Sensitive periods for the effect of child maltreatment on psychopathology symptoms in adolescence

Publication Year


Journal Article

Introduction: Child maltreatment is among the strongest risk factors for mental disorders. However, little is known about whether there are ages when children may be especially vulnerable to its effects. We sought to identify potential sensitive periods when exposure to the 2 most common types of maltreatment (neglect and harsh physical discipline) had a particularly detrimental effect on youth mental health.

Methods: Data came from the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a birth cohort oversampled from “fragile families” (n=3,474). Maltreatment was assessed at 3, 5, and 9 years using an adapted version of the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS-PC). Using least angle regression, we examined the relationship between repeated measures of exposure to maltreatment on psychopathology symptoms at age 15 (Child Behavior Checklist; CBCL/6-18). For comparison, we evaluated the strength of evidence to support the existence of sensitive periods in relation to an accumulation of risk model.

Results: We identified sensitive periods for harsh physical discipline, whereby psychopathology symptom scores were highest among girls exposed at age 9 (r2=0.67 internalizing symptoms; r2=1% externalizing) and among boys exposed at age 5 (r2=0.41%). However, for neglect, the accumulation of risk model explained more variability in psychopathology symptoms for both boys and girls.

Conclusion: Child maltreatment may have differential effects based on the child’s sex, type of exposure, and the age it occurs. These findings provide additional evidence for clinicians assessing the benefits and drawbacks of screening efforts and point towards mechanisms driving increased vulnerability to psychopathology.

Complex Psychiatry