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Synergistic adversities and behavioral problems in traumatized children and adolescents

Frank W.Putnama, Lisa Amaya-Jackson, Karen T. Putnama, Ernestine C. Briggs – 2020

This study investigated synergy of commonly co-occurring pairs of childhood traumas/adversities to determine: 1) if synergistic pairings differ by gender and/or age grouping; and 2) if some traumas/adversities were more synergistically reactive. A sample of 10,355 clinic-referred youth (1.5–18 years) from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Core Data Set was divided by gender and categorized into salient age groups (1.5−5 years, 6−12 years, and 13−18 years). Attributable Proportion (AP), a biomedically relevant metric, was calculated to assess additive synergy for behavior problems on the CBCL. Overall, only four pairs of adversities were synergistic. Three involved sexual abuse with physical abuse, parental loss, and domestic violence. When the sample was analyzed by Gender X Age group, however, a more complicated picture emerges. Twelve of the twenty-one possible pairings (57 %) show additive synergy in one or more categories. The mean AP accounted for approximately 40 % of outcome variance. Males had more synergistic pairings (16) than females (7). The average synergistic effect was higher for males (42 % of variance) than females (36 % of variance). The vast majority of synergy occurs in the 6−12 and 13−18 age groups. Sexual abuse was the most synergistically reactive trauma, pairing most frequently (16) followed by physical abuse (10) or neglect (9). Sexual abuse was malignantly synergistic, frequently pairing with other adversities, followed by physical abuse, neglect, and domestic violence. The findings underscore that all ACEs are not equal in their contributions to commonly assessed outcomes. The findings also have considerable implications for prevention, intervention, and future research.