Associations Between Trauma Type, Timing, and Accumulation on Current Coping Behaviors in Adolescents: Results from a Large, Population-based Sample

  • Rachel A. Vaughn-Coaxum
  • Yan Wang
  • Jenna Kiely
  • John R. Weisz
  • Erin C. Dunn
Empirical Research


The development of adolescents’ coping in response to stress is critical for adaptive functioning; these coping strategies may be shaped by numerous environmental factors during childhood, including experiences such as exposure to trauma. Childhood trauma has been shown to undermine contemporaneous coping, but how does a history of exposure to trauma and the characteristics of that trauma (type, timing, and accumulation) relate to current coping among adolescents? We addressed this question using a nationally-representative sample of 9427 adolescents (ages 13–18; 48.9% female; 66% White). Adolescents reported on their lifetime exposure to 18 different traumas, including witnessing or experiencing interpersonal violence, accidents, disasters, and violent or accidental loss of loved ones, as well as their current use of coping behaviors when under stress (problem-focused, positive emotion-focused, and negative emotion-focused coping strategies). The study’s results highlight that exposure to nearly all forms of trauma was unrelated to problem-focused and positive emotion-focused coping behaviors, but strongly associated with increased negative emotion-focused coping. Use of each coping style did not vary with age at first exposure to trauma, but increased with the number of lifetime traumatic events experienced. The findings suggest that the extent of prior exposure to trauma, including variations across type and timing, may be related to a particular form of coping that has been linked to increased risk for mental health problems. Study results highlight coping strategies as a potential target for prevention and treatment efforts, and indicate a need to better understand the malleability and trajectory of coping responses to stress for promoting healthy youth development.


Childhood Trauma Coping Stress Sensitive Periods 



Research reported in this publication was supported, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) under award number (K01 MH102403: Dunn). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Authors’ Contributions

R.V. participated in the design and coordination of the current study, performed the statistical analysis, interpreted the data, and drafted the manuscript; Y.W. participated in the design and coordination of the study, performed the initial statistical analyses, and reviewed drafts of the manuscript; J.K. participated in the design and coordination of the study, performed early statistical analyses, and helped draft sections of the manuscript; J.W. helped interpret findings and critically revised the manuscript; E.C.D. conceived of the current study, and participated in its design and coordination, interpreted the data, and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of The Human Subjects Committees of Harvard Medical School and the University of Michigan, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent from parents and informed assent from adolescents was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

10964_2017_693_MOESM1_ESM.docx (43 kb)
Supplementary Information


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rachel A. Vaughn-Coaxum
    • 1
  • Yan Wang
    • 2
  • Jenna Kiely
    • 2
  • John R. Weisz
    • 1
    • 3
  • Erin C. Dunn
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, Center for Genomic MedicineMassachusetts General HospitalBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychiatryHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  4. 4.Stanley Center for Psychiatric ResearchThe Broad Institute of Harvard and MITCambridgeUSA

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