Objective and Subjective Experiences of Child Maltreatment and Their Relationships With Psychopathology

Nat Hum Behav. 2020 May 18. doi: 10.1038/s41562-020-0880-3. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Does psychopathology develop as a function of the objective or subjective experience of childhood maltreatment? To address this question, we studied a unique cohort of 1,196 children with both objective, court-documented evidence of maltreatment and subjective reports of their childhood maltreatment histories made once they reached adulthood, along with extensive psychiatric assessment. We found that, even for severe cases of childhood maltreatment identified through court records, risk of psychopathology linked to objective measures was minimal in the absence of subjective reports. In contrast, risk of psychopathology linked to subjective reports of childhood maltreatment was high, whether or not the reports were consistent with objective measures. These findings have important implications for how we study the mechanisms through which child maltreatment affects mental health and how we prevent or treat maltreatment-related psychopathology. Interventions for psychopathology associated with childhood maltreatment can benefit from deeper understanding of the subjective experience.