Over the past two decades, an increasing amount of research on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs)* has helped to highlight the importance of the early life social environment as a predictor of what a person’s health will be like as they get older. The research has shown that children who experience one trauma such as parental divorce, alcohol misuse or child maltreatment, are much more likely to report another, with each bad experience increasing the chances of others and making poor health outcomes more likely. Now new research from Rebecca Lacey and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has highlighted a strong link between children born to pregnant mothers living in poverty and the likelihood of them experiencing multiple ACEs. Here the researchers explain their findings and share their concerns about how COVID-19 might exacerbate and increase the bad experiences faced by children from poorer backgrounds.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that relative child poverty increased by three percentage points up to 2018-19 – the most sustained rise since the early 1990s, whilst in March this year, the Trussell Trust, which supports a UK-wide network of food banks, also reported a 122 percent increase in food parcels given to children.
With four million UK children already living in poverty and many families experiencing uncertain employment prospects as a result of COVID-19, there has never been a more important time to consider not just how we prevent bad things happening to children, but what we can do to make sure that all children, not just well-off ones, get a good start in life.
Our research analysed two decades of information from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) which has collected data from 14,000 women, their children and partners. We were looking to get a better grasp of the connections between being poor during pregnancy and the number of ACEs experienced by children across their childhood up to the age of 19.
The children of mums who reported facing poverty in pregnancy were more likely to report being sexually abused, parental separation, or their parents experiencing issues with mental health, drug or alcohol abuse. This group of children were nine times more likely to face additional traumatic experiences compared to their wealthier peers.
The meaning of poverty
It’s worth noting that our definition of poverty focused on material conditions rather than income measures as family income was not available in the data until the children were 21 months old. Poverty was indicated by whether a child’s parents reported difficulties in affording food, heating or accommodation, or had recently been homeless at any point whilst pregnant. Any parent reporting any of these four difficulties was ascertained to be ‘in poverty’ during pregnancy.
It goes without saying that these sorts of difficulties are likely to put major pressure on families.
Our study shows that poverty is not only an adversity in its own right but that it acts to increase and compound the risk of children facing further traumatic experiences, such as maltreatment and mental health problems.
There has been a lot of talk in policy circles and public discourse about so-called “troubled families”, but there hasn’t been enough discussion about poverty. If people can’t afford heating, food or accommodation or have faced homelessness, there’s a direct link with mental health problems and domestic and substance abuse. It’s a really strong predictor of those problems, but is often overlooked.
Children need a better start
Now more than ever, this research is hugely relevant. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on schisms in society and this research is showing just how important tackling poverty is if we want to ensure children from poorer backgrounds get a comprehensively better start in life than many currently do.
Successive policies have done little to close the gaps and with the number of people being thrown into poverty – people on furlough and with millions of job losses close down the line – we’re not seeing child poverty decreasing.
Domestic violence is increasing, and post COVID there is talk of a tsunami of mental health problems. Policymakers and those in a position to act must grasp the nettle and acknowledge and act on the understanding that poverty is a really strong indicator of lots of these ACEs coming together.
We just can’t underestimate this – if you don’t pay attention to that then it’s just sticking a plaster on the symptoms without dealing with the actual cause.
The Clustering of Adverse Childhood Experiences in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children: Are Gender and Poverty Important? is research by Rebecca E. Lacey, Laura D. Howe, Michelle Kelly-Irving, Mel Bartley, Yvonne Kelly and is published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
The research was conducted by UCL, the University of Bristol and INSERM, Toulouse. It used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also known as Children of the 90s, a world-leading birth cohort study based at the University of Bristol.
*Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) could include: parental separation/divorce, death of a close family member (parent or sibling), parental convictions, parental drug use, parental alcohol misuse, parental mental health problems, inter-parental violence, physical abuse (parent-child), emotional abuse (parent-child), or sexual abuse (older child/adult-child).