Skip to main content Accessibility help

Consistency in adult reporting of adverse childhood experiences

  • I. Colman (a1) (a2), M. Kingsbury (a1), Y. Garad (a2), Y. Zeng (a2), K. Naicker (a1), S. Patten (a3), P. B. Jones (a4), T. C. Wild (a2) and A. H. Thompson (a5)...



Many studies have used retrospective reports to assess the long-term consequences of early life stress. However, current individual characteristics and experiences may bias the recall of these reports. In particular, depressed mood may increase the likelihood of recall of negative experiences. The aim of the study was to assess whether specific factors are associated with consistency in the reporting of childhood adverse experiences.


The sample comprised 7466 adults from Canada's National Population Health Survey who had reported on seven childhood adverse experiences in 1994/1995 and 2006/2007. Logistic regression was used to explore differences between those who consistently reported adverse experiences and those whose reports were inconsistent.


Among those retrospectively reporting on childhood traumatic experiences in 1994/1995 and 2006/2007, 39% were inconsistent in their reports of these experiences. The development of depression, increasing levels of psychological distress, as well as increasing work and chronic stress were associated with an increasing likelihood of reporting a childhood adverse experience in 2006/2007 that had not been previously reported. Increases in mastery were associated with reduced likelihood of new reporting of a childhood adverse experience in 2006/2007. The development of depression and increases in chronic stress and psychological distress were also associated with reduced likelihood of ‘forgetting’ a previously reported event.


Concurrent mental health factors may influence the reporting of traumatic childhood experiences. Studies that use retrospective reporting to estimate associations between childhood adversity and adult outcomes associated with mental health may be biased.


Corresponding author

* Address for correspondence: I. Colman, School of Epidemiology, Public Health & Preventive Medicine, University of Ottawa, 451 Smyth Road, RGN 3230C, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1H 8M5. (Email:


