It is a family affair: individual experiences and sibling exposure to emotional, physical and sexual abuse and the impact on adult depressive symptoms

Publication Name

Psychological Medicine


Background Childhood abuse and neglect often occurs within families and can have a large influence on mental well-being across the lifespan. However, the sibling concordance of emotional abuse and neglect (i.e. together referred to as emotional maltreatment; EM), physical abuse (PA) and sexual abuse (SA) and the long-term impact on the context of siblings' maltreatment experiences are unclear. To examine the influence of EM, PA and SA on adult depressive symptoms within the family framework we differentiate between (a) the family-wide (mean level of all siblings) effects and (b) the individual deviation from the mean family level of maltreatment. Methods The sample (N = 636) consists of 256 families, including at least one lifetime depressed or anxious individual and their siblings. Multilevel modeling was used to examine the family-wide and relative individual effects of childhood maltreatment (CM). Results (a) Siblings showed most similarity in their reports of EM followed by PA. SA was mostly reported by one person within a family. In line with these observations, the mean family levels of EM and PA, but not SA, were associated with more depressive symptoms. In addition, (b) depression levels were more elevated in individuals reporting more EM than the family mean. Conclusions Particularly in the case of more visible forms of CM, siblings' experiences of EM and PA are associated with the elevated levels of adult depressive symptoms. Findings implicate that in addition to individual maltreatment experiences, the context of siblings' experiences is another crucial risk factor for an individuals' adult depressive symptomatology.

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Universiteit Leiden



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