Dickie, D. (2023). Adverse Childhood Experiences and Risk-Taking Behaviors in College Students: Early Maladaptive Schemas, and Difficulties in Emotion Regulation as Possible Mediators. Unc Charlotte Electronic Theses And Dissertations.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are pervasive problems in the United States today. As many as 85% of adults report experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience (Crandall et al., 2020), and experiencing just one ACE significantly increases the risk of experiencing more (Deighton et al., 2018). Moreover, these negative experiences in childhood are associated with poorer health outcomes, increased societal costs, and increased risk-taking behavior beginning in adolescence and continuing into adulthood (Felitti, 1998; Felitti, 2002). What is less known, however, is the mechanisms through which the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and risk-taking behaviors occurs. Through a correlational design, this project explored early maladaptive schemas (EMS) from the disconnection and rejection domain (EMS:DR) and difficulties with emotion regulation (DERS) as potential mediators of the relationship between self-reported adverse childhood experiences and five types of anticipated risk-taking behaviors in college students. Finally, positive childhood experiences, or counter-ACEs, have been proposed as protective factors against negative health and behavioral outcomes. Thus, the current study hypothesized a relationship between counter-ACEs and college students’ lack of expected engagement in future risk-taking behaviors. As expected, ACEs were positively correlated with both mediators (EMS:DR and DERS) as well as with expected risky behaviors related to heavy drinking, illicit drug use, aggressive and illegal activity, problematic academic and work performance, and risky sexual behaviors. Additionally, as predicted, early maladaptive schemas in the disconnection and rejection domain were statistically shown to partially mediate the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and anticipated risk-taking related to illicit drug use, heavy drinking, aggressive and illegal behaviors, and problematic academic and work behaviors. Likewise, difficulties in emotional regulation partially mediated the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and expected future risk-taking related to increased sexual activity and problematic academic and work behaviors. Unexpectedly, counter-ACEs did not serve as a moderator and did not significantly buffer the relationship between ACEs and any tested anticipated risk-taking behaviors. Results of this study replicated and extended previous findings linking ACEs to behavioral risk-taking and established both a cognitive and an emotional pathway to partially explain this relationship. Given that the two proposed mediators are transdiagnostic mechanisms, they can be targeted via clinical interventions and techniques to potentially mitigate the negative impacts of experiencing ACEs. Future research should attempt to provide evidence for a causal pathway between these variables of interest.