Longitudinal Associations Between Trauma Exposure and Executive Functions in Children: Findings from a Dutch Birth Cohort Study

Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology

R. Op den Kelder, A. L. Van den Akker, J. B. M. Ensink, H. M. Geurts, G. Overbeek, S. R. de Rooij, T. G. M. Vrijkotte & R. J. L. Lindauer



This study is the first to distinguish two possible predictive directions between trauma exposure and executive functioning in children in a community sample. The sample consists of 1006 children from two time points with a seven years’ time interval of a longitudinal Dutch birth cohort study, the ABCD-study (Van Eijsden et al., 2011). We analyzed the longitudinal associations between trauma exposure and executive functioning using structural equation modeling. The results demonstrated that (after controlling for prenatal substance exposure and mothers’ educational level) trauma exposure before age 5 is predictive of poorer executive functioning at age 12 and trauma exposure between age 6 and 12. However, the association between executive functioning at age 5 and trauma exposure between age 6 and 12 was not statistically significant. Our results indicate that early life trauma exposure has a long term impact on later executive functioning and not the other way around. On top of that, trauma exposure seems to accumulate across childhood when children are exposed to a traumatic event before the age of 5. When looking at the potential moderating role of parenting behavior we found no evidence for such a moderating effect of parenting behavior. Our findings showed that children exposed to trauma early in life may experience problems in executive functioning later in life and they seem at higher risk for cumulative trauma exposure. Clinical practice should take this into account in both the way they provide (early) mental health care and in prevention and recognition of early trauma exposure.

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