez A, Ozerinjauregi N, Herrero-Fernandez D, Jauregui P. The mediator role of early maladaptive schemas between childhood sexual abuse and impulsive symptoms in female survivors of CSA. J Interpers Violence. 2019;34(4):763-84. [PubMed ID: 27112507].

  • 18.

    Mirhashem R, Allen HC, Adams ZW, van Stolk-Cooke K, Legrand A, Price M. The intervening role of urgency on the association between childhood maltreatment, PTSD, and substance-related problems. Addict Behav. 2017;69:98-103. [PubMed ID: 28219827]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC5384831].

  • 19.

    Belsky J, Schlomer GL, Ellis BJ. Beyond cumulative risk: distinguishing harshness and unpredictability as determinants of parenting and early life history strategy. Dev Psychol. 2012;48(3):662-73. [PubMed ID: 21744948].

  • 20.

    Nelson J, Klumparendt A, Doebler P, Ehring T. Childhood maltreatment and characteristics of adult depression: meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry. 2017;210(2):96-104. [PubMed ID: 27908895].

  • 21.

    O'Mahen HA, Karl A, Moberly N, Fedock G. The association between childhood maltreatment and emotion regulation: two different mechanisms contributing to depression? J Affect Disord. 2015;174:287-95. [PubMed ID: 25528000].

  • 22.

    Heleniak C, Jenness JL, Stoep AV, McCauley E, McLaughlin KA. Childhood maltreatment exposure and disruptions in emotion regulation: A transdiagnostic pathway to adolescent internalizing and externalizing psychopathology. Cognit Ther Res. 2016;40(3):394-415. [PubMed ID: 27695145]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC5042349].

  • 23.

    Wanklyn SG, Day DM, Hart TA, Girard TA. Cumulative childhood maltreatment and depression among incarcerated youth: impulsivity and hopelessness as potential intervening variables. Child Maltreat. 2012;17(4):306-17. [PubMed ID: 23180865].

  • 24.

    Gaher RM, Arens AM, Shishido H. Alexithymia as a mediator between childhood maltreatment and impulsivity. Stress Health. 2015;31(4):274-80. [PubMed ID: 26468625].

  • 25.

    Springer KW, Sheridan J, Kuo D, Carnes M. The long-term health outcomes of childhood abuse. An overview and a call to action. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18(10):864-70. [PubMed ID: 14521650]. [PubMed Central ID: PMC1494926].

  • 26.

    Bellani M, Hatch JP, Nicoletti MA, Ertola AE, Zunta-Soares G, Swann AC, et al. Does anxiety increase impulsivity in patients with bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder? J Psychiatr Res. 2012;46(5):616-21. [PubMed ID: 22326294].

  • 27.

    Oshri A, Kogan SM, Kwon JA, Wickrama KAS, Vanderbroek L, Palmer AA, et al. Impulsivity as a mechanism linking child abuse and neglect with substance use in adolescence and adulthood. Dev Psychopathol. 2018;30(2):417-35. [PubMed ID: 28606210].

  • 28.

    Schaefer KE, Esposito-Smythers C, Riskind JH. The role of impulsivity in the relationship between anxiety and suicidal ideation. J Affect Disord. 2012;143(1-3):95-101. [PubMed ID: 22925350].