Coping and Dissociation among Female College Students: Reporting Childhood Abuse Experiences

Article excerpt

This study examined the relationship among coping strategies, dissociation, and childhood abuse experiences of female college students. Results provided support for the theoretical links between 3 types of child abuse experience (sexual abuse, physical abuse, and negative home environment) and coping style and dissociation. The study's results add to an increased understanding of the relationship between coping strategies and dissociation as these processes relate to specific types of childhood abuse experiences among female college students.

Transition into college life is an inherently stressful time, and a history of childhood abuse can negatively affect multiple aspects of a female college student s life. Childhood abuse survivors may be overly reliant on maladaptive coping styles or underuse adaptive coping styles. Female college students newly separated from their families may feel safe to explore different adaptations; thus, college counselors are very likely to encounter clients presenting with increasingly complex and problematic issues, among them histories of child abuse (Stone & Archer, 1990). For example, a recent review of 47 retrospective studies on childhood sexual abuse (CSA) found that between 15% to 30% of women and 3% to 15% of men reported exposure to unwanted sexual attention during childhood (Fergusson & Mullah, 1999). The present study focused on female college students because child abuse prevalence is higher for this group (Peters & Range, 1995). Increased use of counseling services by students with these presenting issues calls for improvement in the ability of counselors to understand childhood abuse survivors' coping mechanisms. This awareness could inform interventions aimed at assisting female college students with unresolved childhood abuse issues.

Abuse of children has been documented throughout history. According to DeMause (1974), "the further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused" (p. 1). Child abuse can be defined as the violation of trust and boundaries perpetrated by adults charged with protecting a child (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985) and can include physical and sexual abuse as well as a negative home environment. Physical abuse refers to the nonaccidental use of force against a child and includes kicking, biting, punching, hitting or trying to hit with an object, beating, and threatening with or using a weapon by a caregiver. Sexual abuse refers to unwanted sexual acts to which a child is exposed via exhibitionism or unwanted sexual comments or acts to which a child is subjected via physical contact, regardless of whether there is deception or whether the child understands the sexual nature of the activity. A negative home environment is one in which the child experiences emotional neglect and psycho logical maltreatment (Garbarino & Vondra, 1987). Emotional neglect is an act of omission in which a child is not given positive emotional support and may take the form of an adult being emotionally unavailable to the child. Psychological maltreatment denotes acts of commission, such as yelling, ridiculing, and humiliating in a repeated pattern of behavior that conveys to a child that she or he is worthless, unloved, or only of value in meeting another's needs (Garbarino, Guttman, & Seeley, 1986).

To date, theories of the effects of child abuse have largely focused on various aspects of CSA. However, research indicates that various forms of maltreatment do not occur independently, nor are they independent in their effect. A negative home environment, with its emotional neglect and psychological maltreatment components, commonly occurs alongside CSA (Chu & Dill, 1990; Gross & Keller, 1992). Additionally, over the past 2 decades, childhood abuse research has shown that each type of abuse often results in similar long-term effects (Chu & Dill, 1990; Gross & Keller, 1992). …


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