Abstract: Exposure to Childhood Trauma across Two Generations: Effects on Maternal and Child Health Outcomes (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Exposure to Childhood Trauma across Two Generations: Effects on Maternal and Child Health Outcomes

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Samantha Brown, PhD, Assistant Professor, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
Amy Smith, MS, Doctoral Candidate, Colorado State University, CO
Tiffany Koppels, BA, Lab Coordinator, Colorado State University, CO
Background and Purpose: Many women report experiencing trauma throughout their lifetime. Trauma may not only lead to deleterious physical, mental, and emotional outcomes for women, but, in some families, a mother’s trauma exposure may adversely impact their children. In fact, mothers with a history of trauma, such as maltreatment, are three times more likely to perpetrate abuse and/or neglect to their offspring. Transmission of trauma across generations may be due in part to changes in the parent-child relationship, which may in turn place children at greater risk of poor health and developmental outcomes. Despite findings that maternal experiences of trauma predict their children’s trauma exposure and associated outcomes, a deeper understanding of these intergenerational effects of trauma are needed, with a particular focus on vulnerable and sensitive periods of development such as in infancy. To address this gap, this study examined the health and developmental outcomes of trauma-exposed mothers and infants.

Methods: Data were collected from the first cohort (N=51) of a larger study examining the biopsychosocial mechanisms through which adversity affects family health and wellness. Interviews were conducted with mothers (Mage=29.24 years, SDage=6.81) and their infants (Mage=8.63 months, SDage=3.05) to assess their history of trauma (Health History Questionnaire, Life Events Checklist), mental health (Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7), and development (Survey of Well-Being of Young Children). Mothers received a high school diploma or less education (50.0%) and racially or ethnically identified as White (50.0%), followed by Latinx (21.2%), Black/African American (15.4%), other race/ethnicity (7.6%), or bi- or multi-race (5.8%). The majority of infants were White (36.6%), followed by bi- or multi-race (39.0%), Black/African American (14.6%), or Latinx (9.8%). Descriptive statistics were conducted to assess sample and demographic characteristics and regression and independent samples t-test analyses and were conducted to examine the relationship between trauma-exposure and maternal and infant outcomes.

Results: On average, mothers experienced approximately 6 (SD=3.46, range=0-13) traumatic experiences during childhood and infants experienced an average of 2 (SD=1.73, range=0-8) traumatic experiences. Infants of mothers with a history of trauma exposure were at increased risk of experiencing their own early traumas (b=.25, p<.001). Compared to infants with no trauma exposure, infants with at least one traumatic experience scored lower on achievement of developmental milestones (t=1.98, p<.05). Furthermore, mothers with more trauma exposure experienced greater severity of anxiety symptoms (b=.67, p<.01).

Conclusions and Implications: These preliminary findings build on the extant research on the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Specifically, mother-infant dyads both experienced trauma, which in turn negatively impacted their health and developmental outcomes. Notably, these results point to the significance of understanding maternal trauma history prior to birth given that young infants are at greater risk of their own trauma exposure. This work has important implications for social work practice; social workers are key agents of change and may play a critical role in breaking the cycle of intergenerational transmission of trauma. By providing additional support and early intervention to families, it may in turn help to prevent further trauma and provide families with needed resources to help them thrive.