Sex Differences in the Relationship Between Early Adverse Childhood Experiences, Delinquency, and Substance Use Initiation in High-Risk Adolescents
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been linked to a host of subsequent negative health and behavioral problems. However, the role of sex in the ramifications of early ACEs remains unclear, particularly for delinquency and substance use initiation in adolescence. A small body of research has produced mixed findings on sex differences in the relationship between ACEs and antisocial outcomes in adolescence, resulting in uncertainty about whether and how ACEs may operate differently for boys and girls.
The current study drew on a high-risk group of adolescents (N=2455; Mage=15.4; 48% female; 50% Black, 23% Hispanic) from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine the associations between accumulated ACEs across early childhood, and delinquency and substance use initiation of alcohol, cigarette, and cannabis in adolescence. The study utilized mother and father reports on the exposure to seven different types of ACEs (i.e., physical abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, parental substance misuse, parental mental illness, parental intimate partner violence, and parental criminal behavior) when adolescents were ages 1, 3, and 5. Total ACEs scores and their relationships with delinquency, and lifetime use of alcohol, cigarettes, and cannabis were assessed separately for girls and boys.
Results suggested that accumulated ACEs during early childhood may be implicated in boys’ delinquency, while ACEs were not significantly associated with girls’ self-reported delinquency or for boys’ and girls’ substance use initiation. Findings suggest that the enduring consequences of ACEs may be sex-specific, and have implications for the development of policies to mitigate ACEs and their harms.