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Children’s voices at the heart of research on childhood adversity

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Dr Lucy Bowes, associate professor in the department of experimental psychology, Dr Siân Pooley, associate professor in the faculty of history, and PhD students Michelle Degli Esposti (experimental psychology) and Jono Taylor (history), discuss their interdisciplinary research project, based at the University of Oxford. This examines how (and how far) people who experienced adversity in childhood were affected by these experiences across the course of their lives.

Tell us about yourselves
Dr Pooley: As an historian of 19th and 20th-century Britain, I am interested in understanding how people lived and made sense of their lives. In my work on parenthood and children’s identities, I seek to explore how the most intimate and everyday experiences effected social change.

Dr Bowes: Children who experience harsh, neglectful or abusive parenting are at risk of developing psychological and behavioural difficulties. Importantly, not all exposed children develop such problems. Some ‘resilient’ children function at least as well as the average, non-exposed child. As a psychologist, I am interested in uncovering the protective mechanisms that promote resilience among children exposed to harm – from individual characteristics and social relationships, to formal interventions and social policies.

Michelle Degli Esposti: Studying experimental psychology and working within psychiatry, clinical psychology and research, has moulded my academic interests towards better understanding and preventing the development of mental illnesses. My research aims to explore the differences in how people go on to live their lives following childhood adversity.

Jono Taylor: Prior to starting the PhD, I assisted government and voluntary projects that supported people facing adversity. This sparked an interest in how people have historically sought to help children thought to be at risk of harm, as well as the impact that these interventions have had.

What is your area of research?
‘Childhood adversity and lifetime resilience’ brings together the strikingly different strengths (and weaknesses) of history and experimental psychology. With the shared focus on individuals’ changing lives, we examine what we understand differently by linking quantitative data to qualitative evidence, prospective accounts to retrospective narratives, and psychological to historical concepts. From this, we hope to develop new insights about how people experienced, understood, and were affected by adversity in childhood across the course of their lives.

We ask two principal historical questions. First, how were acceptable and unacceptable behaviours towards children defined across the 20th century? Second, we explore children’s experiences of abuse and neglect, the efficacy of the support they were offered, and the impact of post-war changes in social policies and norms.

These historical findings inform the psychological research, which focuses on different consequences of childhood abuse and neglect, and how these vary across the life course. Understanding how people’s lives diverged will help us to better explain why some people go on to live well-adapted lives in the face of adversity, and others do not.

How will you explore these issues?
The psychological research has begun by reviewing the current literature to establish what is already known about the consequences of childhood abuse and neglect. We will use the British Birth Cohorts (longitudinal studies that track the lives of thousands of people born from 1946 onwards) to examine the relationship between early adverse experiences and different long-term trajectories of functioning.

The historical research draws on a wide range of sources: surveys, government reports, and case files. The breadth of material is important to overcome methodological challenges inherent in writing a history of practices that were widespread, stigmatised and private. The historical findings inform our psychological analysis of the longitudinal data. The data itself, such as qualitative and quantitative evidence from Newsons’ Child Development Longitudinal Study, also provides an exciting opportunity to work collaboratively in developing a richer understanding of how social and behavioural norms changed across the last 70 years.

Why is this research important?
Understandings of how children should be raised have changed dramatically over the last 70 years. It is essential that we map the shifting and contested boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours precisely, rather than assuming that today’s understandings were those of the past.

Our research places an important spotlight on people’s own interpretations of their lives, including uncovering the actions and voices of children. We cannot understand the ways in which early experiences of adversity shape social and health inequalities and what best supports people in navigating pathways to resilience without first knowing what children experienced and believed. This makes the recent past a unique source of evidence for how experience shapes who we are.

More information about the Childhood adversity and lifetime resilience  research is available on the project’s blog, and by following the team on Twitter. This collaborative and interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Oxford, is led by Dr Lucy Bowes (associate professor at the department of experimental psychology, medical sciences division and tutorial fellow at Magdalen College) and Dr Siân Pooley (associate professor in the faculty of history and tutorial fellow at Magdalen College). The research is currently funded through TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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