Methods: Data were drawn from LONGSCAN, a longitudinal study of the consequences of child abuse conducted between 1992 and 2012 from five sites across the US among a sample of high-risk youth. This study draws on interviews at ages 12 and 18 (N=792, 51% female, 56% African American). At age 12, two types of childhood adversity (physical abuse and physical neglect before elementary school) and two types of past year witnessed violence were assessed (family and community violence). Past year school functioning, internalizing symptoms and externalizing symptoms were assessed at ages 12 and 18. Separate regression analyses first determined the connection between early childhood adversity, witnessed violence forms and youth outcomes. Interaction terms between each form of childhood adversity and each form of recently witnessed violence examined whether the impact of recent witnessed violence on outcomes was more pronounced for those with a history of child adversity than those without.
Results: There was only partial support for the role of the stress sensitization model. In line with the model, the impact of recently witnessed family violence on school functioning was more pronounced among youth who had experienced early childhood neglect than those who had no history of neglect (ß=-.18, p≤.001). Unexpectedly, the impact of recently witnessed family violence on externalizing symptoms was less for youth with a history of early childhood psychological abuse compared to youth without any early abuse (ß=-.11, p≤.05). Early experiences of abuse and neglect did not moderate the impact of recently witnessed violence on internalizing symptoms.
Conclusion and Implications: Our findings suggest that distinguishing between the type of childhood adversity along the dimensions of deprivation (e.g., neglect) and threat (e.g., physical and psychological abuse) might meaningfully differentiate some negative outcomes (educational and behavioral) associated with witnessed violence during adolescence. Youth with childhood adversity profiles that included abuse may have developed coping strategies that enabled them to meet later stressful circumstances with more resilience than their peers. Educational administrators might consider developing targeted supports for students with particular childhood adversity profiles.