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Severity, not frequency, of abuse may predict children’s mental health

Mon, 05/19/2014

LAWRENCE — How severely children are abused, rather than how frequently, appears to predict which children will suffer serious mental health outcomes, according to the first study from one of the most in-depth analyses of the mental health of foster children ever undertaken.

“If your goal is to understand what about a child’s life really speaks to his mental health or illness, so far the data is telling us that it would be how bad or injurious the abuse was — and it would only have to happen once,” said Yo Jackson, University of Kansas associate professor of clinical child psychology, who directs the SPARK (Studying Pathways to Adjustment and Resilience in Kids) Project.

In the study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, the KU team examined the role of frequency, severity and type of abuse in predicting the behavioral outcomes of 309 children between the ages of 8 and 22 in the legal custody of the Division of Family Services in Jackson County, Missouri.

The assessment of maltreatment was based solely on self-reports from the children to determine the frequency and severity of four types of abuse: physical, sexual, psychological and neglect.

“All that really moved the needle on outcomes was severity. It is how hard you were hit, how invasive your molestation was, how injurious your neglect was,” Jackson said.

The children who experienced severe abuse were more likely to have problems with aggression and acting-out and to demonstrate less adaptive behavior.

While Jackson strongly cautioned that the study is not saying that children who experience frequent, but milder kinds of maltreatment should not be in foster care, it does suggest that kids who have been abused and in foster care are not all the same.

“There’s really a range of kids and that range is important for us to understand and think about how we are going to intervene," she said.  “You can’t treat something if you can’t name it and if you mislabel it.”

Do the study results generalize to the rest of us? Jackson says that they do.

“They generalize in the sense that these kids are in the general population. Your kids go to school and play soccer with them, and their numbers are growing.”  

The results could also have some implications for other kinds of trauma that all kids experience. “We hope the model of the relation between trauma experiences like child maltreatment and mental health could inform other models of how traumatic events in the general population operate to predict outcomes.”

Jackson said that future analyses will determine how childhood experiences of maltreatment and other stressors affect both adjustment and maladjustment in youth.

The ongoing five-year project is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Jackson’s co-authors are Joy Gabrielli, KU doctoral student in clinical child psychology, Kandace Fleming, KU assistant scientist., P. Kalani Makanui, KU postdoctoral researcher, and  Angela M. Tunno, KU doctoral student in clinical child psychology.



Travel to New York and perform on one of the greatest stages in the nation? KU's Wind Ensemble did just that. In March 2013, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble made the trip of a lifetime to perform the world premiere of composer Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No. 4, In the Shadow of No Towers at Carnegie Hall. http://bit.ly/1nXMXr9 Tags: University of Kansas Wind Ensemble KU School of Music Carnegie Hall #KUdifference #music #symphony
Journey to Carnegie Hall
One of America’s most esteemed concert bands, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, came to Carnegie Hall to introduce a commissioned work with the potential to resonate well beyond the usual college circuit... - New York Times review

Boy with autism benefits from KU student’s undergraduate research Two-year-old Mark’s first haircut in a salon was pretty traumatic. He screamed. He cried. His dad had to restrain him – Mark has autism and a haircut wasn’t part of his routine. But there’s a happy ending. The experience led KU senior Kristin Miller to seek an Undergraduate Research Award (see http://bit.ly/1xod9VT) to develop ways for children with developmental disabilities like Mark to learn how to accept routine health care treatment, such as going to the dentist — or even getting a buzz cut. Watch the video to see why it has been especially rewarding for Miller to help children like Mark.


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