Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Willson, Andrea


Exposure to childhood adversity often does not occur as an isolated experience; rather, adverse childhood circumstances tend to co-occur, resulting in a climate of disadvantage that has detrimental consequences, and contributes to disparities in adult outcomes. Although the enduring impacts of cumulative childhood adversity on adult mental health and attainment outcomes are well documented in the literature, studies have not accounted for the long-term impact of cumulative childhood adversity on trajectories of adult psychological distress. Furthermore, measures of adversity used to predict selection into higher education consistently focus on childhood economic hardship as the sole indicator of adversity and overlook the co-occurrence of adversities during childhood.

Limitations in previous measures of cumulative childhood adversity further hinder an overall understanding of processes of cumulative adversity that contribute to disparities in adult mental health and educational attainment. Previous studies consider a limited number of adversities, overlook the potential heterogeneity across experiences of adversity, and vary in the conceptualization and measurement of cumulative childhood adversity. These discrepancies in measures have led to inconsistent conclusions regarding the overall impact of multiple adverse childhood experiences on adult outcomes.

Drawing from the life course perspective and the stress process model, the current dissertation uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics’ Childhood Retrospective Circumstances Study in order to identify a more comprehensive measure of cumulative childhood adversity that takes into account the heterogeneity and co-occurrence of adversities during childhood. Cumulative histories of exposure to co-occurring adversities are identified using latent class analysis, and used in subsequent papers to predict trajectories of psychological distress and selection into higher education. Overall, results indicate that adversities have a high probability of co-occurring, and that variations in patterns of exposure to childhood adversity have important implications for psychological distress and educational attainment.