How College Students Are Affected by Child Abuse and Violence

Students wait in line. (Credit: Getty)

The statistics on domestic violence and child abuse in the U.S. are grim. More than 12 million people a year are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, and 30% to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household. How are children who witness or experience such violence and abuse, or even its cousin, neglect, affected over the long term?
It’s a question that Graduate Center Ph.D. student Sara Babad (Psychology) seeks to answer through herresearch in Professor Valentina Nikulina’s START lab. In a recent paper, Babad and co-authors examined the effect of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, in young adults aged 18 to 25. Specifically, the researchers asked how these experiences affect emerging adults’ tendency to seek out new sensations and to take risks. The study was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Babad talked to The Graduate Center about her work.
The Graduate Center: How has your CUNY experience affected your research?
Babad: CUNY has been instrumental to my research. Queens College, in particular, is located in the most diverse borough in the country. Interacting with this faculty and student body has deepened my understanding of the impact of multicultural, ethnic, racial, and gender differences in my research and clinical work. For example, in our recent paper, researchers in our lab found ethnic and gender differences in risk-taking propensity. The cross-sectional nature of our research precludes causal inferences, but these findings do suggest the need for an increased sensitivity to these factors when researching traits in emerging adults.
GC: How does everyone collaborate on a study like this, when there are so many student authors?
Babad: Dr. Nikulina has consistently encouraged me to collaborate with other faculty mentors, graduate students and undergraduates. In this recent paper, a clinical Ph.D. student, Amanda Zwilling, spearheaded data collection, and I generated the research question. Together with my fellow graduate and undergraduate researchers, we developed and honed that question. Ph.D. students Victoria Fairchild and Gabriella Robinson and master’s student Shana Razak were especially helpful in this process. Dr. Nikulina was invaluable in guiding data analyses and theoretical focus, and Kaitlin Carson, M.A., was instrumental in refining the manuscript for publication.
GC: Do you have any advice or takeaways, based on this study, for those working in mental health and counseling services for college students?
Babad: Yes! Our study suggests that emerging adult survivors of adverse childhood experiences tend to exhibit decreased sensation seeking, a trait that is associated with academic achievement and work success. This offers a possible etiology and intervention point for counselors working with college students. Furthermore, our study found that only adverse childhood experiences related to environmental instability — like emotional neglect and witnessing domestic violence — were related to decreased sensation seeking. These findings suggest that college counselors should assess for a history of ACEs, which our study shows can impact functioning in subtle ways. Counselors may want to pay particular attention to childhood environmental instability, which may impact day-to-day functioning in college. Thirdly, childhood environmental instability rarely occurs in a vacuum and may be ongoing, even when the individual is in college. On an institutional level, increased services for underserved students and those in unstable living situations should be available.
GC: What advice do you have for professors and graduate-level teachers who work with undergraduates who are struggling?
Babad: There are two main things we have found to be helpful. One is to be aware of and compassionate towards students who are struggling, and accommodate them while still being fair to other students. Struggling students can present differently. They may appear overly anxious or they may miss classes. They may be quiet in class or they might be disruptive. If a student asks for an extension on an assignment, I always ask if everything is okay. It's a benign question but it's an opportunity for the student to reach out if they need help.

It is also helpful to be aware of the resources available through CUNY. For example, most campuses have a free student counseling center. For more immediately pressing situations, some campuses also have a behavioral response team.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that it is not the instructor's job to "treat" a student. There should be a balance between meeting a student's needs and appropriate boundaries.
GC: What drew you to this field? Did you always know you wanted to go into psychology?

Babad: I actually first intended to pursue a law degree. I spent a summer in high school interning at the Nassau County District Attorney's Office as part of the Special Victim's Bureau. After watching a particularly horrific case involving child abuse move through the courts, I realized I wanted to advocate for victims, but not as a lawyer. That's when I realized I wanted to go into the field of psychology, and my particular interest in trauma research developed from that time.
GC: Are you currently working on other research projects?
Babad: Our recent publication is part of my larger interest in the long-term impact of ACEs on non-psychopathology functioning in emerging adults. I just submitted a second paper for review, which focuses on social-emotional outcomes in emerging adult survivors of ACEs. This manuscript revealed that ACEs related to environmental instability are associated with increased loneliness and decreased self-esteem and ability to navigate interpersonal relationships in emerging adults. Our lab is also preparing manuscripts on how adverse childhood events cluster together or tend to co-occur in groups, and on resilience in emerging adult survivors.
Our lab is also gathering data, using a community sample, as part of a longitudinal study. My specific questions for that study center on the role of attachment insecurity in the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and risk for re-victimization in emerging adulthood.
GC: What do you hope to do with after you finish your degree?
Babad: After earning my Ph.D., I would like to continue to combine my research and clinical interests. I hope to remain involved in treatment and assessment of children and adolescents, while at the same time continue research, with a focus on prevention and intervention.

Submitted on: JAN 23, 2020

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