Beyond Cumulative Risk: A Dimensional Approach to Childhood Adversity

Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2016 Aug;25(4):239-245. doi: 10.1177/0963721416655883.


Children who have experienced environmental adversity-such as abuse, neglect, or poverty-are more likely to develop physical and mental health problems, perform poorly at school, and have difficulties in social relationships than children who have not encountered adversity. What is less clear is how and why adverse early experiences exert such a profound influence on children's development. Identifying developmental processes that are disrupted by adverse early environments is the key to developing better intervention strategies for children who have experienced adversity. Yet, much existing research relies on a cumulative risk approach that is unlikely to reveal these mechanisms. This approach tallies the number of distinct adversities experienced to create a risk score. This risk score fails to distinguish between distinct types of environmental experience, implicitly assuming that very different experiences influence development through the same underlying mechanisms. We advance an alternative model. This novel approach conceptualizes adversity along distinct dimensions, emphasizes the central role of learning mechanisms, and distinguishes between different forms of adversity that might influence learning in distinct ways. A key advantage of this approach is that learning mechanisms provide clear targets for interventions aimed at preventing negative developmental outcomes in children who have experienced adversity.

Keywords: abuse; childhood adversity; cumulative risk; deprivation; learning; neglect; poverty; stress; trauma.