Adverse Childhood Experiences

Challenging experiences, such as death, divorce or separation of parents, witnessing violence, and living with someone with mental health or substance abuse problems can undermine a child’s emotional health and overall well-being. Parents were asked about nine specific adverse experiences which the child may have confronted in his or her lifetime:

  1. whether it was hard to get by on the family’s income “very often” or “somewhat often,”
  2. whether the child experienced the divorce or separation of parents,
  3. whether the child experienced the death of a parent,
  4. whether a parent served time in jail,
  5. whether the child witnessed domestic violence,
  6. whether the child was a victim of neighborhood violence,
  7. whether the child lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal,
  8. whether the child lived with someone who had alcohol or drug problems, and
  9. whether the child was treated or judged unfairly due to their race or ethnicity.

Overall, 25.3 percent of children had experienced one of these adverse experiences, and 22.6 percent had experienced two or more. Children in large rural areas were more likely than their peers in urban or small rural areas to have had at least one adverse childhood experience, and children in urban areas were less likely than those in rural areas to have had two or more.

Because these measures were assessed for children since birth, the percentage of older children who had had adverse experiences in their lifetimes was greater than that of younger children. In all age groups, children living in urban areas were significantly less likely than those in small or large rural areas to have had at least one adverse experience in their lifetimes.

In all locations, the proportion of children experiencing one or more adverse events significantly decreased with increasing household income. For instance, 70.9 percent of children in small rural areas with household incomes below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) experienced one or more adverse events, compared to 29.4 percent of those in households with incomes of 400 percent or more of the FPL. Among children with household incomes below the FPL, those in urban areas were significantly less likely to experience one or more adverse events when compared to children in large and small rural areas.

In all locations, the adverse experience most commonly reported was economic insecurity, and this was significantly more common among children in rural than urban areas. The parents of nearly 30 percent of children in small and large rural areas reported that it was somewhat often or very often hard to get by on the family’s income, compared to 24.7 percent of urban children. Children in rural areas were also more likely than their urban counterparts to report other adverse childhood experiences, including: the divorce or separation of parents, living with a parent who served time in jail or prison, witnessing domestic violence, living with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, and living with someone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs.

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