This study used data from Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, which tracks comprehensive consequences of child abuse and neglect in the US. The sample includes 811 adolescents, extracted based on the presence of child maltreatment variables. Each type of child abuse was measured at age 12 using self-reports of life-time maltreatment experiences (15 items for physical, 11 items for sexual, and 18 items for emotional abuse). Child neglect (a latent variable) was also measured at age 12, using four subscales: physical neglect, inadequate supervision, lack of emotional support, and educational neglect. Deviant peer affiliation was assessed at age 14 using self-reported perceptions of peers’ substance use and delinquency. Adolescent substance use was treated as a latent variable using self-reports at age 16 of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use in the previous year. Child race, gender and externalizing behavior problems were used as control variables. Structural equation modeling with weighted least squares mean and variance adjusted estimator were conducted using Mplus version 7.11.
The proposed model had a good model fit: CFI=.98, TLI=.97, RMSEA=.03 (90% CI=.023-.043), and WRMR=.66. None of the four types of child maltreatment was directly associated with adolescent substance use. The results of the mediation tests indicated that deviant peer affiliation fully mediated the effects of emotional abuse on adolescent substance use (β = .028, p < .001, 95% CI [.014, .043]); individuals who had been emotionally abused showed increased deviant peer affiliation, which in turn was associated with higher levels of substance use in adolescence.
Conclusion and Implications:
The study’s findings suggest that peer relationships may play a particularly critical role for the adolescent development of risk-taking behavior (e.g., substance use) in youth with a history of emotional abuse. Emotionally abused children may develop especially strong attachment needs (compared to children who have endured other forms of maltreatment), which in turn may elevate their risk of deviant peer affiliations. This increased risk further heightens the potential for adolescent substance use. These results underscore the importance of early assessment and intervention for the peer relationships of youth who have been emotionally abused.