The long shadow of adverse childhood experiences
One out of every five children in the United States is raised in a family that lives below the poverty line. An even higher proportion of children have experienced other adverse experiences, including abuse, neglect, exposure to violence at home or in the community, and unstable caregiving. How do these types of adverse experiences shape children’s health and development? My research focuses on this question. In particular, research studies conducted in my lab aim to identify specific developmental processes that are disrupted by adverse environmental experiences early in life and determine how those disruptions increase risk for mental health problems in children and adolescents. Understanding these mechanisms is critical for the development of interventions to prevent the onset of psychopathology in children who experience adversity.
Scope of the problem
Childhood adversity is a common societal problem that plays an important role in shaping risk for mental health problems across the lifespan. My research has used large population-representative samples to estimate the prevalence of exposure to adversity in children. Our findings indicate that about half of all children in the United States will experience some form of adversity by the time they reach adulthood (Green et al., 2010; McLaughlin et al., 2012; McLaughlin et al., 2013). Common forms of adversity include experiences involving harm or threat of harm to the child, such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or exposure to violence in the community, and experiences that involve deprivation and social disadvantage, such as neglect, the absence or limited availability of a caregiver, poverty and insecure access to food. These types of adverse experiences are common not only in the United States, but in many countries worldwide (Kessler et al., 2010).
Children who experience adversity are more likely to develop mental health problems than children who have never encountered adversity. Common forms of psychopathology in children exposed to adversity include anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use problems (Alisic et al., 2014; Carliner et al., 2016; McLaughlin, et al., 2012; McLaughlin, et al., 2013). Children with high levels of exposure to adversity are more than four times as likely to develop a mental disorder by the time they reach adulthood than children who have not experienced adversity (McLaughlin, et al., 2012). Adverse childhood experiences are associated not only with risk for mental disorders in childhood, but confer a lasting vulnerability to psychopathology that persists into adulthood (Green, et al., 2010). Across multiple studies, we have shown that approximately one-third of all mental disorders worldwide are attributable to exposure to adverse childhood experiences (Green, et al., 2010; Kessler, et al., 2010; McLaughlin, et al., 2012). This sobering finding underscores the importance of developing interventions that mitigate the lasting mental health consequences of these experiences.