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Childhood Adversity

It is now well established globally that adverse childhood experiences are a significant public health concern. Our recent work estimates the occurrence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, peer and community violence, to be high in young adults in Northern Ireland. Over 26% experience at least one ACE, and the most common adverse experience, reported by 34% of the sample, was growing up mental illness in the family. One quarter of young people reported growing up with four or more ACEs, and these young people were found to be at significantly increased risk of engaging in health harming behaviours, psychopathology and lower educational attainment.

Dr Teresa Rushe is PI of the Northern Ireland Childhood Adversity Study (NICAS) and along with Dr Tara O Neill (Research Fellow) conducts research into the psychological outcomes of growing up in adversity, as well as the mediators and moderators of outcome in high risk populations in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Childhood Adversity Study (NICAS) is a case-control study utilising both retrospective accounts and current neuropsychological functioning to examine childhood predictors, mediators and moderators of outcome and investigate the relative contributions of educational/occupational, behavioural and psychological variables in the relationship. The participants consist of "high-risk" young adults aged 18-25 from communities across Northern Ireland, recruited via our local collaborators; NEW LIFE Counselling, Youth Action and St Peters Immaculata Youth Centre. Participants in the control sample will be matched on demograhics such as age, gender, religion and super output area (SOA) in order to portray the diversity of childhood adversity in Northern Ireland. This framework has the capacity to ensure a broad age range, an up-to-date contemporary outlook, representation across geographical locations, and various configurations of adjustment are captured. Thus, our study has the potential to provide methodological and conceptual advances within this important developmental period.

Further, evidence from neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics, and epigenetics indicate that early childhood experiences ‘get under the skin’ and thereby their influence can extend over a lifetime. Our research will also examine biological measures including, cortisol (as a measure of stress reactivity), telomere length (as an indicator of cellular aging) and DNA (to assess specific hypotheses concerning epigenetic changes.


Teresa Rushe

My research falls within the area developmental psychopathlogy with particualar expertise in developmental neuropsychology. I have published widely in the area of psychosis, with a particular focus on understanding the neurodevelopmental origins. I am currently working on several projects exploring the impact of childhood adversity on adult outcomes.

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Kostas Papageorgiou

My work is interdisciplinary and focuses on personality, psychopathology and achievement across contexts. I am particularly interested in the dark side of human personality including Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy and Sadism. Narcissism is of particular interest to my work with research conducted in our lab to suggest that certain aspects of narcissism may act as a bridge between the prosocial and toxic side of human personality.

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Katrina McLaughlin

I'm a mixed methods researcher with significant experience in intervention research aimed at improving outcomes for children and families. I'm currently PI on a number of projects including investigating the impact for children of parental incarceration, and an evaluation of the Fathers and Families Programme which is a parenting programme aimed solely at fathers.

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Tara O'Neill

My research expertise covers areas of psychological trauma, adversity, mental health, drugs and alcohol use. I have extensive experience of statistical methodology and its application. My PhD research focused on early environmental influences in psychosis specifically the psychological sequelae of female sexual victimisation. My current focus is on the links between traumatic experiences and psychopathology, transgenerational trauma and symptomology and substance misuse as coping mechanisms.

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Current PhD Students

Joan Aiken is a PhD student supervised by Dr. Teresa Rushe (Primary Supervisor) and Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou. Her PhD research will utilise a bio-developmental framework to further elucidate antecedents and causal pathways that lead to disparities in lifelong physical and mental health. Whilst the evidence for childhood trauma conferring a higher risk of adulthood ill health is robust, the biological mechanisms mediating this association remain largely unknown and this will be the primary focus of her research. Joan will also explore the interplay between early adverse circumstances and developing biological systems offering an opportunity to devise interventions that circumvent the negative impact of adversity.

Perla Fletes-Houston is a PhD student supervised by Dr. Teresa Rushe. Her PhD research focuses on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, household dysfunction and violence and how they can lead to negative outcomes in emerging adulthood (18-25 y/o) across socioemotional and neurobehavioural domains. Her research further investigates mediating and moderating factors, such as parenting, attachment and individual characteristics, in the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and negative outcomes in emerging adulthood. 

Current MSc Projects

Along with current students on the MSc Psychology of Childhood Adversity, we are developing a study researching the intrinsic and contextual factors during development, which help protect young people who have grown up with adversity from negative outcomes. By researching young people who have demonstrated resilience, our aim is to identify protective psychological and contextual factors during development, which can be applied to the development of intervention strategies to aimed at reducing the impact of early adversity. Dr Katrina McLaughlin is a mixed methods researcher with significant experience in intervention research aimed at improving outcomes for children and families. She is currently PI on a number of projects including investigating the impact for children of parental incarceration, and an evaluation of the Fathers and Families Programme which is a parenting programme aimed solely at fathers. As we know, and despite evidence illustrating the postive impact father involvement has on mothers and children, fathers remain invisible in the design, delivery and evaluation of parenting programmes. Dr McLaughlin has also worked on a wide range of evaluations of interventions aimed at improving the psychological, social, cognitive and educational outcomes for young people.

The intergenerational transmission of adversity is well established and Dr. Kostas A. Papageorgiou Director of the InteRRaCt Lab  is running several projects including the Parents and Children Together (PaCT) project that explores the degree to which parents’ traits (e.g. personality traits) and adverse childhood experiences influence their children’s temperament, behaviour, symptoms of psychopathology, school performance and telomere length, a biomarker of adversity and longevity. Data are currently being collected from a large number of families and schools across Northern Ireland. The project will be expanded to include longitudinal data collection and it has implications for understanding how parental and child factors interact within a dynamic developmental framework to produce individual differences in children’s traits, behaviour and school performance.