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Social cognitive deficits can have many negative consequences, spanning social withdrawal to psychopathology. Prior work has shown that child maltreatment may associate with poorer social cognitive skills in later life. However, no studies have examined this association from early childhood into adolescence. Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC; n = 4,438), we examined the association between maltreatment (caregiver physical or emotional abuse; sexual or physical abuse), assessed repeatedly (every 1–3 years) from birth to age 9, and social cognitive skills at ages 7.5, 10.5, and 14 years. We evaluated the role of both the developmental timing (defined by age at exposure) and accumulation of maltreatment (defined as the number of occasions exposed) using a least angle regression variable selection procedure, followed by structural equation modeling. Among females, accumulation of maltreatment explained the most variation in social cognitive skills. For males, no significant associations were found. These findings underscore the importance of early intervention to minimize the accumulation of maltreatment and showcase the importance of prospective studies to understand the development of social cognition over time.
Although childhood adversity is a potent determinant of psychopathology, relatively little is known about how the characteristics of adversity exposure, including its developmental timing or duration, influence subsequent mental health outcomes. This study compared three models from life course theory (recency, accumulation, sensitive period) to determine which one(s) best explained this relationship.
Prospective data came from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (n = 7476). Four adversities commonly linked to psychopathology (caregiver physical/emotional abuse; sexual/physical abuse; financial stress; parent legal problems) were measured repeatedly from birth to age 8. Using a statistical modeling approach grounded in least angle regression, we determined the theoretical model(s) explaining the most variability (r2) in psychopathology symptoms measured at age 8 using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire and evaluated the magnitude of each association.
Recency was the best fitting theoretical model for the effect of physical/sexual abuse (girls r2 = 2.35%; boys r2 = 1.68%). Both recency (girls r2 = 1.55%) and accumulation (boys r2 = 1.71%) were the best fitting models for caregiver physical/emotional abuse. Sensitive period models were chosen alone (parent legal problems in boys r2 = 0.29%) and with accumulation (financial stress in girls r2 = 3.08%) more rarely. Substantial effect sizes were observed (standardized mean differences = 0.22–1.18).
Child psychopathology symptoms are primarily explained by recency and accumulation models. Evidence for sensitive periods did not emerge strongly in these data. These findings underscore the need to measure the characteristics of adversity, which can aid in understanding disease mechanisms and determining how best to reduce the consequences of exposure to adversity.
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