Coping with child sexual abuse among college students and post-traumatic stress disorder: the role of continuity of abuse and relationship with the perpetrator

David Cantón-Cortés, José Cantón
Child Abuse & Neglect 2010, 34 (7): 496-506

OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the use of coping strategies and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) scores in young adults, as well as the role of avoidance and approach coping strategies in those PTSD scores in CSA victims. The role of coping strategies was studied by considering their possible interactive effect with the continuity of abuse and the relationship with the perpetrator; the effect of coping strategies on PTSD was also compared between CSA victim and non-CSA victim participants.

METHOD: The sample was comprised of 138 victims of CSA and another 138 participants selected as a comparison group. Data about child sexual abuse were obtained from a questionnaire developed for this purpose. Coping strategies were assessed with the How I Deal with Things Scale (Burt & Katz, 1987), while PTSD scores were assessed with the "Escala de Gravedad de Síntomas del Trastorno de Estrés Postraumático" (Severity of Symptoms of PTSD Scale; Echeburúa et al., 1997).

RESULTS: Participants who had been victims of CSA showed significantly higher PTSD scores and lower approach coping strategies scores. However, differences in avoidance coping strategies between groups were not consistent and did not always follow the expected direction. Only the use of avoidance coping strategies was related to PTSD, participants who used these showing higher scores. The effects of avoidance strategies were stronger in continued than in isolated abuse, in intrafamilial than in extrafamilial abuse and in CSA victims than in non-victims.

CONCLUSIONS: These results confirm the idea of CSA as a high-risk experience that can affect the victim's coping strategies and lead to PTSD to a lesser or greater extent depending on the coping strategy used. Moreover, the role of these strategies varies depending on whether or not the participant is a victim of CSA and on the characteristics of abuse (continuity and relationship with the perpetrator).

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: In terms of intervention, a reduction of avoidance-type strategies appears to have a beneficial effect, especially in the case of intrafamilial and/or continued CSA victims. The encouragement of "spontaneous" approach strategies (devised by the victim herself, without counseling) would probably not lead to more positive outcomes in terms of PTSD symptomatology. However, encouraging CSA survivors to engage in therapy aimed at developing effective approach strategies, as other studies have suggested, may help reduce PTSD symptoms.

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