Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Brian Vandenberg, PhD


Ann Steffen

Lois Pierce

Matthew Kliethermes


Complex trauma events, or chronic interpersonal traumas that begin early in life, are thought to result in profound disruptions, well beyond the symptoms of PTSD. Complex trauma events may be especially toxic for children and adolescents, whose regulatory systems are more vulnerable. This study provides empirical support for the previously unexamined hypothesis that complex trauma events result in broad systemic difficulties, not simply higher levels of PTSD symptoms. This study also offers evidence for a dimensional conceptualization of traumatic events, with acute noninterpersonal trauma residing on one end of the spectrum and complex trauma on the other. 346 treatment-seeking children and adolescents who had experienced a traumatic event were included in this study. Results indicated that children exposed to a complex trauma event had significantly higher levels of trauma-related and generalized difficulties as compared to those exposed to other, less severe traumatic events. Children exposed to successively more severe traumatic events were also reported to have increasingly higher levels of difficulties. The evidence of including an impaired caregiving system, operationalized as the child being removed from the home following the onset of the traumatic event, into the definition of complex trauma was examined, but not supported. The results demonstrate the validity of the concept of complex trauma and point to the need for a diagnostic construct related to complex trauma for children and adolescents.

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