Journal of Child and Family Studies

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 437–451 | Cite as

Understanding Strengths in Relation to Complex Trauma and Mental Health Symptoms within Child Welfare

  • Cassandra Kisiel
  • Faith Summersett-Ringgold
  • Lindsey E. G. Weil
  • Gary McClelland
Original Paper


Strengths can have a potent effect in mitigating the impact of trauma on mental health needs and functioning. Yet, evidence is limited on the role that strengths may have in ameliorating trauma-related or mental health symptoms over time. Providing a comprehensive assessment that includes strengths, as well as needs, is an important step in making appropriate service recommendations for youth in child welfare. This study assessed 7,483 children and adolescents entering an intensive stabilization program through the Illinois child welfare system. The interaction of individual, child strengths in relation to complex trauma exposure, traumatic stress symptoms, risk behaviors, and other mental health needs were examined. Results indicated strengths are relatively stable over time and inversely associated with several negative outcomes, including risk behaviors (−.32, p < .001), emotional/ behavioral needs (−.33, p < .001) and overall functioning (−.47, p < .001). Traumatic stress symptoms were also related to increases in these negative outcomes. Overall, strengths had a buffering effect on traumatic stress symptoms and outcomes over time. The role of strengths in relation to traumatic stress symptoms, however, was less consistent. Youth with histories of complex trauma exposure had significantly fewer useable strengths than youth without this exposure. However, strengths improved for both youth with and without complex trauma exposure over the course of stabilization services. These findings suggest that early identification and development of child strengths can mitigate risk-taking behaviors, mental health, and functional difficulties among youth in the child welfare system. Implications for more targeted trauma-informed and strengths-based assessment, and treatment/service planning are discussed.


Strengths Resilience Complex trauma Traumatic stress Mental health symptoms 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. This study does not involved direct work with human subjects given the use of secondary data. However, all applicable institutional guidelines for the care and use of human subjects were followed including the protection of confidential information based on the data utilized for this study.

Informed consent

Informed consent was not obtained because we are using administrative and clinical data that was previously collected in conjunction with routine program activities. This study was conducted using secondary data with no direct contact with human subjects.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northwestern University Feinberg School of MedicineChicagoUSA

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