Teen trauma hits adults harder than childhood troubles

January 15, 2021
Adult brushes with the law may stem more from teen issues than childhood troubles. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Adult brushes with the law may stem more from teen issues than childhood troubles. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Troubles in adulthood such as criminal offenses or mental health issues have stronger associations with negative psychological experiences endured in adolescence than in early childhood, new research found.

Trauma prevention in children is primarily focused on early exposure to adverse childhood experiences, but more attention and resources are needed for teenagers, according to Signe Hald Andersen, research leader and deputy chief of research at the Rockwool Foundation in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the lead author of a paper published Jan. 7 in JAMA Network Open.

Andersen’s study of Denmark residents examined whether age at exposure to six types of household dysfunction items in childhood and adolescence are associated with the development of hardships in early adulthood. 

The six items, recognized as factors associated with later adverse outcomes, were parental divorce, prolonged unemployment of one or both parents, incarceration of the father, inpatient treatment of a parent for mental illness, foster care placement of the child and death of one or both parents.

“This is relevant to us as human beings who live in societies where we are dependent on each other,” Andersen told The Academic Times. “We want to know what it is that makes the best conditions for children to grow and to become citizens in our societies that have a high well-being and can contribute.”

The age groups Andersen researched were early childhood (0-2 years), preschool (3-5 years), mid-childhood (6-12 years) and early adolescence (13-17 years). And the adverse outcomes studied in young adults were identified as disconnection from education and the labor market, not graduating from primary school, mental health problems and criminal offenses.

For the study, Andersen analyzed population data for Danish individuals born between 1987-1995 who were living in Denmark at 19 years old, for a total sample of 605,344. She hypothesized that associations between exposure to negative experiences in childhood and later adverse outcomes would vary by age at exposure.

Andersen ultimately found that exposure to negative experiences in the early adolescent teen group was more strongly associated with later adverse outcomes than was exposure in the early childhood group or at any other point in childhood.

Not every household dysfunction item had significant associations with overall outcomes or within each age group. Foster care in particular was strongly associated with the adverse outcomes, according to the paper. Andersen has a background in research on foster care, crime and other types of disadvantages in life.

One theoretical explanation for adults being more negatively affected by trauma experienced as teenagers than as young children is the proximity, or short period of time, in between the traumatic event in teen years and adverse outcomes in adulthood, Andersen said. 

However, Andersen’s study determined that the age-specific association results did not seem to reflect proximity in time between exposure and the outcome measure. 

“The age-specific associations between [household dysfunction items] and later outcomes resonate with anecdotal evidence about exposure to negative experiences, but my study is among the first to enrich this evidence with data that are sufficient to show reliable patterns at the population level,” Andersen said in the paper.

There are established policy intervention programs in place in Denmark, and elsewhere in the world, that target individuals exposed to negative experiences during early childhood, but the results of the current study suggest that there should also be a focus on individuals exposed to negative experiences during adolescence.

“Knowledge of age-specific associations is important information for policy makers who need to prioritize resources targeting disadvantaged children and youths,” Andersen said in the paper.

“Policy makers, child educators and others have generally focused on the first years of childhood for securing cognitive functioning and physical and mental health in the adult population. However, insights from neuroscience provide a second perspective that adolescence is also a sensitive period in brain development, implying that experiences during this period are similarly crucial for later outcomes,” she said.

Other research in neuroscience has suggested that adolescence is a sensitive period in brain development, implying that experiences during this period are crucial for later outcomes. Andersen noted that this perspective has been adopted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which now describes adolescence as “an important second window of opportunity for developing appropriate interventions.”

Andersen’s finding of the association between exposure in adolescence and adverse outcomes in adulthood resonates with the UNICEF initiative. “If individuals are particularly susceptible to negative influences during early adolescence, they may also be likely to be susceptible to positive influences,” she said.

The paper, “Association of Youth Age at Exposure to Household Dysfunction With Outcomes in Early Adulthood," was published in the JAMA Network Open journal on Jan. 7. Signe Hald Andersen is the sole credited author on the paper, but it is noted that Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi of Duke University provided “thorough and thoughtful comments on previous versions” of the article. 

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