Abstract: Emotions Attributed to Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Study of Measurement Development (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

Emotions Attributed to Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Study of Measurement Development

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Dillard, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background & Purpose: Though prior research has demonstrated that survivors of childhood sexual abuse may experience a range of negative emotions following the abuse, studies have failed to consider the potential existence of positive emotional reactions. The objective of the current study was to determine the psychometric properties of two new scales – The Negative Emotional Attributions to Childhood Sexual Abuse (NEA-CSA) and Positive Emotional Attributions to Childhood Sexual Abuse (PEA-CSA) – developed by the researcher to capture the range of emotional attributions that youth assign to their experiences of childhood sexual abuse. This study addressed one research question: To what extent do the NEA-CSA and PEA-CSA scales exhibit validity and reliability as measures of the emotional attributions youth make to their experiences of childhood sexual abuse?

Methods: The two measures were developed following principles of scale development, and guided by general strain and social learning theories. After completion of the development process, a sample of incarcerated youth (N = 136) were recruited and surveyed from community corrections and residential treatment centers in a Midwestern state to pilot the measures. Item Response Theory was used to test the performance of the measures and their individual items with the subsample of youth who reported a history of childhood sexual abuse (n = 40). Utilizing the information gained from item response theory, the measures were refined and re-tested using the principles of rating scale utility analysis.

Results: The NEA-CSA and PEA-CSA measures demonstrated high internal consistency reliability (α = .935 and α = .945, respectively) and construct validity, appropriately capturing the range of positive and negative emotions youth may experience following childhood sexual abuse. The final refined measures were the 25 item NEA-CSA and the 18 item PEA-CSA, both with 3-point Likert scale response options ranging from Disagree to Agree. This study provides the first empirical evidence that youth who have experienced childhood sexual abuse attribute both negative and positive emotions to the abuse and the perpetrator. High levels of emotional conflict were also observed, whereby youth were grappling with simultaneous positive and negative attributions, exhibited by the moderate strength, positive correlation between the total scores on each measure (r (37) = .557, p < .001). A pre-existing relationship with the perpetrator could explain why youth were likely to have high levels of negative and positive emotions attributed to their experiences of childhood sexual abuse, as the most common perpetrator is a parent or caregiver of the child.

Conclusion & Implications: Future research will explore refinement of the NEA-CSA and PEA-CSA measures by eliminating irrelevant items, rewording items for clarity, and assessing item discrimination. The measures will then be validated with a larger sample of children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. From a practice standpoint, it becomes a clinical imperative to assess for emotional attributions early in the treatment process to reduce stigma associated with positive emotions and to address cognitive dissonance associated with conflicting emotional attributions.