The negative effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on physical and mental health has led to calls for routine screening for ACEs in primary care settings. We aimed to examine the association between maternal ACEs and children's behaviour problems (externalizing and internalizing) at age 5 in the context of other known predictors.
We analyzed data from mother-and-child dyads participating in the All Our Families cohort in Calgary, Canada, between 2011 and 2017. Data were collected for factors related to the individual child (sex, age, temperament and behaviour), the mother (adverse childhood experiences, mental health, personality and parenting) and sociodemographic characteristics (family income, ethnicity and family structure) when the children were 3 and 5 years of age. We used logistic regression models to estimate crude and adjusted associations between maternal ACEs and children's externalizing (hyperactivity and aggression) and internalizing (anxiety, depression and somatization) behaviours.
Data were available for 1688 mother-and-child dyads. In the crude models, the presence of 4 or more maternal ACEs was associated with children's externalizing and internalizing behaviours at age 5. However, these associations were attenuated with adjustment. Persistent maternal mental health symptoms were associated with both externalizing and internalizing behaviours at age 5 (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 4.20, 95% confidence interval [CI] 2.50-7.05, and adjusted OR 2.52, 95% CI 1.66-3.81, respectively). High levels of ineffective parenting behaviours were also associated with both externalizing and internalizing behaviours at age 5 (adjusted OR 6.27, 95% CI 4.30-9.14, and adjusted OR 1.43, 95% CI 1.03-1.99, respectively).
The association between maternal ACEs and children's behaviour at age 5 was weakened in the presence of other maternal and family-level factors. Assessments of maternal mental health and parenting behaviours may be better targets for identifying children at risk of behavioural problems.