The contribution of childhood emotional abuse to teen dating violence among child protective services-involved youth

Child Abuse Negl. 2009 Jan;33(1):45-58. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.12.006. Epub 2009 Jan 22.


Objective: For child protective services (CPS) youth who may have experienced more than one form of maltreatment, the unique contribution of emotional abuse may be over-looked when other forms are more salient and more clearly outside of accepted social norms for parenting. This study considers the unique predictive value of childhood emotional abuse for understanding adolescent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology and dating violence. Further, PTSD symptomatology is assessed as an explanatory bridge in the emotional abuse-teen dating violence link.

Methods: A random sample of 402 youth from the active caseload of a large urban CPS catchment area participated as part of a larger longitudinal study on adolescent health behaviors. Mid-adolescent youth across types of CPS status were targeted. CPS youth reported on lifetime maltreatment experiences, PTSD symptomatology, and past year dating experiences, using published scales.

Results: Over 85% of CPS youth had begun dating. For dating youth, some level of dating violence was common: over half of females (63-67%) and nearly half of males (44-49%). Taking into account other forms of maltreatment, emotional abuse emerged as a significant predictor of both PTSD symptomatology and dating violence among males and females. PTSD symptomatology was a significant mediator of the male emotional abuse-perpetration and the female emotional/physical abuse-victimization links, indicating a gendered patterning to findings.

Conclusions: These results indicate that: (1) CPS youth are a high priority group for dating violence and PTSD-linked intervention; and (2) CPS youth continue to experience the unique negative impact of childhood emotional abuse in their adolescent adjustment. All CPS children should be evaluated for emotional abuse incurred, and appropriate intervention attention be given as to how it specifically impacts on the child's approach to relating to themselves and to others.

Practice implications: The present study directs practice implications in regards to: (1) the problem of teen dating violence, (2) the salience of childhood emotional abuse; and (3) the importance of targeting PTSD symptomatolgy among CPS youth. A substantial number of CPS youth report early engagement in violent romantic relationships and require support towards attaining the non-coercive relationship experiences of their non-CPS-involved age mates. The topic of dating, healthy dating relationships, and dating violence may need to be part of the regular casework, with a view towards supporting youths' conceptualization of and skill set for healthy, close relationships. Further, this knowledge needs to be translated to foster parents and group home staff. With regard to the impact of childhood emotional abuse, CPS workers need to be sensitive to its potential for long-term, unique impact impairing relationship development. Emotional abuse is (a) unique among genders (i.e., for females, it clusters with physical abuse) and (b) uniquely predictive of PTSD symptoms and dating violence. Finally, as is consistent with theory and biopsychosocial evidence, PTSD symptomatology is a key causal candidate for understanding maltreatment-related impairment. Attention to targeting PTSD symptoms may be preventative for dating violence; attention to targeting emotional abuse experiences may be preventative for PTSD symptoms. CPS youth are an important population to involve in research, as their inclusion adds to the evidence-base to achieve evidence-informed practice and policy within child welfare.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child Welfare*
  • Courtship*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Violence*