Theses Doctoral

The Economics and Child Development Science of Intergenerational Trauma

Escueta, Maya

This dissertation utilizes insights from economics and child development science to examine how trauma transmits across generations from mother to child. The first chapter consists of a literature review in which I survey the existing literature across multiple disciplines on maternal trauma and the early childhood home environment. Specifically, I investigate psychosocial pathways through which maternal trauma may affect maternal capacities and investment decisions, particularly through a mother’s behavioral responses to trauma, and its consequential effects on the early childhood home environment for children. I identify methodological challenges to estimating the effects of maternal trauma on the early childhood home environment, and discuss policy implications and possible avenues for future research.

In my second chapter, I take an intergenerational perspective and review research across disciplines to demonstrate that childhood trauma should be conceptualized as an intergenerational phenomenon that plays a role in the dynamics of inequality. In doing so, I develop a conceptual framework for studying how a mother’s childhood trauma affects her future capacities as a mother and the early developmental outcomes of the next generation. To understand how traumatic environments affect early childhood development, scholars previously have concentrated on two processes: (1) how early adversity and potentially traumatic experiences affect the immediate cognitive and socio-emotional development of children, and (2) the extent to which caregivers, and mothers in particular, can buffer against the potentially detrimental effects of these early experiences. These frameworks acknowledge the importance of environmental influences on both processes, parenting practices and early childhood development. However, they largely ignore the intergenerational dynamics of traumatic experiences, and the consequences of the mother’s own previous traumas on the early childhood home environment she shapes for her children. I focus on the mother as the primary caregiver in the early years of a child’s development, and examine behavioral mechanisms, and specifically parenting, as a potential pathway for the intergenerational transmission of a mother’s childhood trauma. I conclude by discussing future avenues for research and implications for public policy.

Finally, in my third chapter, I present empirical evidence on the intergenerational effects of childhood trauma using the specific case of a mother’s childhood exposure to armed conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa. A mother’s nurturing care is a critical input to early development, particularly for children at elevated risk of early adversity. Little is known, however, about how a mother’s own childhood adversity affects her ability to provide such nurturing care. In this chapter, I use geo-located data on armed conflicts in three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa combined with geo- located household level data on parenting practices and early childhood development to estimate the intergenerational effects of a mother’s childhood exposure to armed conflict on her parent- ing practices and the early developmental outcomes of her children. Difference-in-differences estimates use identifying variation in geographic differences in exposure to conflict across sub- national regions and temporal variation across maternal birth cohorts. I find that mothers exposed to conflict in their early childhood are more likely to use abusive disciplinary practices. They are also less likely to stimulate their children through educational activities, material investments, or sending their children to early childhood education centers. These mothers are also more likely to experience intimate partner violence, and engage in early marriage and early sex, which may be mechanisms by which a mother’s childhood exposure to conflict affects her future maternal capacities and investments, and the early developmental outcomes of her children.

Together, these essays advance our conceptual understanding of the potential long run and intergenerational effects of childhood trauma, and provide causal evidence on aspects of its inter- generational consequences in a specific context in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Economics and Education
Thesis Advisors
Eble, Alexander James
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 15, 2021