Child maltreatment severity and adult trauma symptoms: Does perceived social support play a buffering role?

Sarah E. Evans, Anne L. Steel, David DiLillo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Objectives: The current study investigates the moderating effect of perceived social support on associations between child maltreatment severity and adult trauma symptoms. We extend the existing literature by examining the roles of severity of multiple maltreatment types (i.e., sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect) and gender in this process. Methods: The sample included 372 newlywed individuals recruited from marriage license records. Participants completed a number of self-report questionnaires measuring the nature and severity of child maltreatment history, perceived social support from friends and family, and trauma-related symptoms. These questionnaires were part of a larger study, investigating marital and intrapersonal functioning. We conducted separate, two-step hierarchical multiple regression models for perceived social support from family and perceived social support from friends. In each of these models, total trauma symptomatology was predicted from each child maltreatment severity variable, perceived social support, and the product of the two variables. In order to examine the role of gender, we conducted separate analyses for women and men. Results: As hypothesized, increased severity of several maltreatment types (sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect) predicted greater trauma symptoms for both women and men, and increased physical abuse severity predicted greater trauma symptoms for women. Perceived social support from both family and friends predicted lower trauma symptoms across all levels of maltreatment for men. For women, greater perceived social support from friends, but not from family, predicted decreased trauma symptoms. Finally, among women, perceived social support from family interacted with child maltreatment such that, as the severity of maltreatment (physical and emotional abuse, emotional neglect) increased, the buffering effect of perceived social support from family on trauma symptoms diminished. Conclusions: The results of the current study shed new light on the potential for social support to shield individuals against long-term trauma symptoms, and suggest the importance of strengthening perceptions of available social support when working with adult survivors of child maltreatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)934-943
Number of pages10
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Child abuse
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Long-term effects
  • Psychological functioning
  • Social support

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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