How is early childhood adversity linked to behavioral problems?

Children who face severe adversity, such as physical abuse, early in life often develop behavioral and emotional problems. But the underlying psychological mechanisms that link early adversity with negative outcomes have remained unclear.

A new study, published in February in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, by researchers from several institutions, including the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, indicates that children who suffer extreme adversity are slower to make connections between specific tasks and positive outcomes, which contributes to the behavioral and emotional challenges they face.

“These findings provide a building-block for designing effective interventions for behavioral or emotional problems that some children face,” says Jamie Hanson, first author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We could potentially create more structured environments with more consistent cause and effect that could help these children link actions to outcomes and ultimately lower behavioral problems and help them thrive.”

According to Hanson, who worked on this study while a graduate student with Seth Pollak at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, children may have to work extremely hard to learn the statistics of their environment—for example, how often does a specific action lead to a rewarding outcome? When they face adverse conditions, this learning becomes even more difficult.

For this study, the researchers recruited eighty-one research participants between 12 and 17 years of age from Dane County. Forty-one of the study participants had faced physical abuse, and the other forty had not.

The researchers asked study participants to repeatedly choose between drawings of two everyday objects – a bell and a bottle, for instance, or a bolt and a button. One of these objects would be disproportionately associated with positive feedback – a big green check mark or points – after each selection, while the other was associated with negative feedback.

The question was: how quickly would the participants learn and start preferring the object associated with positive feedback?

“We wanted to understand how children learn from their environment, and then use what they have learned to make decisions,” says Hanson. “In life, we sometimes get mixed or even no feedback, and then we have to figure out what to do. The idea with this experiment was to test how efficiently the participants would learn that one of the test items would provide positive feedback most–-but not all—of the time.”

The researchers found that study participants who had faced early abuse were slower to connect specific objects with positive results, compared to children who hadn’t been abused.

“It seems that children who have faced extreme adversity are not certain that they will get a reward after a specific action even if that action resulted in rewards in the past,” says Hanson. “We think it’s because there may be less predictability and more volatility in adverse environments. As children try to figure out the world around them, a more disorganized environment makes it more difficult for them to learn.”

Hanson is now using brain imaging techniques to better understand the neural circuits being activated when study participants perform the given tasks. “Two people may behave in a certain way but different neural circuits may be involved,” he says. “Brain imaging may help to understand why some children develop behavioral problems while others don’t.”

But there are still a number of unanswered questions, according to Hanson. “We don’t know how these learning differences change over time,” he says, “or how we can most effectively influence the brain’s circuitry and help the children who have these behavioral problems.”

Other authors of the study include Richard Davidson and Barbara Roeber at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Wouter van den Bos at the Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin; and Karen Rudolph at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

By Adityarup “Rup” Chakravorty