Does age of onset of risk behaviors mediate the relationship between child abuse and neglect and outcomes in middle adulthood?

Jacqueline M Horan, Cathy Spatz Widom
Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2015, 44 (3): 670-82
Child maltreatment has been linked with a number of risk behaviors that are associated with long-lasting maladaptive outcomes across multiple domains of functioning. This study examines whether the ages of onset of four risk behaviors-sexual intercourse, alcohol use, drug use, and criminal behavior-mediate the relationship between child maltreatment and outcomes in middle adulthood among a sample of court-documented victims of child abuse/neglect and matched controls (N = 1,196; 51.7% female; 66.2% White, 32.6% Black). Adult outcomes included employment status, welfare receipt, internalizing symptoms of anxiety and depressive symptoms, substance use problems, and criminal arrests. The results indicated gender differences in these relationships. For females, age of onset of sexual intercourse mediated the relationship between child abuse/neglect and both internalizing symptoms and substance use problems in middle adulthood. For males, age at first criminal arrest mediated the relationship between child abuse/neglect and extensive involvement in the justice system in middle adulthood. Age of onset of alcohol use and drug use did not mediate the relationship between child abuse/neglect and middle adult outcomes. This study expands current knowledge by identifying associations between early initiation of risk behavior in one domain and later, continuing problems in different domains. Thus, early initiation of specific risk behaviors may have more wide-ranging negative consequences than are typically considered during intervention or treatment and strategies may need to target multiple domains of functioning.

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