Time-Dependent Effects of Exposure to Physical and Sexual Violence on Psychopathology Symptoms in Late Childhood: In Search of Sensitive Periods in Development.


Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, Center for Genomic Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA; Harvard Medical School and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Electronic address: [Email]


OBJECTIVE : Exposure to interpersonal violence is a known risk factor for psychopathology. However, it is unclear whether there are sensitive periods when exposure is most deleterious. We aimed to determine whether there were time periods when physical or sexual violence exposure was associated with greater child psychopathology.
METHODS : This study (N = 4,580) was embedded in Generation R, a population-based prospective birth cohort. Timing of violence exposure, reported through maternal reports (child age, 10 years) was categorized by age at first exposure, defined as: very early (0-3 years), early (4-5 years), middle (6-7 years), and late (8+ years) childhood. Using Poisson regression, we assessed the association between timing of first exposure and levels of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, using the Child Behavior Checklist at age 10 years.
RESULTS : Violence exposure at any age was associated with higher internalizing (physical violence: risk ratio [RR] = 1.46, p < 0.0001; sexual violence: RR = 1.30, p < .0001) and externalizing symptoms (physical violence: RR = 1.52, p < 0.0001; sexual violence: RR = 1.31, p = 0.0005). However, the effects of violence were time dependent: compared to children exposed at older ages, children first exposed during very early childhood had greater externalizing symptoms. Sensitivity analyses suggested that these time-based differences emerged slowly across ages 1.5, 3, 6, and 10 years, showing a latency between onset of violence exposure and emergence of symptoms, and were unlikely to be explained by co-occurring adversities.
CONCLUSIONS : Interpersonal violence is harmful to childhood mental health regardless of when it occurs. However, very early childhood may be a particularly sensitive period when exposure results in worse psychopathology outcomes. Results should be replicated in fully prospective designs.


interpersonal violence,latency,psychopathology,sensitive periods,

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