Abstract: Intergenerational Pathways Linking Mothers’ Adverse Childhood Experiences and Children’s Social-Emotional Problems (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Intergenerational Pathways Linking Mothers’ Adverse Childhood Experiences and Children’s Social-Emotional Problems

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Lixia Zhang, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Northern Iowa, IA
Joshua Mersky, PhD, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
Background: A large body of research has shown that greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as child maltreatment and household dysfunction increases the risk of poor physical health, mental health, and social problems over the life course. It has long been speculated that the negative impact of early adversity also may be transmitted across generations. Nevertheless, the literature on the intergenerational impact of ACEs is underdeveloped, and the mechanisms through which parents’ ACEs impact their children’s development remain largely untested. To address these research gaps, this study aimed to examine direct relations between mothers’ personal ACE histories and their offspring’s socio-emotional outcomes and the extent to which these associations are mediated by mothers’ adult adversity and mental health problems.

Methods: The study sample includes 626 mothers with children aged 12-48 months who participated in the Families and Children Thriving (FACT) Study, a longitudinal investigation into the health and well-being of at-risk families who received home visiting services. In addition to demographic information, survey data were collected on mothers’ childhood and adult adversity, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress. Children’s socio-emotional development was measured via maternal responses to the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment. Path analysis was applied to assess whether mothers’ mental health problems and adult adversity mediated the association between maternal ACE scores (range 0-10) and children’s socio-emotional outcomes.

Results: Study findings indicated that 82.7% of mothers reported at least 1 ACE, and 82.4% reported one or more adult adversities. Path analysis results indicated that there was a significant main-effect association between maternal ACE scores and both maternal adult adversity (b = 0.48, 95% CI = 0.42, 0.54) and mental health (b = 0.16, 95% CI = 0.06, 0.25). Adult adversity also forged a significant association with maternal mental health (b = 0.61, 95% CI = 0.52, 0.69), and maternal mental health was significantly associated with child problem scores (b = 0.40, 95% CI = 0.24, 0.57). The adult adversity index was not directly associated with child problem scores, however (b = -0.10, 95% CI = -0.26, 0.06). In the full path model, maternal ACEs were not significantly associated with child problem scores (b = -0.01, 95% CI = -0.10, 0.08). The total indirect effect of ACEs on child problem via adult adversity and mental health was significant (b = 0.15, 95% CI = 0.08, 0.23).

Conclusions and Implications: This study revealed that the association between maternal ACEs and children’s social-emotional problems were mediated by maternal adult adversity and mental health problems. Research findings underscore the need for targeted intervention strategies that can address maternal trauma and children’s social emotional problems simultaneously and thereby interrupt the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Future research also needs to explore other potential pathways that can explain the intergenerational transmission of ACEs, including parenting attitudes and behaviors.