Childhood Sex Abuse Impacts Adult Relationships

ITHACA, N.Y. -- College women who were sexually abused before age 18 tend to have less secure and trusting relationships with their partners and lower levels of interpersonal functioning and social adjustment than college women who were not abused, according to a new Cornell University study.

College women who were sexually abused as children also show more signs of post-traumatic stress disorder than other college women, particularly if they had less secure and responsive relationships with their mothers or primary caregivers during childhood.

"In other words, our findings suggest that how sexual abuse affects overall mental health in later life depends on the quality of the abused girl's childhood attachment. Girls with a secure, responsive relationship in childhood with their mothers or other primary caregivers have some protection against the long-term negative effects that sexual abuse has on other college women who were abused as children," said Margaret Feerick, a doctoral student in the department of human development and family studies, and her adviser, Jeffrey Haugaard, associate professor. Although other researchers have looked at the impact of sexual abuse on behavior problems and adjustment difficulties, the Cornell researchers believe their study is one of the first to explore the long-term effects of sexual abuse on attachment in later life and to examine the role of childhood attachment relationships in moderating the effects of sexual abuse.

"We looked at attachment because attachment theory provides a model of individual development in the context of family relationships, whereby the child's sense of self and personality organization are shaped by his or her earliest relationships, particularly the relationship with the primary caregiver," explained Feerick, who is from Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

Haugaard and Feerick, who expects her Ph.D. in 1998, analyzed questionnaires from 313 undergraduate women at Cornell. The researchers looked at mea

Contact: Susan Lang
Cornell University News Service

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