Methods: The sample consisted of 202 physical abuse victims (14-17 years old) receiving child protection services. They answered the Childhood Experiences of Violence Questionnaire, which contained questions about their maltreatment experiences and whether they felt shame and guilt about being physically abused. Anger was assessed using the Trauma Symptoms Checklist for Children and the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory-2; hostility was measured using the Brief Symptoms Inventory. One year after the administration of these measures, subjects answered questions about their past year aggression. Zero order correlations were used to test for main effects. Partial correlations were used to examine the effects of shame controlling for guilt, and to parse out the unique effects of physical and emotional abuse.
Results: As hypothesized, level of physical abuse and the co-occurrence of other forms of maltreatment resulted in more intense feelings of shame, which in turn was associated with higher levels of anger and hostility. However, the results did not support the shame-rage model. Shame appeared to provoke pent-up rather than expressed anger, and was even inversely associated with aggression after controlling for guilt. Revealing gender differences were found, suggesting that males and females possess distinctive vulnerabilities and coping strategies. Females felt shame as a result of all forms of maltreatment; males were specifically vulnerable to emotional abuse. Female victims of harsh physical abuse reported feeling considerable shame; male victims felt little.
The results do not support current formulations of shame-rage as an explanation for why some physically abused youth develop aggressive tendencies. However, it may be argued aggressive youth simply suppress their feelings of shame and that their emotions are expressed through their actions. In any case, acknowledged shame does not predict aggression; if anything it seems to repress it. The gender differences found in this study give rise to a number of important social work practice concerns. For example, should gender be taken into account in the assessment of harm and factor into the decision-making of child protection authorities (e.g., regarding treatment strategies and removal orders)?