Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Adverse events and their effect on children

6 November 2020

Research adds weight to calls for a fresh look at how clinicians  and policymakers approach Adverse Childhood Experiences

Sad child at window

New research looking at the complex and complicated way in which adverse events and situations affect children has added further weight to calls for a fresh look at how clinicians  and policymakers approach the topic.

The research by ICLS’ Rebecca Lacey and colleagues examines how so-called Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and ACEs scores, used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to compare the relationships of ACE scores, single adversities and ACE clusters with two types of inflammatory markers in the body, with of which can be used to gauge stress levels.

ACEs included were parental separation/divorce, parental alcohol problems, parental mental health problems, parental offending, inter-parental violence, parental drug misuse, and physical, emotional and sexual abuse

Two thirds of the 15,000 children studies reported at least one ACE, with mother’s mental health problems being the most frequently reported.

Four groups of children were created: ‘Low ACEs’ (81.1%), ‘Maternal mental health problems’ (10.3%), ‘Maternal mental health problems and physical abuse’ (6.3%) and ‘Parental conflict, mental health problems and emotional abuse’ (2.4%).

Parental separation/divorce was associated with higher levels of one of the inflammatory markers, while parental alcohol problems, mental health problems, convictions and emotional abuse were associated with lower levels of it.

Where a boy in the study’s father had mental health problems and emotional abuse was reported there were also stronger links with the stress markers - notable because it was not the case for girls.

The research concludes that specific adversities and adversity combinations are important for differences in childhood inflammation

Commenting on the findings and how they add weight to a growing body of evidence in this area, Rebecca Lacey said

“There is an over-reliance on ACE scores and single adversity approaches in ACEs research, policy and practice. This could be leading us to miss important relationships and mechanisms. Further research is needed to tease out when inflammatory responses to ACEs emerge. We also need more research into the importance of raised or lowered inflammation in early life, and what consequences this might have longer-term for ongoing health and disease risk."

Adverse childhood experiences and early life inflammation in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children is published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology