A longitudinal study of cognitive predictors of (complex) post‐traumatic stress in young people in out‐of‐home care

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Rachel M. Hiller, Richard Meiser‐Stedman, Elizabeth Elliott, Rosie Banting & Sarah L. Halligan



Background: Young people in out‐of‐home care are substantially more likely to meet criteria for PTSD than their peers, while their early maltreatment exposure may also place them at greater risk of developing the newly proposed complex PTSD. Yet, there remains limited empirical evidence for the mechanisms that might drive either PTSD or complex features in this group, and ongoing debate about the suitability of existing cognitive behavioural models and their related NICE‐recommended treatments. In a prospective study of young people in out‐of‐home care, we sought to identify demographic and cognitive processes that may contribute to the maintenance of both PTSD symptom and complex features.

Methods: We assessed 120 10‐ to 18‐year‐olds in out‐of‐home care and their primary carer at two assessments: an initial assessment and 12‐month follow‐up. Participants completed questionnaires on trauma history, PTSD symptoms and complex features, while young people only also self‐reported on trauma‐related (a) maladaptive appraisals, (b) memory quality and (c) coping. Social workers reported on maltreatment severity.

Results: Young people’s maltreatment severity was not a robust predictor of either PTSD symptoms or complex features. All three cognitive processes were moderately‐to‐strongly correlated with baseline and 12‐month PTSD symptoms and complex features, with maladaptive appraisals the most robust unique driver of both, even when controlling for initial PTSD symptom severity.

Conclusions: Existing cognitive models of PTSD are applicable in this more complex sample of young people. The model was also found to be applicable to the additional features of complex PTSD, with the same processes driving both outcomes at both time points. Clinical implications are discussed.

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