Childhood interpersonal trauma, posttraumatic cognitions, and adulthood mental health

Date of Completion

January 2009


Psychology, Clinical




Physical and sexual abuse are unfortunate but common experiences for American children. Physical and sexual abuse (interpersonal trauma), can be quite damaging for childhood victims, rendering them vulnerable to a myriad of lifetime consequences, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, interpersonal difficulties, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Several cognitive, developmental, information-processing, and memory-based theories have attempted to explain the link between interpersonal trauma and PTSD. Emotional processing theory (Foa & Rothbaum, 1998), states that trauma survivors who develop PTSD do so because the trauma leads them to believe that either the world is “completely dangerous” and/or they are “completely incompetent.” Individuals arrive at these two beliefs in one of two ways: they entered traumatogenic circumstances with the personal belief that the world is completely safe and/or that they are completely competent; or the trauma primes existing beliefs that the world is dangerous and/or they are incompetent. To evaluate this theory, Foa and colleagues developed the Posttraumatic Cognitions Inventory, a 33-item scale that assesses survivors' posttraumatic beliefs about the world, the self, and self-blame for the trauma. Though the authors found strong reliability and validity for the PTCI, an independent study found slightly less promising psychometric properties. One major goal of this study is to replicate previous findings in an underserved, community treatment-seeking sample of adult men and women with trauma histories (n=213). This study found generally similar results as previous studies (Beck et al., 2004; Foa et al., 1999), as well as significant correlations between the PTCI, other indicators of traumatic stress and diagnosis of PTSD. In a separate but related analysis, this study also found that posttraumatic cognitions moderated the relationship between age of first interpersonal trauma (AFIT) and adulthood depression. Specifically, the relationship between later AFIT and adulthood depression was strengthened for those who reported more negative beliefs about the self This finding lends support to cognitive theories of PTSD rather than developmental theories. Implications for these findings, as well as limitations of this study and recommendations for future investigations, are discussed.^