Child Abuse and Trauma Related Psychopathology

Principal Investigators

  • Fred Rogosch, Ph.D.
  • Dante Cicchetti, Ph.D.


National Institute of Mental Health

Child abuse, a form of violence inflicted on children, is a complex, insidious problem that, although occurring more frequently in families residing in poverty, cuts across all sectors of society. The human costs of child abuse are a litany of biological and psychological tragedies that may last a lifetime. The economic costs for American society are astronomical, with billions of dollars spent in psychiatric, social services, educational, and justice system costs, as well as lessened productivity for a generation of abused children. Discovering the processes underlying the development of psychopathology and resilience among these traumatized children offers great promise for translating these findings to inform prevention, intervention, and social policy initiatives. Child abuse is a pathogenic relational experience that represents one of the most adverse and stressful challenges confronting children. Before effective treatments can be developed, a clear understanding of the mechanisms and processes that initiate and maintain the developmental pathways to maladaptation and mental disorder in abused children is needed. The discovery of processes that contribute to abused children averting mental disorder can be very informative in guiding translational research and treatment development.

Because research on the causes and consequences of child abuse has largely focused on a single level of analysis, the present investigation addresses this significant gap in the literature through implementing a multiple levels of analysis perspective. In the context of a research day camp, two cohorts of 8- to 10-year-old abused and nonmaltreated children (N = 500) are assessed in two consecutive summers over four years. The interrelations among genetic, neuroendocrine, neurophysiological, neurocognitive, self-system, interpersonal, and emotion regulation domains will be examined in order to elucidate an integrative understanding of trauma-related psychopathology in abused children. The measurement battery is diverse and is comprised of interviews, observations, experimental paradigms, child and adult reports, and molecular genetic, neurophysiological, neuroendocrine and neurocognitive assessments of biological and behavioral functioning. This multi-level, multi-measure, multi-informant approach will enables researchers to comprehend the complexity of the full range of adaptation and maladaptation in abused children. The research, through attention to expected individual differences among abused children, emphasizes varied patterns of adaptation to traumatic experiences and associated biological and psychological processes contributing to these differentiated patterns. The findings will augment the knowledge base regarding the sequelae of child abuse and the etiology of trauma-based psychopathology, and the knowledge gained will inform prevention and intervention initiatives to divert abused children from the development of trauma-related psychopathology and contribute toward reducing the burden of mental illness in traumatized children.

Select Publications

Cicchetti, D. & Handley, E. D. (2017). Methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene (NR3C1) in maltreated and nonmaltreated children: Associations with behavioral undercontrol, emotional lability/negativity, and externalizing and internalizing symptoms. Development and Psychopathology, 29, 1795-1806.

Cicchetti, D., Hetzel, S., Rogosch, F. A., Handley, E. D., & Toth, S. L. (2016). An investigation of child maltreatment and epigenetic mechanisms of mental and physical health risk. Development and psychopathology, 28(4pt2), 1305.

Rosen, A. L., Handley, E. D., Cicchetti, D., & Rogosch, F. A. (2018). The impact of patterns of trauma exposure among low income children with and without histories of child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 80, 301-311.

Warmingham, J. M., Handley, E. D., Rogosch, F. A., Manly, J. T., & Cicchetti, D. (2018). Identifying maltreatment subgroups with patterns of maltreatment subtype and chronicity: A latent class analysis approach. Child Abuse & Neglect, 87, 28-39.