Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Valentina Nikulina

Committee Members

Justin Storbeck

Claudia Brumbaugh

Yvette Caro

Kerstin Unger

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology | Psychology | Theory and Philosophy


Adverse Childhood Experience, Emerging Adulthood, Social Emotional Functioning


As many as two thirds of adults in the United States have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and 60% of these individuals have experienced multiple, or cumulative ACEs. ACEs are associated with a range of outcomes, including social, emotional, and cognitive changes, health risk behaviors, psychopathology, worse physical health, and early death. Although some ACEs effects have been well-researched, social and emotional changes have received minimal attention in the literature in general. Research on ACEs effects in emerging adults (ages 18 to 25), an already vulnerable population, is also limited. Furthermore, there is debate in the field as to which model of ACEs effects (i.e., individual, domain specificity, cumulative) best explains outcomes. This dissertation consists of three studies aimed at addressing gaps in the literature regarding social and emotional changes in emerging adult ACEs survivors. The first study explored stable emotional traits of risk-taking propensity and sensation seeking through direct comparison of individual and cumulative ACEs. The second study investigated the social construct of negotiation with one’s intimate partner and emotional constructs of self-esteem and loneliness, also through direct comparison of individual and cumulative ACEs. The third study evaluated the protective role of self-esteem against psychopathology symptom severity (i.e., post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression) through comparison of individual and cumulative ACEs, organized by domains of abuse, neglect, and environmental instability. Across all three studies, findings suggest that ACEs are associated with social and emotional changes in emerging adults and that these changes may be better explained by individual or domains of ACEs, versus cumulative ACEs. Findings also suggest that emotional factors can play a protective role against development of some psychopathology. These findings lend theoretical support to the ongoing dialogue surrounding which ACEs model best explains outcomes by indicating that the more commonly used cumulative model may not account for all outcomes in the same way and that a nuanced approach to understanding ACEs effects is warranted. Findings that self-esteem is protective against some psychopathology also bolsters Felitti’s theoretical rationale of ACEs sequelae (e.g., how do ACEs translate into psychopathology). Clinically, findings that specific domains of ACEs (i.e., environmental instability) are associated with specific social and emotional outcomes can help guide policies and standard of practice regarding ACEs screenings. Lastly, findings have implications for more targeted and specific therapeutic interventions for ACEs survivors.

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