New research sheds light on the relationship between childhood maltreatment and relationship problems later in life. The findings, published in Development and Psychopathology, indicate there are two pathways by which maltreatment leads to interpersonal challenges.
“We know that individuals who experienced childhood maltreatment may struggle with maintaining healthy relationships throughout their life. We understand less about why that might be,” said study author Elizabeth Handley, an associate director of research and research assistant professor at the Mt. Hope Family Center, University of Rochester.
“The purpose of this paper was to begin to understand why young adults who experienced maltreatment as children (physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, etc) are at risk for problematic friendships and romantic relationships.”
In the study, 393 young adults were privately interviewed by research assistants and completed a range of psychological assessments. The participants had previously been involved in a research summer camp program about 10 years earlier, where they had also completed a variety of assessments.
The researchers found that participants who had experienced more maltreatment in childhood tended to display more antisocial behavior and relational aggression as children, which in turn predicted negative interactions with friends and romantic partners in emerging adulthood. These negative interactions included things like getting upset with or mad at a friend/partner, saying mean or harsh things to a friend/partner, and hassling or nagging a friend/partner.
“Individuals who were maltreated as children are more likely to have difficulty in relationships (both romantic and friend) as young adults. Maltreatment in childhood sets off a negative cascade of developmental events leading to these problems,” Handley told PsyPost.
“Maltreated children are more likely to show antisocial behaviors (aggression, stealing, damaging property) in childhood which in turn leads to negative romantic relationships in young adulthood. Also, maltreated children are more likely to engage in relational aggression (spreading rumors, manipulation, silent treatment) in childhood which sets the stage for conflictual friendships in young adulthood.”
“This suggests that problematic relationships do not just randomly occur in young adulthood, rather, they follow pathways that can be traced back to childhood. And there is not one universal pathway for all. When we are able to identify and define early aspects of the pathways to problematic adult relationships, we can interrupt the negative trajectories with focused interventions,” Handley said.
But there is still much to learn about why maltreated children experience interpersonal challenges later in development.
“Early experiences with parents shape children’s beliefs about the social world. Because of their experiences of abuse and/or neglect, maltreated children may come to believe that relationships are untrustworthy and aggressive and they may come to believe that they are unlovable. These beliefs may then shape how they behave in childhood and how they interact with friends and romantic partners in adulthood,” Handley said.
“We did not directly test these beliefs but future research would benefit from measuring these implicit social cognitions and testing their role in the development of problematic relationships.”
Of course, not everyone who experiences maltreatment in childhood is doomed to experience more interpersonal challenge throughout their life.
“Although individuals with a history of maltreatment are at risk for problematic relationships later in development, not everyone who was maltreated suffers from these problems. Future research to identify which individuals are at greatest risk, and which are resilient, will be helpful for tailoring interventions to those most in need,” Handley added.
The study, “Developmental cascades from child maltreatment to negative friend and romantic interactions in emerging adulthood“, was authored by Elizabeth D. Handley, Justin Russotti, Fred A. Rogosch and Dante Cicchetti.