How does Childhood Trauma Affect Adult Criminality?

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o v e r v i e w

The National Institute of Mental Health in the United States defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event of a child that is emotionally painful or distressful which often results in lasting mental or physical effects.” For my research, I looked at Adverse Childhood Experiences as a whole (this entails mental illness, divorce, incarcerated relatives, substance abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse).

I wanted to explore the negative effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences on a child’s progression into adulthood. Studies have shown a correlation between traumatic events and issues with brain development. Psychiatric Times conducted a study that displayed that the prevalence of suicide attempts was significantly higher amongst adults who experienced childhood trauma, such as physical and sexual abuse as a child. Furthermore, a child’s relationship with their guardian is essential to their emotional and physical health. This relationship helps build trust, gives them the ability to interact with the world around them and manage their emotions. Research has shown that when a child experiences any form of trauma, they often times form the preconceived notion that all adults are “dangerous” and causes them to develop trust issues. This results in major difficulties for them to form relationships throughout their childhood and into their adulthood which often leads them to develop subsequent antisocial disorders and criminal behavior.

The National Institute of Justice funded a study for psychologist Dr. Herrenkohl and his colleagues that aimed to understand the link between child maltreatment and adult criminal behaviour. The participants were sampled from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, which is one of the longest-running national studies that investigated the long-term effects of child abuse. The study began in the 1970s and has tracked 450 children from their primary school years to adulthood. The collected reports of child abuse from Child Protective Service records and parental reports of abusive parenting from when children were 18 months to 6 years old and then correlated the self-reported criminal involvement three decades later. The study also measured if there were any signs of antisocial behavior in the intervening years of their adolescence. Through their research, Herrenkohl and his colleagues found evidence that there is a “cycle of violence” that is prevalent amongst individuals that have histories with child maltreatment.

It is important for us to understand the extent to which Adverse Childhood Experiences can lead to negative consequences in the future. I believe that it is highly necessary for there to be more interventions that aim at reducing these negative consequences of childhood maltreatment as it can lead to negative long-term consequences such as criminal behavior. Creating mental and physical beginnings for children diminishes the likelihood for acts of aggression will also reduce the likelihood of the effects of trauma moving on to future generations. 

i m p o r t a n t  f a c t s

I have compiled a list of important facts that can aid in a better understanding of the long-term effects of ACEs and specifically its correlation to criminality in adulthood. 


  • Despite there being several studies that demonstrate the important link between adolescent hardship and the development of antisocial behavior in adulthood, there have only been a couple of studies that have compared the frequency of Adverse Childhood Experiences in juvenile offenders. A study in Florida that was conducted relatively recently has shown that there is a definitive link between juvenile delinquency and adverse childhood experiences. The results demonstrated that 50% of juvenile offenders had reportedly experienced four or more ACEs. The results of this study showed a powerful connection between negative experiences in childhood and events surrounding criminality in adulthood.  


  • Children who grow in environments that formulate toxic stress have severe difficulties in forming stable and healthy relationships in adulthood. In addition, there is also a link between unstable work histories and adults and issues with finances, jobs, and clinical depression. These effects can also be passed on to their offsprings. 


  • Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur from birth up to age six. Because infants’ and young children’s reactions may be different from older children’s, and since they may not be able to verbalise their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. 


  • When children are exposed to multiple traumatic events in their lifetime, they are defined as having suffered complex trauma. Complex trauma can have devastating effects on a child’s physiology, emotional development and impulse control, self-image and self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and the ability to think, learn, and concentrate. Studies have shown that complex trauma can lead to other issues, including substance abuse and addiction, chronic physical conditions, and mental illness.


  • According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over a million children are victims of maltreatment annually. Over half a million children suffer serious injuries, and about 1500 children die, making child maltreatment the leading cause of deaths from injuries in children over a year old. In addition to this appalling immediate toll, child abuse is thought to have many harmful long-term consequences.


