BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVE: Current assessments of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may not adequately encompass the breadth of adversity to which low-income urban children are exposed. The purpose of this study was to identify and characterize the range of adverse childhood experiences faced by young adults who grew up in a low-income urban area.
METHODS: Focus groups were conducted with young adults who grew up in low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods. Using the nominal group technique, participants generated a list of adverse childhood experiences and then identified the 5 most stressful experiences on the group list. The most stressful experiences identified by participants were grouped into a ranked list of domains and subdomains.
RESULTS: Participants identified a range of experiences, grouped into 10 domains: family relationships, community stressors, personal victimization, economic hardship, peer relationships, discrimination, school, health, child welfare/juvenile justice, and media/technology. Included in these domains were many but not all of the experiences from the initial ACEs studies; parental divorce/separation and mental illness were absent. Additional experiences not included in the initial ACEs but endorsed by our participants included single-parent homes; exposure to violence, adult themes, and criminal behavior; personal victimization; bullying; economic hardship; and discrimination.
CONCLUSIONS: Gathering youth perspectives on childhood adversity broadens our understanding of the experience of stress and trauma in childhood. Future work is needed to determine the significance of this broader set of adverse experiences in predisposing children to poor health outcomes as adults.
- child abuse
- children of impaired parents
- domestic violence
- nominal group technique
- sexual abuse
- spouse abuse
- substance abuse
- ACE —
- adverse childhood experience
- FPL —
- federal poverty level
What’s Known on This Subject:
Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to have long-term impacts on health and well-being. However, little work has been done to incorporate the voices of youth in understanding the range of adverse experiences that low-income urban children face.
What This Study Adds:
Study participants cited a broad range of adverse experiences beyond those listed in the initial adverse childhood experience studies. Domains of adverse experiences included family relationships, community stressors, personal victimization, economic hardship, peer relationships, discrimination, school, health, and child welfare/juvenile justice systems.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are a key risk factor for negative health outcomes. Scores of articles have long demonstrated a relationship between exposure to childhood adversity and a range of negative outcomes throughout the life span.1–8 The disproportionate exposure of low-income children to abuse, neglect, and other adversities9,10 has been implicated as an important contributor to health disparities.11,12 Preventing and mitigating the impact of ACEs is critical to decreasing health disparities.
The link between childhood adversity and negative adult health outcomes was further elucidated by the ACE Study,1 which found a graded relationship between childhood stressors and adult risk-taking behaviors and chronic illnesses. Additional research has further substantiated the tie between childhood adversity and negative outcomes, including poor academic achievement, incarceration, unemployment, poverty, disability, and early death.1,3,4,13–24
The original ACE questionnaire assessed childhood exposure to physical abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse, as well as household mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and incarceration.1 Subsequent ACE studies incorporated physical/emotional neglect and parental separation/divorce into the ACE index.25–27 These measures excluded broader or more chronic adverse experiences relevant to urban impoverished youth, such as community violence, discrimination, or economic hardship. In a recent study, researchers strengthened the association between ACEs and mental health symptoms by adding such measures to the ACE index and removing parental separation/divorce and incarceration of a household member.28 Thus, the original index might be improved by considering a wider array of adverse experiences. More comprehensive childhood adversity measures exist but may not reflect inner-city youth experiences, as these measures were designed from interviews with mostly white, middle to upper middle class youth from rural and suburban communities.29–36
Measuring adverse experiences is important for urban economically distressed children, who, in addition to experiencing poverty as an adversity, may be subjected to the experiences of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction, along with a host of other stressors, including community violence, discrimination, and peer victimization.9,37 The large percentage of racial minorities comprising low-income urban populations makes having an understanding of cultural norms key to conceptualizing adversity in these communities. We must develop a thorough understanding of what adversity means for impoverished children, by soliciting the input of individuals growing up in these communities. To explore youth perspectives on the most stressful adverse childhood experiences in low-income inner-city communities, we conducted focus groups with young adults who grew up in economically distressed Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Participant Recruitment and Inclusion Criteria
We partnered with 12 organizations throughout Philadelphia, recruiting English-speaking adults ages 18 to 26 who grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood with at least 20% of the residents living at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), as measured by census data from 1990 and 2000. We selected organizations located in low-income neighborhoods in the 7 major geographic regions of Philadelphia. These organizations included homeless youth shelters, after-school and mentoring programs, health clinics, and community development corporations. We held at least 1 focus group at each site, recruiting participants through a combination of flyers and in-person solicitation by organizational staff and research team members. Participants were consented before participating and took part in only 1 focus group.
