All in the Family? Exploring the Intergenerational Transmission of Exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Effect on Offending Behavior

Published date01 July 2021
AuthorCatia Malvaso,Jessica M. Craig,David P. Farrington
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
All in the Family? Exploring
the Intergenerational
Transmission of Exposure to
Adverse Childhood
Experiences and Their Effect
on Offending Behavior
Jessica M. Craig
, Catia Malvaso
, and David P. Farrington
Research indicates that individuals with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to
offend, and that some ACEs, such as offending and child maltreatment, are transmitted from one
generationto the next. However, the extentto which ACEs are transferredacross generations and its
subsequent impact on offending has not been examined. Using data from the Cambridge Study in
Delinquent Development, this study examined the intergenerational transmission of ACEs and the
extent to which this was associated withoffending in the second generation. Although parental ACEs
increased the likelihood of the subsequent generation’sACEs, other risk factors attenuatedthis effect.
Additionally,ACEs’ impact on the second generation’s convictionswas also weakened after controlling
for other risk factors. This provides evidence of intergenerational transmission of ACEs and addi-
tionally the effects of ACEs on the risk of offending. However, these associations are not straight-
forward and other risk factors likely play an important role in elucidating these relationships.
offending, intergenerational transmission, adverse childhood experiences, child maltreatment
The concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has g ained considerable scientific and
policy attention across a diverse range of disciplines, including public health, medicine and
University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA
School of Psychology & School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK
Corresponding Author:
Jessica M. Craig, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #305130, Denton, TX 76203, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2021, Vol. 19(3) 292-307
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040211003648
psychology (Anda et al., 2010; Hardt & Rutter, 2004). A number of criminological studies have also
examined the association between ACEs and offending behavior (Baglivio et al., 2014; Craig et al.,
2017; Malvaso et al., 2018). These studies demonstrate that many of the ACEs identified in the
original landmark study by Felitti and colleagues (1998), including maltreatment (physical, sexual
and emotional abuse, and physical and emotional neglect) and household dysfunction (parental
separation, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and incarceration), are more pre-
valent in criminal justice populations compared to other population groups and community samples.
As opposed to focusing on one factor, the ACEs literature emphasizes that it is the cumulative
impact of maltreatment and other childhood adversities that leads to poorer health outcomes later in
life (Anda et al., 2006, 2010; Dube et al., 2006). Similar to studies highlighting the negative effects
of the accumulation of ACEs on health outcomes, numerous criminological studies have also
demonstrated that offenders with a higher number of ACEs are more likely to engage in serious,
violent and chronic offending and criminal recidivism (Baglivio et al., 2014, Craig, Baglivio, et al.,
2017; DeLisi & Beauregard, 2018; Fox et al., 2015; Malvaso et al., 2018). These are important
findings because young people who commit more serious crimes in adolescence are more likely to
continue offending in adulthood (Farrington, 2018).
While the literature has indicated that those with more ACEs are more likely to offend and some
ACEs, such as child maltreatment, can be transmitted across generations, an area that is under-
explored is the possibility that exposure to ACEs, as a whole, may also be transmitted from one
generation to the next. This is an unfortunate gap as prior research has found that the relationship
between risk factors and offending behavior is similar across generations (Farrington et al., 2015).
The current study seeks to address this gap by examining the intergenerational transmission of ACEs
and their effects on offending behavior among a longitudinal study of British males and their male
offspring. Prior to reporting the results of our analyses, we first provide a brief overview of the ACE-
crime literature as well as a discussion of intergenerational risks for offending.
Does exposure to ACEs predict offending?
Although the prevalence of ACEs among justice-involved young people is high, it is unclear whether
exposure to ACEs predicts the initiation or persistence of offending behavior, or whether they are
simply coinciding vulnerabilities in a high-risk population. Since the ACEs-offending literature is
relatively new and there have been few examinations of the ACEs-offending link using prospective
data, it is helpful to consider what is already known about the association between child maltreat-
ment and offending behavior. Five of the original ACEs—physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional
abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect—are measures of child maltreatment and there is a
well-established body of evidence demonstrating that children with histories of maltreatment are at
increased risk for both youth and adult offending compared to children who have not experienced
maltreatment (for recent reviews, see Braga et al., 2017; Malvaso et al., 2016). This literature also
demonstrates that child maltreatment does not occur in isolation and that the association between
maltreatment and offending is not deterministic. Instead, pathways from maltreatment to offending
are influenced by a complex interplay of individual, social and contextual factors other than, and
often in combination with, maltreatment. Maltreatment often coincides with other adversities, such
as poverty, domestic violence, parental mental illness and substance abuse, which make it difficult to
ascertain which factor, or combination of factors, exerts the greatest influence on offending beha-
vior. There is also some speculation that, similar to associations between maltreatment and offend-
ing, the associations found between ACEs and poor outcomes may be confounded by factors relating
to socioeconomic inequalities, su ch as poverty, family size and precario us housing conditions.
Therefore, it is important that when examining the effects of ACEs on offending behavior, other
individual, family and social risk factors are also considered in the analyses.
Craig et al. 293

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