Friend support and long-term psychological impacts of surviving child maltreatment

Date Published: 

Dion, J., Matte-Gagné, C., Daigneault, I., Blackburn, M-E., Hébert, M., McDuff, P., ...Perron, M. (2016). A prospective study of the impact of child maltreatment and friend support on psychological distress trajectory: From adolescence to emerging adulthood. Journal of Affective Disorders, 189, 336-343. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.08.074

Reviewed by: 
Denise Michelle Brend
Jaime Wegner-Lohin

This four wave longitudinal study investigated how friend support at age 14 and different forms of child maltreatment may impact the psychological distress trajectory of youth from age 14 to 24. A total of 1400 students from the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec were randomly selected from public and private high schools to participate in the study. Of those selected, a total sample of 1176 students completed the initial questionnaire and 605 of which received further consent to participate in the longitudinal study.  Response rates for each wave were 84% (2002), 67.4% (2004), 68.3% (2006), and 61.2% (2012).

The study’s hypotheses were: (1) psychological distress will show, on average, a curvilinear decreasing trajectory overtime, (2) girls will present more psychological distress than boys, (3) the presence of each form of child maltreatment and their accumulation will be associated with higher levels of psychological distress at baseline and throughout the study compared to no or fewer maltreatment experiences in childhood and (4) more friend support at age of 14 will be associated with less psychological distress throughout the study than less friend support. The study also evaluated whether the distress trajectory was different for maltreated versus non-maltreated youth and for participants with above average versus below average friend support.

Data was obtained from self-report questionnaires. Psychological distress was measured using a validated 14-item version of the Psychological Distress Index. At 14 years of age, perceptions of friend support were measured using four items developed by Bellerose, et al. (2002). Retrospective child maltreatment measures were obtained at 14 years and 20 years to identify whether or not the participants experienced physical abuse, exposure to intimate partner violence, and sexual abuse. Analysis was conducted using multilevel growth models.

Findings indicated that the decline in psychological distress was greater in later adolescence (18 to 24 years of age), compared to the period between 14 and 17 years of age (Hypothesis 1). Overall, girls were found to show higher levels of psychological distress than boys (Hypothesis 2).  Child maltreatment, as measured by this study, was found to be a serious risk factor that had a detrimental long-term impact on levels of psychological distress when compared with non-maltreated youth. Results also indicated that exposure to intimate partner violence might have a stronger impact on distress levels than sexual and physical abuse. Child sexual abuse had a more long-term negative effect on levels of distress than physical abuse. The experience of one or more forms of maltreatment increased the overall level of distress, but did not impact the rate at which their distress diminished over time (Hypothesis 3). Friend support at the age of 14 years was found to be related to lower levels of psychological distress for both maltreated and non-maltreated participants over the course of the study (Hypothesis 4).

Methodological notes: 

This study is the first to examine the relationship between friend support and child maltreatment over a 10-year period of psychological distress, however, there are also limitations that should be noted. The perception of friend support measure used in the study had poor internal reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.62), which may have underestimated the effect of friend support on psychological distress. It is also suggested that the higher rates of psychological distress found among girls may be a result of the fact that the measure used mostly focuses on internalized symptoms of distress, whereas boys are more likely to show more externalized symptoms. In addition, the use of retrospective, self-reported measures of maltreatment are prone to recall bias, where some individuals may overestimate their experiences while others may underestimate. Given that perceptions of friend support were only measured at 14 years of age, causal inferences cannot be made between increased levels of friend support and lower levels of psychological distress.