Associations between developmental timing of child abuse and conduct problem trajectories in a UK birth cohort

Andreas Bauer, Gemma Hammerton, Abigail Fraser, Graeme Fairchild, Sarah L. Halligan

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Background: Although there is strong evidence for a relationship between child abuse and neglect and conduct problems, associations between child abuse experienced at different developmental stages and developmental trajectories of conduct problems have not been examined. We sought to investigate effects of timing of child abuse on conduct problem trajectories in a large UK birth cohort study. Methods: We applied latent class growth analysis to identify conduct problem trajectories in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, using parent-rated conduct problems from ages 4–17 years (N = 10,648). Childhood-only and adolescence-only abuse, in addition to abuse in both developmental periods (‘persistent’ abuse), were assessed by retrospective self-report at age 22 years (N = 3172). Results: We identified four developmental trajectories: early-onset persistent (4.8%), adolescence-onset (4.5%), childhood-limited (15.4%), and low (75.3%) conduct problems. Childhood-only abuse and ‘persistent’ abuse were associated with increased odds of being on the early-onset persistent and adolescence-onset conduct problem trajectories compared to the low conduct problems trajectory. Adolescence-only abuse was not predictive of trajectory membership. There were no associations between abuse and childhood-limited trajectory membership. Conclusions: Early-onset persistent and adolescence-onset conduct problems showed similar patterns of association with abuse exposure, challenging developmental theories that propose qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, differences in environmental risk factors between these trajectories. The results also highlight that childhood-only and ‘persistent’ abuse were more strongly linked to elevated conduct problem trajectories than adolescence-only abuse, and that ‘persistent’ abuse is particularly detrimental.

Original languageEnglish
Article number89
JournalBMC Psychiatry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
AB was supported by a University Research Scholarship Award from the University of Bath. The UK Medical Research Council and Wellcome (102215/2/13/2) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. This work was specifically funded by a GW4 grant (GW4-AF9–006) and the UK Medical Research Council (G0701594). This publication is the work of the authors listed and they will serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. A comprehensive list of grants funding is available on the ALSPAC website ( ). The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study, and in the decision to submit for publication.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Antisocial behavior
  • Child abuse
  • Child maltreatment
  • Conduct problems
  • Developmental trajectories
  • Latent class growth analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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