Harsh and Unpredictable Childhoods Affect Risky Behaviors in Unique Ways

Children born into adversity are at increased risk for many negative life outcomes. Children from poor socioeconomic situations have less access to health care and more exposure to violence, aggression, substance use, and psychological illness. These same children are often born into single-parent households and may have unstable role models. Living conditions for children at risk include inadequate funding in educational settings and the possibility of constant relocation. All of these factors elevate the possibility of future negative behaviors for these vulnerable children. Parents who are financially strained and living in difficult situations may transfer their frustrations to their children through harsh parenting tactics. Other parents may have to move from home to home in order to maintain an acceptable quality of life for their underprivileged children.

Although it is well documented that children born into these conditions have more challenges than children born into more stable and socially advantaged conditions, little research has compared the outcomes of unpredictable childhoods to those of harsh childhoods for socioeconomically disadvantaged children. To address this void, Jeffry A. Simpson of the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota recently led a study that evaluated risk-taking behaviors among 165 disadvantaged children as they progressed from birth to age 23. Simpson used data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption and looked at how childhood environments in the first 5 years of life affected sexual risk taking, delinquent tendencies, and aggression in later life.

He found that unpredictable early life environments, those filled with partner change, residence change, and inconsistency, resulted in higher levels of risk taking than harsh environments. Specifically, Simpson discovered that the participants in the poor and unpredictable homes had more sexual partners and more criminal and aggressive behaviors than those from harsh homes. Additionally, those raised with unpredictability began sexual activity at a much earlier age and were more sexually and behaviorally inclined to take risks at age 23 than those from harsh homes. Simpson noted that these results were only evident among the children who experienced this type of situation in the first 5 years of life. There were no significant negative consequences resulting from unpredictable or harsh situations that occurred between age 6 and 16. In sum, Simpson said, “The findings of this longitudinal study contribute to the growing literature on how different forms of stress experienced during childhood are systematically linked to major life history outcomes later in life.”

Simpson, J. A., Griskevicius, V., Kuo, S.-I., Sung, S., Collins, W. A. (2012). Evolution, Stress, and Sensitive Periods: The Influence of Unpredictability in Early Versus Late Childhood on Sex and Risky Behavior. Developmental Psychology 48.3: 674-686.

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  • Joanne


    June 29th, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    I am going to try to say this in a way that does not sound so judgemental, but why do you think that these kids are at such a disadvantage? Because they never have that sense of stability and normalcy in their lives that every child deserves. They witness their moms going from partner to partner for whatever reason and never having any of that stability in her life, so this is the only kind of life that they know. This becomes their version of what is normal in a relationship, so they continue on with that pattern in their own adult lives. rarely is there a child that comes out of a situation like this whole and healthy- there is always something there that even when they try to break the chain always seems to drag them back down into that cycle.

  • Bette


    June 29th, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    There is so much uncertainty in the lives of children like this. Who is going to care for me? Who is going to provide for me? I think that so many of them go through childhood looking for that provider that they don’t know how to do it on their own when they get older. They are constantly looking for someone or something to fill that void.

  • nona


    June 30th, 2012 at 5:44 AM

    For me, no matter when the harsh behavior occurs in their lives, they can never be completely free of it. In some way it will eventually effect them. We can’t continue to pretend that because children are resilient for the most part that it will never come into play in their lives. Clearly it does.

  • Galloway r

    Galloway r

    July 1st, 2012 at 5:21 AM

    I had a hard childhood too, but I have chosen to own it and move past it. Maybe that was a life decision that I was able to make on my own that some others would have a hard time with, but sometimes you have to do the hard stuff to get to a better place, you know? I could have sat around and stewed in it, but I knew that I wanted more than that and that I deserved more than that. And let me tell you, I saw some bad stuff growing up. But I am adult now- don’t I have the gumption to do what I want? And what I wanted was to be more than those years when I was a kid.

  • Betsy


    July 2nd, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    Even kids who have a stellar upbringing will often make poor decisions and engage in behavior that could be considered risky.
    This may not become a total way of life for them, but you can’t tell me that they don’t experiment too.
    So yes, this is about childhood experiences, but much of it is about being a stupid adolescent and making some stupid adolescent choices.
    The big difference between these groups though is that the kids with the exceptional upbringings then have someone to reel them back in and get them back on track, whereas the kids who have grown up in that harsh environment, chances are that they have no one to turn to to get them back on sure footing.

  • sarah


    July 2nd, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    kids are like tender plants that require love and care and consistency.you cannot keep shifting a plant from one path of land to another with varying soil and still expect it to grow well!parents have a big big role to play.

  • ShelbY


    July 4th, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    I was raised by a drug addicted mom and an abusive dad. I guess “raised” is not exactly the right word to use. How about created and forced to live with? Anyway, yeah its tough to handle, but you just do. And then when you’re old enough you move out and you move on. Make the decision that this is not the life for you and be done with it.

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