What life course theoretical models best explain the relationship between exposure to childhood adversity and psychopathology symptoms: recency, accumulation, or sensitive periods?

Psychol Med. 2018 Nov;48(15):2562-2572. doi: 10.1017/S0033291718000181. Epub 2018 Feb 26.


Background: Although childhood adversity is a potent determinant of psychopathology, relatively little is known about how the characteristics of adversity exposure, including its developmental timing or duration, influence subsequent mental health outcomes. This study compared three models from life course theory (recency, accumulation, sensitive period) to determine which one(s) best explained this relationship.

Methods: Prospective data came from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (n = 7476). Four adversities commonly linked to psychopathology (caregiver physical/emotional abuse; sexual/physical abuse; financial stress; parent legal problems) were measured repeatedly from birth to age 8. Using a statistical modeling approach grounded in least angle regression, we determined the theoretical model(s) explaining the most variability (r2) in psychopathology symptoms measured at age 8 using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire and evaluated the magnitude of each association.

Results: Recency was the best fitting theoretical model for the effect of physical/sexual abuse (girls r2 = 2.35%; boys r2 = 1.68%). Both recency (girls r2 = 1.55%) and accumulation (boys r2 = 1.71%) were the best fitting models for caregiver physical/emotional abuse. Sensitive period models were chosen alone (parent legal problems in boys r2 = 0.29%) and with accumulation (financial stress in girls r2 = 3.08%) more rarely. Substantial effect sizes were observed (standardized mean differences = 0.22-1.18).

Conclusions: Child psychopathology symptoms are primarily explained by recency and accumulation models. Evidence for sensitive periods did not emerge strongly in these data. These findings underscore the need to measure the characteristics of adversity, which can aid in understanding disease mechanisms and determining how best to reduce the consequences of exposure to adversity.

Keywords: Childhood adversity; accumulation; life course; psychopathology; recency; sensitive period.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology