The impact of adversity in childhood on outcomes in adulthood: Research lessons and limitations

Gavin Davidson, John Devaney, Trevor Spratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Summary: Current UK Government policy is concerned with the possible connections between childhood adversity, social exclusion and negative outcomes in adulthood. Understanding the impact of adverse childhood experiences on outcomes in adulthood is therefore key to informing effective policy and practice. In this article, the research on the impact of childhood adversity on outcomes in adulthood is reviewed in the broad categories of: mental health and social functioning; physical health; offending; service use; and economic impact. The literature on resilience that focuses on those who experience adversity, but do not have associated negative outcomes is also briefly considered. The strengths and limitations of the range of research methods used are then examined. Findings: Previous studies have tended to focus on specific forms of adversity, predominantly abuse and neglect, and either: specific populations and specific outcomes; specific populations and general outcomes; or general populations and specific outcomes. This means there may be incomplete understanding of the inputs (the range of adverse experiences in childhood), the processes (how these may affect people) and the outcomes (across domains in adulthood). Applications: It is concluded that it is important for social work researchers to engage in the current debate about how to prevent harmful childhood adversity and there is an important gap in the research for more interdisciplinary large-scale general population studies that consider the full range of childhood adversity and associated impacts across time and the possible processes involved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-390
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • abuse and neglect
  • adult outcomes
  • childhood adversity
  • research methods
  • social policy


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