child on toy with mother

Research into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) among children and families in New Zealand

This research was funded by the Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund.

Two research reports:

  • Adverse childhood experiences and school readiness outcomes: Results from the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study
  • Protective factors of children and families at highest risk of adverse childhood experiences: An analysis of children and families in GUiNZ data who “beat the odds”

Researchers from the Centre for Social Data Analytics at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) explored the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on school readiness among children in New Zealand. They also investigated protective factors for children at highest risk of an ACE.

The researchers used data from around 5,500 participants gathered by the Growing Up in New Zealand study, New Zealand’s largest longitudinal study of contemporary child development.

For the purpose of this research eight ACEs were identified:

  • emotional abuse of child
  • physical abuse of child
  • use of illegal street drugs by parent or partner
  • depression of parent or partner
  • separation or divorce of parent
  • intimate violence of parent or partner
  • parent or partner a problem drinker or alcoholic
  • incarceration of parent or partner.

Key findings – ACEs and school readiness outcomes:

  • More than half the children studied experienced at least one ACE by 4.5 years of age. Although not directly comparable, this is on a par with international findings around ACEs.
  • Emotional abuse and physical abuse were the most common ACEs experienced.
  • The research suggests there are educational benefits to reducing early exposure to adversities. Children who experienced no ACEs performed better in cognitive tests, and those who had experienced ACEs performed worse relative to the number of ACEs they had experienced.
  • The analysis identified a dose-response relationship between ACEs and tests of cognitive performance administered at 54 months of the GUiNZ study, including letter naming fluency, focus, affective knowledge, counting to 10, the ability to write one’s name, and being able to delay gratification.

Key findings – Protective factors for children at risk of ACEs:

  • Some children who appeared to be at risk of experiencing multiple ACEs ended up experiencing none (known as “beating the odds”). Children were identified as beating the odds if they were in the highest 20% risk group but by 54 months had not experienced one ACE.
  • Researchers investigated five domains for protective factors for at-risk children: the strength of the mother-partner relationship, parental health and wellness, the strength on the parent-child relationship, parental finances, and neighbourhood and community characteristics. The most protective factors were determined to be ’the strength of the mother-partner relationship’ and the ’level of parental health and wellness’.

The views and interpretations in this report are those of the researchers and are not the official position of the Ministry of Social Development.

The Ministry of Social Development funds GUiNZ and administers and funds the Children and Families Research Fund. Through the Children and Families Research Fund, $750,000 is made available each year for policy-relevant research projects using Growing Up in New Zealand data.

Download the reports:

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