Conduct of Focus Groups
We used a standardized script to conduct focus groups, which included a statement of interest: “This focus group is part of a project that I am doing to describe the experiences of children growing up in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. I am particularly interested in understanding adverse childhood experiences. I define adverse childhood experiences as events that are emotionally difficult to deal with as a child and cause stress. These may be experiences that have happened to you as a child or other children that grew up in your neighborhood with you.” We pilot tested the statement of interest with 10 community members to check its clarity. Participants silently wrote down a list of adverse experiences that they or children growing up in their neighborhoods faced. Using a round-robin format, each participant named the most stressful experience on their card not already named by another person at that focus group. Participants were allowed to volunteer responses that were not included on their original list but that arose after hearing responses from other focus group participants. The focus group facilitator asked participants to clarify their responses whenever necessary and then recorded the responses on a flip chart. In general, the facilitator recorded participant responses verbatim, but occasionally modified responses that lacked clarity. This process was repeated for at least 2 additional rounds. After the final round, we prompted participants with a list of childhood stressors identified in the literature but not mentioned during the content-generating phase of the focus group. These stressors were added to the group list if participants acknowledged that these were stressful experiences for children growing up in their communities. Then each participant wrote down the 5 experiences from the flip chart that they considered the most stressful.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Institutional Review Board found this study exempt from human subject review.
Participant listings of the 5 most stressful experiences discussed during the focus group were used to generate a list of adverse experiences for each focus group. Using an iterative coding process, a primary coder (R.W.) combined experiences from these lists into subdomains and then up-coded these subdomains into domains. At frequent intervals, the primary coder met with members of the research team to review coding and discuss coding rules. We generated a final ranked list of domains by summing the number of times an experience in each domain was endorsed as 1 of the top 5 most stressful events. A member of the research team less heavily involved in the coding process (J.S.) separately coded 100 randomly selected experiences into subdomains and their respective domains. A Cohen’s κ coefficient was calculated to assess the interrater reliability of the coding process. Finally, using a member-checking process,41–43 we held 2 subsequent focus groups to allow additional study participants to review the ranked list of domains, comment on the accuracy of the domains, clarify the meaning of specific responses, and refine the language used to describe childhood experiences.
We held 17 content-generating focus groups with a total of 105 participants followed by 2 member-checking focus groups with 14 participants. Saturation was reached after the 10th focus group, as we did not hear new themes in subsequent groups. Additional focus groups were held to ensure a diverse representation of participants. More than half of the participants were male, black, and grew up in neighborhoods with at least 20% of the residents living at or below the FPL (see Table 1).
Participant responses were grouped into 10 domains: family relationships, community stressors, personal victimization, economic hardship, peer relationships, discrimination, school, health, child welfare/juvenile justice, and media/technology. Table 2 lists these domains ranked in order of greatest to least number of times participants endorsed an experience from this domain as 1 of the 5 most stressful experiences. The extent of interrater reliability between primary and secondary coders, estimated with Cohen’s κ coefficient, was 0.93 for domains and 0.62 for subdomains. Several discordant responses were for adjacent subdomains. For example, 1 coder assigned the code “death of family members” for the phrase “family members/loved ones dying (shot by someone),” whereas the second coder assigned “seeing family members experience violence.”
Stressful exposures within family relationships were the most commonly identified adverse experiences. Within this domain, substance abuse in the home was most frequently cited by participants. This domain also includes death and illness of family members, single-parent homes, and violence between family members. Commonly cited among participants was the feeling that their families lacked love, support, strong parenting, and guidance as illustrated by the following quote: “My mom said, ‘I ain’t teach you nothing because I want you to go through the same thing I went through’…It’s just like heartless, like you just don’t care. My parents couldn’t show me [love]. They made me feel like I was just there for a check.”
The second most commonly cited domain, community stressors, includes experiences such as neighborhood violence, crime, and death. For our participants, violence in their communities was persistent and pervasive, disrupting daily routines and relationships with families and friends as highlighted in this quote: “There were shootings every night, so much so that the kids couldn’t play outside. You wake up in the morning and find that someone from your friend’s family passed away.” Other community stressors included exposure to negative or adult behavior in the neighborhood, such as disagreements between neighbors or lewd behavior. One participant said, “My mom and neighbor had a grudge [against each other]… growing up [my neighbor] would poison my [pets], [she] would toss poison over our backyard fence to kill our dog and cat.”
