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Childhood Emotional and Conduct Problems in Childhood and Adolescence Differentially Associated with Intergenerational Maltreatment Continuity and Parental Internalizing Symptoms


Caregivers’ own childhood maltreatment experiences potentiate the risk for psychopathology and perpetration of maltreatment against one’s children. In turn, both of these factors may negatively impact children’s mental health. The nature of these intergenerational patterns of maltreatment may vary as a function of type of child outcome and may also be influenced by child age and sample characteristics (i.e., involvement of Child Protection Services, CPS). The present study uses a Structural Equational Model to examine cross-sectional relationships between caregiver maltreatment experiences in childhood and child-rated emotional and conduct problems and tests the mediational effect of caregiver internalizing symptoms and child maltreatment exposure. This sample is comprised of 791 children aged 3–16 years (Mage = 10.6 years; n = 302 3 to 8-year-olds, n = 489 9 to 16-year-olds; 51.5% male) and their caregivers (88.4% biological mothers). Children were recruited from CPS (n = 124), youth psychiatric services (n = 144), and the general population (n = 523). Results indicated indirect links between caregivers’ childhood maltreatment experiences and their children’s emotional and conduct problems. Specifically, caregiver-perpetrated child maltreatment predicted was related to child conduct problems, whereas both caregiver-perpetrated child maltreatment and caregiver internalizing symptoms were related to child emotional problems. Multi-group analyses revealed no moderation effect of CPS involvement. Our results highlight the importance of independent outcome-specific intergenerational patterns in prevention approaches for families with maltreatment experiences.

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The research presented herein is supported by a grant from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Grant No. 01KR1201A to E) to Kai von Klitzing, the German Research Foundation (KL 2315/1-1, KL2338/1-2) to Kai von Klitzing and Annette M. Klein, as well as by LIFE – Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases, University of Leipzig. The responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors. The authors would like to thank the Child Protection Services of the City of Leipzig and Munich for cooperation in this study, as all as all children and caregivers for taking part.

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Correspondence to Susan Sierau.

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Ethical Approval

The presented study was approved by the institutional review boards of the Medical Faculty of the University of Leipzig and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (registration numbers for Leipzig: 178–12-21052012, 098–12-05032012 and Munich: 098–12-05032012), and has been performed in accordance with the ethical standards laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Participation in the study was voluntary and all caregivers gave written informed consent prior to the inclusion in the study. Moreover, the child’s oral assent was obtained.

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Sierau, S., Warmingham, J., White, L.O. et al. Childhood Emotional and Conduct Problems in Childhood and Adolescence Differentially Associated with Intergenerational Maltreatment Continuity and Parental Internalizing Symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol 48, 29–42 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-019-00575-w

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  • Cycle of violence
  • Intergenerational transmission of maltreatment
  • Child abuse
  • Neglect
  • Child welfare services/child protection
  • Psychopathology