Emotional abuse may not be sufficiently considered by child protective services (CPS) when co-occurring with other forms of child maltreatment. Maltreated children are at a higher risk of developing maladaptive relationships, such as dating violence in adolescence. This study explored whether childhood emotional abuse, when examined alongside other forms of maltreatment, uniquely contributed to adolescent dating violence and might be mediated by trauma symptoms (e.g., PTSD).
A random list of over 1500 youth were identified for participation by 3 urban CPS agencies; however, only 640 were eligible for the study and several hundred chose not to participate. The sample of 402 CPS-involved youth aged 14 to 17 self-reported on measures of lifetime maltreatment, PTSD symptomology, and previous year dating experiences.
Results indicate CPS-involved youth are at high risk for dating violence; over half of dating females and almost half of dating males reported some level of violence perpetration and victimization. Emotional abuse was found to uniquely and significantly predict both trauma symptoms and dating violence, after statistically controlling for ethnicity, SES, length of time in care, and other maltreatment. In the final model trauma symptoms were found to mediate the effect of emotional abuse on dating violence (i.e., emotional abuse no longer predicted dating violence when trauma was added to the model). There was a gendered pattern of results whereby this model predicted male dating violence perpetration and female dating violence victimization.
Emotional maltreatment and dating violence should be evaluated and addressed in CPS interventions for youth. Attending to emotional abuse experiences, especially PTSD symptomology may be preventative. Youth need to be supported in discussing dating violence and healthy conflict resolution. Youth who were wards were overrepresented in this study and the results may not generalize to youth with shorter or no out-of-home placements.