Childhood adversity and psychopathology: the dimensions of timing, type and chronicity in a population-based sample of high-risk adolescents

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Abstract

Background: 

Research on childhood adversity and psychopathology has begun investigating the dimension of timing, however the results have been contradictory depending on the study population, outcome and how adverse life events (ALEs) were operationalized. Additionally, studies so far typically focus only on a narrow range of psychiatric diagnoses or symptoms. The current cross-sectional study aimed to examine the association between timing, type and chronicity of ALEs and adolescent mental health problems. 

Methods: 

Adolescents from a population-based cohort oversampled on emotional and behavioral problems (mean age 14.8; range 12–17, N = 861) were included in the current analysis. Primary caregivers were interviewed on what ALEs adolescents experienced. ALEs were defined in two ways: (1) broad operationalization, including school difficulties, parental divorce, and family sickness; and (2) physically threatening abuse only, including physical and sexual violence. After looking at lifetime ALEs, we turned to chronicity, timing and sex differences. We focused on overall psychiatric symptoms as well as specific domains of emotional and behavioral problems, assessed using the Youth Self Report (YSR) and psychotic experiences assessed using the Prodromal Questionnaire-16 (PQ-16). A series of linear models adjusted for sociodemographic and parental factors were used. 

Results: 

Lifetime ALEs were associated with all types of psychopathology, with relatively bigger effect sizes for broad than for physical ALEs. The latter associations were found to be more robust to unmeasured confounding. The 9–12 age period of experiencing both broad and physical ALE’s was most saliently associated with any psychopathology. Girls were more at risk after experiencing any ALEs, especially if the adversity was chronic or ALEs took place after the age of 12. 

Conclusions: 

Broad as well as physical ALEs are associated with psychopathology, especially ALEs experienced during the 9–12 age period. Physical ALEs may be more useful in investigating specific etiological factors than broad ALEs. Sex differences may not emerge in lifetime measures of ALEs, but can be important for chronic and later childhood adversity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number37
JournalChild and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health
Volume18
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2024

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© The Author(s) 2024.

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