  • Janet Currie and Erdal Tiken find that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime. This is true even if we compare twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other one was not. It is useful to put this result in perspective by comparing it to other estimates of the effects of factors related to crime. For example, using time-series data from New York, previous researchers found that a single percentage point decline in unemployment generates only a 2.2 percentage point decline in burglaries and that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage leads to about a 3.5 percent decrease in robberies in New York City.

m y  r e s p o n s e

I believe that it is important for us as a society to do our part in preventing adverse childhood experiences. Adverse Childhood Experiences are preventable and there are a variety of factors that may lead to an increase or a decrease in the risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence. There are certain approaches that can be taken by guardians to prevent ACES. In order to prevent ACEs, we must educate ourselves and understand the factors that endanger others. The most vital way to prevent ACEs is to ensure that families can prevent ACEs is by creating an environment that is sustaining safe, stable, and by creating nurturing relationships. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made formulated six strategies to help communities prevent ACEs. The first strategy is to help strengthen economic supports to families, this can be done through strengthening household financial security and establishing family-friendly work policies. Another way to prevent ACEs from emerging is to promote norms that protect against violence and adversity. This can be done through public education campaigns, legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment, Bystander approaches, and having both men and boys as allies in the prevention of aces. Thirdly, it is important to ensure a strong start for children which can be done through early childhood visitation, high-quality childcare, and preschool enrichment with family engagement. Fourthly, it is important that parents are taught certain skills such as social-emotional learning, they can engage in safe dating and health relationship skill programs and parenting skills and family relationships approaches. Additionally, it is important that parents connect the youth to caring adults and activities which can be done through mentoring programs and after-school programs. Lastly, it is important to intervene to lessen immediate and long term harms of child abuse which can be done through enhanced primary care, victim-centered services, treatments to lessen the harms of ACEs, treatments to prevent problematic behavior and future involvement in violence, and family-centered treatment or substance use disorders. 

The most important role we as individuals can do in preventing ACES is to raise awareness. It is important that we change how people think about the causes of ACEs and who could help prevent them. Instead of shifting the focus from individual responsibility to community solutions. There is often a stigma around seeking help with parenting challenges or for substance misuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts. It is important that we normalize this and reduce this stigma so parents and promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for children. It is a community’s responsibility to ensure that children reach their full potential and create an environment in which children can thrive.

Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood.







c o n c l u s i o n s

In conclusion, Adverse Childhood Experiences leave lifetime consequences and can impact an individual’s path into criminality. It is important for families and societies to understand how much our environment can change and affect how children perceive the world. Without having a guardian to guide us in the right direction, it becomes very difficult to fight internal battles and deal with our emotions. In no way am I saying crimes from childhood trauma should be justified, but I am saying we as a society should do our level best to ensure children are in environments that are safe and where they can thrive. If you are a parent who is struggling to take care of your children, DO NOT BE AFRAID TO LOOK OUT FOR HELP, there are several parenting classes you could take. It is important to get rid of the stigma that parents know best and don’t need to seek help. This stigma results in a lot of emotional damage for both parents and children. Additionally, if you see anyone who you believe is going through any form of ACES at home, REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY. You may be saving a child from a lifetime of trauma and suffering. Through my presentation, I hope you gained further insight into how trauma can lead to a lifetime of suffrage. Let’s normalize asking for helping and calling out behavior that is not right. 

i n t e r a c t i v e – a c t i v i t y

After you are done reading, check out my Padlet and share how your community limits ACES. If not share what you think your community can do from the information given in my presentation 🙂 

w o r k – c i t e d



  1. Hi! I enjoyed your project and I thought it was very thorough. My question for you is did you explore the relationship between identity (race, class, gender, etc.) and ACEs and if so did you notice any parallels?

  2. Thanks Lillian. That’s an intresting question, I did look into the relationship with identity specifically for gender. From what I read from a variety of articles it seems as thought the cases of ACEs occur more commonly for boys which I find quite interesting.

  3. Hi!I really enjoyed reading your project and seeing your thorough research on such an important topic. I was shocked by the statistics and I think it is something that definitely needs to be talked about more!

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