Adverse childhood experiences have long-term impact on mental and emotional health

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are defined as a series of stressful or traumatic events including abuse, neglect or dysfunctions in the home (relatives with mental illness or in prison, witnessing domestic violence, etc.). These experiences can affect and damage cerebral and social development and compromise the immune system, as well as leading to substance abuse and other types of maladaptive coping strategies.

Until now, studies of these experiences have focused mainly on English-speaking countries like the United States, but the concept of abuse and its perceived severity may be different depending on the cultural group. For this reason, the study considered whether the data obtained and the consequences in this context could be extrapolated to other countries or whether the fundamental importance of family values in collectivist societies such as Spain could be an exceptional feature, either serving as a shock absorber or, by contrast, exacerbating the vulnerability of children.

The conclusions offered by Dr Aitana Gomis Pomares, of the Department of Developmental, Educational and Social Psychology and Methodology at Universitat Jaume I in Castelló, show that the more traumatic or stressful experiences someone has, the greater the probability that they will develop behavioural or emotional problems during adulthood. The analysis was carried out in six studies: the first three assessed the cumulative and differential impact of adverse experiences; the fourth included the validation of the Deviant Behaviour Variety Scale in the Spanish context, and the final two assessed the risk of criminal recidivism in two ethnic minorities using the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory tool.

People who have been victims of physical abuse tend to imitate the behaviour and adopt similar risk strategies as adults. If they have been victims of emotional neglect (where, as children, they never felt special or important in a protective context), they show a lack of altruism, because they are unable to develop the capacity to love or care for others. In general, the results have also shown that there is intergenerational transmission, which can affect up to three successive generations. For example, substance abuse in the home predicts drug use and antisocial behaviour; having relatives in prison results in a higher arrest rate; and living with relatives with mental illness increases the likelihood of suffering from depression, anxiety or stress.

The studies assessing the risk factors for criminal recidivism in a population of juvenile offenders – a population that has frequently suffered many traumatic experiences and displays adapted behaviour – have shown that the predictive validity of the tool used (Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory, YLS/CMI) works in majority samples but not as accurately in minority samples. In the case of the two ethnic minorities studied (Arab and Roma people), the results show cultural differences involving the infringement of rights such as equality before the law (as children from these two ethnic groups are rated as more at risk to other groups), and that the tools routinely used need reviewing to detect possible bias based on race or ethnic group.

American Psychological Association award

The studies are part of the doctoral thesis supervised by the lecturer Lidón Villanueva Badenes and submitted by Aitana Gomis Pomares at the public university in Castelló in April 2022. The American Psychological Association has presented the work, entitled “Minors at risk: adverse childhood experiences and youth offending”, with an award.

Every year Division 37 of the American Psychological Association makes the award to studies of social policy, service provision, welfare and/or child protection. The division’s aim is to implement policies to protect children, young people and families, for example through programmes to prevent child abuse or provide therapy for violent juvenile offenders.

Aitana Gomis Pomares is a postdoctoral assistant lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the Universitat Jaume I in Castelló. She has a degree in Psychology, with an official Master’s Degree in Legal Psychology, and holds a doctor’s degree in Psychology with the International Distinction. She won an Outstanding Graduate Achievement Award in her Psychology degree and a university teaching scholarship from the Spanish Ministry of Education in the DEVELOP research group (Development and Educational Contexts) on Developmental Psychology at the Universitat Jaume I in Castelló.

Her main line of research has focused on the study of children at risk from a double perspective: child victims and child offenders, and she has produced several publications in this field, both in Spain and abroad. She has also carried out research visits at the University of Valencia, supervised by Dr Vicente Prado-Gascó, and at the ISPA-Institute of Applied Psychology in Lisbon, supervised by Dr Miguel Basto-Pereira.

She is currently a lecturer for the Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, and Early Childhood Education degree courses.