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Associations between trauma exposure and irritability within the family unit: a network approach.

BACKGROUND: Pediatric irritability is a pervasive psychiatric symptom, yet its etiology remains elusive. While trauma exposure may contribute to the development of irritability, empirical research is limited. This study examined the prevalence of irritability among trauma-exposed children, identified factors that differentiate trauma-exposed children with and without irritability, and employed a network analysis to uncover associations between irritability and trauma exposure in the family unit.

METHODS: Sample included 676 children (56.3% male, mean age = 9.67 ± 3.7 years) and their parents referred by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families to Fathers for Change - a psychotherapy intervention designed to reduce intimate partner violence (IPV) and child maltreatment. Child's trauma exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and irritability were assessed pre-intervention using self- and caregiver-report. Parents self-reported their childhood and adulthood trauma exposures, PTSD symptoms, irritability, psychopathology, and IPV.

RESULTS: Across caregiver- and child-reports, 16%-17% of children exhibited irritability. Irritable children experienced greater trauma exposure, interpersonal violence, emotional abuse, and PTSD severity. They had caregivers, particularly mothers, with greater trauma histories, IPV, and psychopathology. Network analysis revealed 10 nodes directly correlated to child's irritability including child's PTSD severity, parental IPV (specifically psychological violence), and parental psychopathology.

CONCLUSIONS: Results provide initial empirical evidence that pediatric irritability is linked to trauma exposure, suggesting trauma histories be considered in the diagnosis and treatment of irritability. Interventions addressing caregiver trauma, IPV, and psychopathology may ameliorate pediatric irritability. Future studies could benefit from adopting network approaches with longitudinal or time series data to elucidate causality and points of intervention.

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