The relation of emotional maltreatment to early adolescent competence: developmental processes in a prospective study

Anne Shaffer, Tuppett M Yates, Byron R Egeland
Child Abuse & Neglect 2009, 33 (1): 36-44

OBJECTIVES: This investigation examined developmental pathways between childhood emotional maltreatment and adaptational outcomes in early adolescence. This study utilized a developmental psychopathology perspective in adopting a multidimensional approach to the assessment of different forms of emotional maltreatment and later adjustment outcomes. Specifically, emotional abuse (i.e., verbal criticism, hostility) and emotional neglect (i.e., psychological unavailability) were compared using a process-level analytic approach to examine if and how different forms of emotional maltreatment would contribute to adolescent adjustment via aggression and social withdrawal in middle childhood.

METHODS: The current study sample is drawn from a longitudinal, prospective study of a high-risk community sample (N=196), incorporating a multi-method and multi-informant design. Multiple mediator models were tested via bootstrapping regression techniques.

RESULTS: Bivariate correlations revealed that both emotional neglect and emotional abuse were associated with increased aggression and social withdrawal in middle childhood, and lower ratings of socioemotional competence in early adolescence. However, the mediational model, which controlled for child gender and concurrent physical and sexual maltreatment, was only significant for the contribution of emotional abuse to lower adolescent competence via social withdrawal in middle childhood. Post hoc analyses revealed that this association was only significant for boys.

CONCLUSIONS: While social withdrawal in middle childhood significantly explained the observed relation between emotional abuse and decreased competence in adolescence, this process did not emerge as salient in understanding the relation between emotional neglect and adolescent adaptation. Furthermore, these developmental processes appeared to vary by gender. The results are in need of replication and extension to other outcome domains, but represent an important contribution to the empirical study of specific forms of emotional maltreatment.

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: Emotional maltreatment is generally overlooked and unrecognized as compared to physical or sexual forms of maltreatment. This study adds to the accumulating empirical evidence that the effects of emotional maltreatment are disabling, enduring, and should be carefully assessed by clinicians. Furthermore, this assessment should specify the particular form of emotional maltreatment that has occurred, as the results of the study indicate that developmental processes and adjustment outcomes may vary according the type of emotional maltreatment (i.e., emotional abuse, emotional neglect) that is experienced. Finally, clinicians must recognize that a single maltreatment type may vary in its impact on subsequent adjustment, as significant gender differences emerged in the current study that point to the role of individual differences that warrant further investigation.


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