Personal victimization includes violent and nonviolent offenses, mostly focused on child abuse and neglect. One participant said, “I seen my cousins getting raped by my uncles because they were addicted to drugs,… literally if you woke up in the middle of the night, you would be scared to walk down the steps because your uncles were doing whatever to your cousins.”
Economic hardship includes not having enough money and the lack of nonmonetary resources. Participants also sensed the pain and struggle that their caregivers experienced to make ends meet, as illustrated by the following quote: “The hardest thing for me was watching my mom struggle [financially to pay for] food, utilities, bills.”
Experiences in the domains of peer relationships, discrimination, and school were less commonly reported. Peer relationships include peer pressure and problems with friends, such as having to maintain social status, jealousy between peers, backstabbing, gossiping, snitching, and break ups with significant others. Regarding peer pressure, several participants said that the pressure to “use drugs, drink alcohol, and have sex” were frequent stressors. Peer relationships include intense childhood events, such as death of friends and seeing friends incarcerated or robbed. Discrimination mostly involves racial stereotypes. One participant summed it up as follows: “stereotyping… it’s mostly white people, the way they look at you when you are out walking in the street, they try to downgrade [you]… I’ve seen people follow [black people] around the store. They already got a mindset about us before they even know who we are.” School stressors include poor-quality schools, lack of school safety, and academic struggles. One participant commented on differences between city and suburban schools stating, “Even though I lived in [the city] I went to [a suburban school]. My friends went to [city schools]… the stuff they learned in high school was taught to people at my school at earlier [grades]… there was an inconsistency between what they were learning and what was being taught at my school.”
Additional domains endorsed by a minority of study participants were health, experiences in the child welfare/juvenile justice system, and media/technology. There were 9 additional responses that we were unable to code into a domain characterizing a stressful childhood experience not included in our results.
Since the initial ACE study, ACEs have been expanded to include an array of different childhood stressors.44–47 ACE research has suffered from the lack of an agreed-on definition for childhood adversity leading to inconsistent operationalization of the term ACEs, hindering childhood adversity research.48 Our work provides a youth perspective on the concept of childhood adversity.
Participants endorsed all of the traditional ACEs except for divorce/separation and mentally ill caregivers while citing childhood adversities not included in the initial ACE work but identified as ACEs in subsequent studies. Their responses highlight the complexity of capturing adversity in economically distressed populations as they describe experiences ranging from disruption of personal relationships, such as the death of family members, to environmental exposures, such as community violence.
Family relationships overlap with some of the initial ACEs, including substance abuse, violence, and criminal behavior in the home. In contrast to the initial ACE studies, in which divorce/separation was included as an adverse experience, our study participants cited single-parent homes, defined as living with only 1 parent, as a stressor. A large number of families began as single-parent homes in their communities, making divorce/separation irrelevant to their lives. Research does suggest that growing up in a single-parent home has a negative impact on children.49–51 Factors, such as parental education, family income, and neighborhood resources, may buffer children from the negative effects of single-parent families,52,53 but often are not present in the economically distressed communities in which our participants grew up.
With this focus on the importance of family dynamics, few of our participants endorsed corporal punishment/harsh parenting (ie, spanking, and use of profane language or yelling when disciplining a child) as a childhood stressor. Participants at each focus group acknowledged the use of harsh parenting practices and corporal punishment in their childhood homes. But only 1 participant ranked harsh parenting as one of the most stressful experiences. Participants rationalized these experiences as deserved for poor behavior and normal for their communities. Despite these findings, harsh parenting, whether perceived as such or not, has been associated with poor outcomes.54–58
Another area of overlap with the initial ACEs was personal victimization, which included physical/sexual abuse and neglect. In contrast to these traditional ACEs, personal victimization and community stressors highlight the different forms of victimization and violence that can occur throughout childhood. A recent study showed that up to 60% of children have been exposed to violence and nearly half of these events were direct physical assaults on the child.59 These experiences affect childhood health and well-being beyond any physical injuries incurred, leading to mental, physical, and behavioral problems.28,60,61
Although not unexpected, given the negative impact of poverty on childhood physical health and emotional well-being,62–65 the fact that economic hardship was so commonly cited as a stressor was significant nonetheless. These stressors involved witnessing parent financial struggles; and the lack of resources (ie, hunger, homelessness, and poor-quality clothing) caused by family financial struggles. These exposures were not assessed in the initial ACE studies but have been included as part of subsequent ACE studies.
