Can Education and Coping Strategies Reduce the Effects of Childhood Maltreatment?

By Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD

Military deployment can place additional stress on a family, sometimes resulting in childhood maltreatment. Emotional, physical, and/or sexual maltreatment can have devastating effects on child development. What are some protective factors that can improve outcomes for individuals who experienced childhood maltreatment? In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, researchers examined protective factors that could reduce symptoms related to childhood maltreatment, and decrease the likelihood of adult personality disorders [1].

Parents eating with children at school
[Flickr, School Nic Miriam 03 crop by Liberal Democrats, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
This study was conducted as part of the “Zurich Programme for Sustainable Development of Mental Health Services” in Zurich, Switzerland. In this portion of the study, 680 residents of the canton of Zurich, ages 20 to 41 years, were given personality disorder (PD) questionnaires, a childhood maltreatment questionnaire, and coping questionnaires. The childhood maltreatment questionnaire included questions about emotional and physical abuse, emotional and physical neglect, and sexual abuse. Coping strategies included emotion-focused coping, problem-focused coping, and dysfunctional coping.

In examining the interactions among childhood maltreatment, level of education, coping strategies, and symptoms of personality disorders, the following results were found:

  • Individuals with low levels of education levels were less likely to use problem-focused coping resources.
  • Surprisingly, in maltreated individuals, as problem-focused coping increased, dependent personality trait disorder scores increased.
  • Consistent with other research, all forms of childhood maltreatment were related to dysfunctional coping skills.

Implications for Clinicians

For adults who have experienced childhood maltreatment, increasing adaptive coping skills (such as ) and reducing dysfunctional skills (such as avoidance, denial, self-distraction or self-blame) may reduce symptoms of personality disorders. Problem-based coping skills to consider when developing a treatment plan could be planning, instrumental support, or active coping. Emotion-based coping skills might include; acceptance, emotional support, humor, or positive reframing.

For more information on childhood maltreatment and the impact on brain development, review the MFLN webinar, Trauma in Young Children Under 4-Years of Age: Attachment, Neurobiology, and Interventions. Blogs related to childhood maltreatment include:Child Maltreatment Prevention; “Child Brain Development & Trauma”; “Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples Affected by Trauma; Therapeutic Book for Child Trauma”.

More on protective factors: “What Leads to Better Outcomes for Children Who Witness Family Violence?”


[1] Hengartner, M. P., Mueller, M., Rodgers, S., Roessler, W., & Ajdacic-Gross, V. (2013). Can protective factors moderate the detrimental effects of child maltreatment on personality functioning? Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47(9), 1180-1186. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.05.005

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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