Sensitive periods for the effect of childhood interpersonal violence on psychiatric disorder onset among adolescents

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Abstract

Background

Although childhood adversity is a strong determinant of psychopathology, it remains unclear whether there are ‘sensitive periods’ when a first episode of adversity is most harmful.

Aims

To examine whether variation in the developmental timing of a first episode of interpersonal violence (up to age 18) associates with risk for psychopathology.

Method

Using cross-sectional data, we examined the association between age at first exposure to four types of interpersonal violence (physical abuse by parents, physical abuse by others, rape, and sexual assault/molestation) and onset of four classes of DSM-IV disorders (distress, fear, behaviour, substance use) (n = 9984). Age at exposure was defined as: early childhood (ages 0–5), middle childhood (ages 6–10) and adolescence (ages 11–18).

Results

Exposure to interpersonal violence at any age period about doubled the risk of a psychiatric disorder (odds ratios (ORs) = 1.51–2.52). However, few differences in risk were observed based on the timing of first exposure. After conducting 20 tests of association, only three significant differences in risk were observed based on the timing of exposure; these results suggested an elevated risk of behaviour disorder among youth first exposed to any type of interpersonal violence during adolescence (OR = 2.37, 95% CI 1.69–3.34), especially being beaten by another person (OR = 2.44; 95% CI 1.57–3.79), and an elevated risk of substance use disorder among youth beaten by someone during adolescence (OR = 2.77, 95% CI 1.94–3.96).

Conclusions

Children exposed to interpersonal violence had an elevated risk of psychiatric disorder. However, age at first episode of exposure was largely unassociated with psychopathology risk.

Declaration of interest

None.

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