Hide All
Anderson, MC, Levy, BJ (2009). Suppressing unwanted memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science 18, 89194.
Ben-Zur, H (2008). Personal resources of mastery–optimism, and communal support beliefs, as predictors of posttraumatic stress in uprooted Israelis. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping 21, 295307.
Bernet, CZ, Stein, MB (1999). Relationship of childhood maltreatment to the onset and course of major depression in adulthood. Depression and Anxiety 9, 169174.
Blaney, PH (1986). Affect and memory: a review. Psychological Bulletin 99, 229246.
Brennen, T, Hasanović, M, Zotović, M, Blix, I, Solheim Skar, AM, Prelić, NK, Mehmedović, I, Pajević, I, Popović, N, Gavrilov-Jerković, V (2010). Trauma exposure in childhood impairs the ability to recall specific autobiographical memories in late adolescence. Journal of Traumatic Stress 23, 240247.
Clark, DM, Teasdale, JD (1982). Diurnal variation in clinical depression and accessibility of memories of positive and negative experiences. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 91, 8795.
Colman, I, Garad, Y, Zeng, Y, Naicker, K, Weeks, M, Patten, SB, Jones, PB, Thompson, AH, Wild, TC (2013). Stress and development of depression and heavy drinking in adulthood: moderating effects of childhood trauma. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 48, 265274.
Dalgleish, T, Watts, FN (1990). Biases of attention and memory in disorders of anxiety and depression. Clinical Psychology Review 10, 589604.
Dong, M, Giles, WH, Felitti, VJ, Dube, SR, Williams, JE, Chapman, DP, Anda, RF (2004). Insights into causal pathways for ischemic heart disease: adverse childhood experiences study. Circulation 110, 17611766.
Fergusson, DM, Horwood, LJ, Woodward, LJ (2000). The stability of child abuse reports: a longitudinal study of the reporting behaviour of young adults. Psychological Medicine 30, 529544.
Finlay-Jones, R, Scott, R, Duncan-Jones, P, Byrne, D, Henderson, S (1981). The reliability of reports of early separations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 15, 2731.
Gotlib, IH, Joormann, J (2010). Cognition and depression: current status and future directions. Annual Review in Clinical Psychology 6, 285312.
Hardt, J, Rutter, M (2004). Validity of adult retrospective reports of adverse childhood experiences: review of the evidence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 45, 260273.
Heim, C, Nemeroff, CB (2001). The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders: preclinical and clinical studies. Biological Psychiatry 49, 10231039.
Hovens, JGFM, Wiersma, JE, Giltay, EJ, Van Oppen, P, Spinhoven, P, Penninx, BWJH, Zitman, FG (2010). Childhood life events and childhood trauma in adult patients with depressive, anxiety and comorbid disorders vs. controls. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 122, 6674.
Joormann, J, Nee, DE, Berman, MG, Jonides, J, Gotlib, IH (2010). Interference resolution in major depression. Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience 10, 2133.
Karasek, R, Brisson, C, Kawakami, N, Houtman, I, Bongers, P, Amick, B (1998). The Job Content Questionnaire (JCQ): an instrument for internationally comparative assessments of psychosocial job characteristics. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 3, 322355.
Kessler, RC, Andrews, G, Mroczek, D, Ustun, B, Wittchen, HU (1998). The World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short-Form (CIDI-SF). International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research 7, 171185.
Lewis, PA, Critchley, HD, Smith, AP, Dolan, RJ (2005). Brain mechanisms for mood congruent memory facilitation. NeuroImage 25, 12141223.
Mausbach, BT, Patterson, TL, von Känel, R, Mills, PJ, Ancoli-Israel, S, Dimsdale, JE, Grant, I (2006). Personal mastery attenuates the effect of caregiving stress on psychiatric morbidity. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 194, 132134.
Meijer, J (2001). Stress in the relation between trait and state anxiety. Psychological Reports 88, 947964.
Milad, MR, Pitman, RK, Ellis, CB, Gold, AL, Shin, LM, Lasko, NB, Zeidan, MA, Handwerger, K, Orr, SP, Rauch, SL (2009). Neurobiological basis of failure to recall extinction memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. Biological Psychiatry 66, 10751082.
Miracle, AD, Brace, MF, Huyck, KD, Singler, SA, Wellman, CL (2006). Chronic stress impairs recall of extinction of conditioned fear. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 85, 213218.
Mitte, K (2008). Memory bias for threatening information in anxiety and anxiety disorders: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 134, 886911.
Moffitt, TE, Caspi, A, Harrington, H, Milne, BJ, Melchior, M, Goldberg, D, Poulton, R (2007). Generalized anxiety disorder and depression: childhood risk factors in a birth cohort followed to age 32. Psychological Medicine 37, 441452.
Nelson, S, Baldwin, N, Taylor, J (2012). Mental health problems and medically unexplained physical symptoms in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse: an integrative literature review. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 19, 211220.
Nielsen, H, Lolk, A, Kragh-Sørensen, P (1998). Age-associated memory impairment – pathological memory decline or normal aging? Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 39, 3337.
Paivio, SC (2001). Stability of retrospective self-reports of child abuse and neglect before and after therapy for child abuse issues. Child Abuse and Neglect 25, 10531068.
Pearlin, LI, Schooler, C (1978). The structure of coping. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 19, 221.
Porter, S, Yuille, JC, Lehman, DR (1999). The nature of real, implanted, and fabricated memories for emotional childhood events: implications for the recovered memory debate. Law and Human Behavior 23, 517537.
Richards, A, Whittaker, TM (1990). Effects of anxiety and mood manipulation in autobiographical memory. British Journal of Clinical Psychology 29, 145153.
Ros, L, Latorre, JM (2010). Gender and age differences in the recall of affective autobiographical memories using the autobiographical memory test. Personality and Individual Differences 49, 950954.
Schoedl, AF, Costa, MCP, Mari, JJ, Mello, MF, Tyrka, AR, Carpenter, LL, Price, LH (2010). The clinical correlates of reported childhood sexual abuse: an association between age at trauma onset and severity of depression and PTSD in adults. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 19, 156170.
Smeets, T (2011). Acute stress impairs memory retrieval independent of time of day. Psychoneuroendocrinology 36, 495501.
Statistics Canada (2007). National Population Health Survey Cycle 7 (2006–2007). Public Use Microdata Files Documentation: Ottawa.
Thompson, AH, Cui, X (2000). Increasing childhood trauma in Canada: findings from the National Population Health Survey, 1994/95. Canadian Journal of Public Health 91, 197200.
Wallace, K, Swaney, G (2008). Resilience in American Indian older adults: an examination of the stress buffering roles of personal and communal mastery. Gerontologist 48, 605605.
Whalley, MG, Rugg, MD, Brewin, CR (2012). Autobiographical memory in depression: an fMRI study. Psychiatry Research 201, 98106.
Widom, CS (1999). Posttraumatic stress disorder in abused and neglected children grown up. American Journal of Psychiatry 156, 12231229.
Widom, CS, Morris, S (1997). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization, part 2: childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Assessment 9, 3446.
Williams, LM (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: a prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 62, 11671176.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Colman supplementary material S1
Colman supplementary material

 Word (56 KB)
56 KB

Consistency in adult reporting of adverse childhood experiences

  • I. Colman (a1) (a2), M. Kingsbury (a1), Y. Garad (a2), Y. Zeng (a2), K. Naicker (a1), S. Patten (a3), P. B. Jones (a4), T. C. Wild (a2) and A. H. Thompson (a5)...


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed