Relationship between childhood socioeconomic position and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): a systematic review

J Epidemiol Community Health. 2019 Dec;73(12):1087-1093. doi: 10.1136/jech-2019-212738. Epub 2019 Sep 28.


Background: 'Adverse childhood experiences' (ACEs) are associated with increased risk of negative outcomes in later life: ACEs have consequently become a policy priority in many countries. Despite ACEs being highly socially patterned, there has been very little discussion in the political discourse regarding the role of childhood socioeconomic position (SEP) in understanding and addressing them. The aim here was to undertake a systematic review of the literature on the relationship between childhood SEP and ACEs.

Methods: MEDLINE, PsycINFO, ProQuest and Cochrane Library databases were searched. Inclusion criteria were: (1) measurement of SEP in childhood; (2) measurement of multiple ACEs; (3) ACEs were the outcome; and (4) statistical quantification of the relationship between childhood SEP and ACEs. Search terms included ACEs, SEP and synonyms; a second search additionally included 'maltreatment'. Overall study quality/risk of bias was calculated using a modified version of the Hamilton Tool.

Results: In the ACEs-based search, only 6 out of 2825 screened papers were eligible for qualitative synthesis. The second search (including maltreatment) increased numbers to: 4562 papers screened and 35 included for synthesis. Eighteen papers were deemed 'high' quality, five 'medium' and the rest 'low'. Meaningful statistical associations were observed between childhood SEP and ACEs/maltreatment in the vast majority of studies, including all except one of those deemed to be high quality.

Conclusion: Lower childhood SEP is associated with a greater risk of ACEs/maltreatment. With UK child poverty levels predicted to increase markedly, any policy approach that ignores the socioeconomic context to ACEs is therefore flawed.

Prospero registration number: CRD42017064781.

Keywords: child health; lifecourse / Childhood Circumstances; poverty; socio-economic; systematic reviews.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Humans
  • Socioeconomic Factors*