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Childhood Adversity and Criminal Behaviors


Research Variables

  • Childhood Adversity—defined broadly as exposure in childhood to any situation, event, or series of events that causes significant psychological distress or trauma. The impact of adversity is subjective to the individual child, and can lead to PTSD, although PTSD is not a definite outcome.
  • Criminal Behavior—defined as any unlawful behavior, but of primary interest are behaviors leading to incarceration or detention; includes delinquent behaviors exhibited by youth.

Context Variables

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and Psychopathy. Childhood adversity is a risk factor for the development of both APD and psychopathy, the presence of which could influence the relationship between childhood adversity and criminal behaviors.
  • Individual Co-morbid Risk Factors. In addition to the presence of APD or psychopathology, individual differences in a variety of risk factors (e.g., mental health problems, maladaptive personality traits, substance abuse, prior incarcerations/detentions) could influence the relationship between childhood adversity and criminal behavior.
  • Gender. Males and females may respond differently to childhood adversity, or may experience different types of adversity (e.g., greater prevalence of sexual abuse among females), both of which could influence criminal behavior differentially.
  • Age of Adverse Experience(s). Children who experience adversity only in early childhood may differ in behavioral outcomes when compared to children who experienced adversity.
  • Additional Adverse Experiences in Adulthood. Children with a history of traumatic experiences who also experience trauma in adulthood may differ in behavioral outcomes as compared to children with a history of traumatic experiences who have not experienced trauma in adulthood.
  • Type, Frequency, and Duration of Adverse Experiences. Chronic or lengthy exposure to adverse experiences in childhood could influence the relationship between childhood adversity and criminal behaviors. In addition, there could be differences in the type or severity of behavioral outcomes associated with different types of childhood adversity (e.g., witnessing domestic violence vs. being physically abused).
  • Family Factors. Family relationships as well as factors within family members, particularly caregivers (e.g., poor mental health, alcohol or drug use, cold personality), could influence the impact of adverse events and subsequently influence the relationship between childhood adversity and criminal behaviors.

Childhood Adversity and Criminal Behaviors Research Questions


  • Is there a difference between adults convicted of violent crimes and those convicted of non-violent crimes in the number and types of childhood adversity experienced?
  • Are adverse experiences in childhood more likely to predict adult incarceration for men than for women?

Research Articles (*Click on author(s) in reference to download article.)

  • Dargis, M., Newman, J., & Koenigs, M. (2016).


Clarifying the link between childhood abuse history and psychopathic traits in adult criminal offenders. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 7, 221-228. doi: 10.1037/per0000147

  • Howell, K. H., Cater, A. K., Miller-Graff, L. E., Schwartz, L. E., & Graham-Bermann, S. A. (2017).


The relationship between types of childhood victimisation and young adult criminality. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 27, 341-353. doi: 10.1002/cbm.2002

  • Karatzias, T., Power, K., Woolston, C., Apurva, P., Begley, A., Mirza, K., . . . Purdie, A. (2018).


Multiple traumatic experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder and offending behavior in female prisoners. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 28, 72-84. doi: 10.1002/cbm.2043

  • Reavis, J. A., Looman, J., Franco, K. A., & Rojas, B. (2013).


Adverse childhood experiences and adult criminality: How long must we live before we possess our own lives? Permanente Journal, 17(2), 44-48. doi: 10.7812/TPP/12-072

  • Roos, L. E., Afifi, T.O., Martin, C. G., Pietrzak, R. H., Tsai, J., & Sareen, J. (2016).


Linking typologies of childhood adversity to adult incarceration: Findings from a nationally representative sample. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86, 584-593. doi: 10.1037/ort0000144

  • Schimmenti, A., Di Carlo, G., Passanisi, A., & Caretti, V. (2015).


Abuse in childhood and psychopathic traits in a sample of violent offenders. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7, 340-347. doi: 10.1037/tra0000023

Ethics and police brutality

Last Updated on May 16, 2020

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