Methods: The present analysis was based on 2,318 families in Wave 3 and Wave 4 of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an urban birth cohort study in 20 U.S. cities. The outcomes were children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problem scores at age 5 that were reported by mothers using the Child Behavior Checklist. Mothers reported the main predictors, ACEs and spanking, when children were age 3. ACEs included eight items; physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, mother’s exposure to intimate partner violence, parental mental health problem, parental substance use, parental incarceration, and parental death. Covariates included behavior problem scores at age 3, neighborhood collective efficacy, and demographics of child, mother, and neighborhood. Multilevel models were employed to examine the relations between ACEs, spanking, and behavior problems while accounting for neighborhood context and the moderating effect of ACEs in the associations of spanking with behavior problems.
Results: Results indicated that more than half (52%) of the children experienced at least one ACE. The most prevalent ACE in this sample was parental mental health problem (30%) and physical abuse (22%). Both ACEs (β = .020, p < .001) and maternal spanking (β = .028, p < .01) at age 3 were associated with increased levels of externalizing behavior problems at age 5. Neighborhood collective efficacy was associated with lower externalizing behavior problems (β = –.014, p < .01). ACEs was not a significant moderator of the association between maternal spanking and externalizing behavior. ACEs predicted higher levels of internalizing behavior (β = .021, p < .001); however, maternal spanking was not a significant predictor of internalizing behavior.
Conclusions and Implications: These findings suggest that ACEs and parental spanking are unique risk factors for child well-being. The study underscores the importance of assessing exposure to ACEs and parental spanking among young children and providing appropriate intervention to children who have been exposed. As a prevention strategy, parents should be advised to avoid the use of spanking. Furthermore, practitioners should actively inform parents about the adverse effects of ACEs and use trauma-informed approaches that prevent additional exposure and build resilience.