Child Maltreatment and Children’s Trust

Principal Investigators

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


National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Child maltreatment is a complex, insidious problem that exerts an astronomical toll on individuals, families, and society. Advancing knowledge regarding the early developmental processes that contribute to adverse outcomes in maltreated children is thus of high public health significance. The development of trust in young children is an expanding area of inquiry. In addition to further investigation of normative processes in trust competencies, limited research has been conducted to elucidate contributors to individual differences in trust development. Significantly, no research has investigated trust in maltreated children, despite the likelihood of trust capacities being jeopardized in these youngsters.

Accordingly, research on emerging trust in maltreated children would address a critical barrier to understanding important, unstudied impairments in early social development that have crucial implications for subsequent interpersonal and relationship functioning in maltreated individuals, and consequent mental health liabilities. In the present investigation, we are recruiting 300 36- to 42-month-old children from low income families; 150 children will have a history of child maltreatment and 150 will have no maltreatment history. The children and their mothers participate in four laboratory sessions to assess components of epistemic trust, self-reliance vs. deference in trust decision-making, and source memory. The three epistemic trust tasks vary in terms of the degree of cognitive vs. socio-affective sources of information. Mother-child attachment security, theory of mind/false belief understanding, and inhibitory control also are assessed.

Additionally, separate Event Related Potential assessments are conducted with stimuli yoked to that used in the three epistemic trust assessments. Accordingly, the measurements we obtain constitute a multilevel assessment of diverse domains that are implicated in contributing to individual differences in the development of children’s early trust capacities. Moreover, investigation of these domains holds great promise for identifying mechanisms that may contribute to difficulties that young maltreated children are likely to exhibit in the development of trust. Assessing the consequences of maltreatment occurring in the first three years of life on children’s ability to develop trust in others has important implications for their social, interpersonal, and affective development, as well as subsequent mental health. The research also will greatly expand the understanding of normative trust development.

This research will have important implications for public health. In addition to advancing knowledge regarding the multilevel developmental roots of early difficulties in trust development, the research will provide valuable direction for early prevention and intervention strategies.