Economic hardship among most common adverse experiences for U.S. children

February 13, 2018

New study looks at adverse experiences affecting children at state level and by race and ethnicity

***Corrected February 21, 2018. For a list of corrections, please click here.***

A new Child Trends report finds that 45 percent of children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, with economic hardship and parental divorce or separation the most common nationally and in every state. The prevalence of other adverse childhood experiences varies by state and by race and ethnicity, with black and Hispanic children more likely than white children to have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences.

In the report, Child Trends research scientist Vanessa Sacks and research fellow David Murphey estimate the prevalence of eight adverse childhood experiences for children in 2016 nationally, by state, and by race and ethnicity. The experiences examined are economic hardship, parental divorce or separation, parental death, parental incarceration, violence among adults in the home, victim of or witness to neighborhood violence, living with a mentally ill adult, and living with someone who has a substance use problem.

“Adverse childhood experiences are a critical public health issue. If a child doesn’t have buffering relationships with a supportive adult, these experiences can have lasting negative effects throughout a child’s life, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and obesity,” said Sacks. “Even more worrisome is the fact that these negative effects can be passed down from a mother to her child. We can improve life for multiple generations by understanding how these experiences affect children and protecting children from their negative effects.”

There are clear racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, reflecting the lasting effects of inequitable policies and practices: Nationally, 61 percent of black children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have at least one adverse experience, compared with 40 percent of white children and 23 percent of Asian children. Breaking down results geographically, black children have the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences in most divisions designated by the Census Bureau. Nationally, black children are the most likely to have experienced the death of a parent or guardian.

“While it’s not possible to eliminate every adverse childhood experience, in some cases they may be preventable,” said Murphey. “Practitioners and policymakers from the community level up should focus on preventing the adverse experiences we can control and on making sure children have the resources they need to overcome adversity.”

To help children cope with adverse experiences, the authors encourage lawmakers and practitioners to focus on trauma-informed approaches when working with children and families. A positive, supportive relationship with at least one adult is one of the most effective buffers against lasting effects of trauma. Cultivating interpersonal skills and adaptive behaviors such as emotion management can also help children be more resilient to the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences.

Other findings from the report:

  • Arkansas has the highest prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, with 56 percent of children having experienced at least one.
  • Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, and New Mexico have the highest percentages of children who had three or more adverse childhood experiences (18, 16, 16, and 18 percent, respectively).
  • Nationally, 11 percent of children have two adverse childhood experiences, and an additional 10 percent have experienced three or more.
  • After economic hardship and parental separation or divorce, the most common adverse childhood experiences for white children were living with an adult with mental illness or with an adult with a substance use problem; for black children, the next most common adverse experience was parental incarceration; and for Hispanic children, the next most common adverse experiences were living with someone who has a substance use problem and parental incarceration.

Support for this project was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.