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Child Development

How Traumatic Childhood Experiences Affect People in Adulthood

Imbalances in perceptions of risks and rewards.

Key points

  • People with negative childhoods may show cognitive deficits as adults, particularly in decision-making.
  • New research found that those with ACEs are less likely to take advantage of available rewards.
  • A reluctance to try new things may make certain interventions harder for people with adverse childhoods.
 Fredrik Öhlander/Unsplash
Source: Fredrik Öhlander/Unsplash

A new study published in the journal Psychological and Cognitive Sciences explores the impact of adverse childhood experiences (i.e., extreme stressors that occur between the ages of 0 and 18 years), on the development of the brain. According to the study, people who have had negative childhood experiences are more likely to show certain cognitive deficits as adults, particularly in the area of decision-making.

Alexander Lloyd, a researcher at the University of London in England, splits adverse childhood experiences into three main categories:

  1. Threatening events, which include physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse.
  2. Neglect, which includes physical and emotional neglect.
  3. Family adversity, which includes parental divorce, parental substance abuse, mental illness within the household, and/or having an incarcerated relative.

“There has been a large body of research on the links between adverse childhood experiences and the development of the brain,” says Lloyd. “However, less research has examined the impact of these experiences on how we make decisions and process rewards.”

Exploring Reward Feedback

To study this relationship, Lloyd and team used an experimental task called "patch foraging," wherein a person plays a farming video game of sorts in which they must choose between sticking with a known patch with known rewards that diminish over time or exploring a new patch with unknown rewards.

“In our task, individuals had to collect apples from trees,” explains Lloyd. “The longer they stayed with their current tree, the fewer apples would be available to collect. Alternatively, they could leave to travel to a new tree that had a fresh bunch of apples. Using this task, we were able to calculate how much weight individuals place on recent reward feedback versus more historic feedback.”

The findings demonstrated two key things:

  1. Adverse childhood experiences were linked to less task exploration, implying that people who had negative childhood experiences were less likely to take advantage of the full range of rewards available in their environment.
  2. Individuals who had been exposed to adverse childhood experiences showed less exploration overall, a sign that they were undervaluing the reward feedback they were receiving in the game.

“We think that our findings may be linked to the development of regions of the brain that are responsible for processing rewards, as previous research has found that individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences have less neural activation in response to rewards compared to individuals without these experiences,” says Lloyd.

Helping Those With Adverse Childhood Experiences

For clinicians and individuals helping people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, Lloyd has the following advice:

  • Since individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences are less likely to explore new opportunities, it could be helpful for professionals working with them to understand that experiences of adversity can be associated with a reluctance to try new things, which may make certain interventions more difficult for people with these experiences.
  • Individuals with adverse childhood experiences also tend to undervalue reward feedback. So, encouraging individuals with adverse childhood experiences to recognize positive reward feedback may also be helpful when supporting somebody with experiences of adversity.

The authors hope that their findings will contribute to a better understanding of the negative impacts associated with adverse childhood experiences and may inform future studies that aim to support those who have experienced adversity.

“Ultimately, I would like to see future research develop interventions to reduce the mental health impacts of adversity by identifying specific features of cognition that are impacted by these experiences,” concludes Lloyd.

Facebook image: Timothy Kuiper/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: InesBazdar/Shutterstock


Lloyd, Alexander (Interview). How painful childhood experiences impact the way we see the world today., March 28, 2022.

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