Racism has a strong and lasting impact on the health of minorities66–70; however, few respondents endorsed racism and discrimination as a significant childhood stressor. We expected the large percentage of racial/ethnic minorities participating in our study, having grown up in disadvantaged racially segregated communities, would list discrimination as one of the predominant stressors in their lives. The reason for this finding is unclear. A potential explanation is these pervasive but subtle inequities have become expected norms of our participants’ lives and are not perceived as stressors.
Few participants cited discrimination based on sexual orientation as a significant childhood stressor. These issues are common problems in the lives of children and youth.71 The focus group format could have made it difficult for participants to discuss issues surrounding sexual orientation. Future qualitative research with members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community may provide insight into youth perspectives about the contribution of sexual preference–based discrimination to childhood adversity.
As our goal was to incorporate the voice of economically distressed urban youth in identifying the experiences that could represent severe stressors, we relied on participant recall of experiences perceived as stressful, and did not perform a concurrent health assessment or ask participants to specify when or how often ACEs occurred. Thus, we are unable to distinguish between “tolerable” and “toxic” stressors, identify exposures like harsh parenting or discrimination, which were harmful to our participants but not perceived as such, capture the impact of endorsed stressors, or assess the role of frequency or timing in determining the severity of these experiences.
Our study has several additional limitations. The study findings may be subject to recall bias, although several studies have confirmed the reliability of retrospective recall of adverse events in adult populations.72–74 Study results may be specific to low-income Philadelphia communities, and not be generalizable to other settings. Also, the focus group format may have prohibited discussion of sensitive issues, such as abuse, victimization, or sexual orientation–based discrimination. However, the large number of personal stories about intense childhood experiences told during the focus groups suggests participants felt comfortable sharing sensitive childhood experiences. Finally, the close parallel relationship between experiences such as child maltreatment and involvement in the child welfare systems can make it difficult to disentangle the significance of each exposure.
Despite these limitations, our findings have implications for both health care practice and future research. Childhood adversity assessment should include experiences relevant to the target population. To assess adversity among inner-city low-income youth, clinicians should consider adding the following experiences to current ACE measures: single-parent homes; lack of parental love, support, and guidance; death of family members; exposure to violence, adult themes, and criminal behavior; date rape; personal victimization; bullying; economic hardship; discrimination; and poor health. All of these exposures were frequently cited by our participants and have been shown in other studies to contribute to poor health outcomes.75–83 Experiences such as harsh parenting, which negatively affect child well-being but may not be perceived as stressors, also should be considered. However, before including any of these measures in any formal ACE assessment, more research must be done to examine the relative contribution of these additional experiences to health outcomes.
The disproportionate distribution of extreme levels of stress in disadvantaged communities has been cited as a contributor to the persistence of poor health outcomes for low-income populations.84–87 We used focus groups with young adults who grew up in economically distressed urban communities to capture these stressful experiences. Study findings suggest that ACEs research should be broadened to include stressors experienced by youth in low-income urban settings. Understanding the diverse set of traumatic and stressful experiences of low-income urban youth is an area of research that requires further study.
We are grateful to Steven Berkowitz, MD, and Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, for their guidance and advice in the development of this project.
- Accepted April 16, 2014.
- Address correspondence to Roy Wade, Jr, MD, PhD, MPH, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 3535 Market St, Room 1451, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail:
Dr Wade conceptualized and designed the study, coordinated and supervised data collection at all sites, carried out all analyses, and drafted and revised the initial manuscript; Dr Shea conceptualized and designed the study, supervised all analyses, and revised the manuscript; Dr Rubin conceptualized and designed study, and revised the manuscript; Dr Wood conceptualized and designed the study, supervised data collection at all sites, supervised all analyses, and revised the initial manuscript; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: Dr Wood’s institution has received payment for expert witness court testimony that Dr Wood has provided in cases of suspected child abuse for which she has been subpoenaed to testify; the other authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.
FUNDING: Supported by the Eisenberg Scholar Research Award, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
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- Copyright © 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics