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A Developmental Study of Environmental Sensitivity in Children at Risk for Maltreatment

Melanie G Gabbert, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


An integrated meta-framework for environmental sensitivity includes models of diathesis stress (sensitivity to negative environments only), vantage sensitivity (sensitivity to positive environments only), and differential susceptibility (sensitivity to both negative and positive environments) each reflecting a different pattern of sensitivity to environmental influences. The construct of environmental sensitivity is particularly important for accurately understanding the developmental consequences of significant adversity in childhood. Children reported as being abused or neglected in early childhood are a “high stakes” population, in that more sensitive children who have experienced maltreatment have more to lose through those adverse experiences, and potentially more to gain through subsequent advantageous experiences. This repeated-measures study contributes to the literature on child maltreatment by exploring the development of externalizing behavior and social competence at ages 6, 8, 12, 14 and 16 in children reported as experiencing abuse and neglect in early childhood through multilevel models. The study addresses limitations in the existing environmental sensitivity literature by testing for patterns of sensitivity from both the developmental plasticity and immediate reactivity perspectives at ages 6, 8, 12, 14 and 16. Significant moderation effects were found in teacher-reported measures of externalizing behaviors and adaptive functioning, but not in caregiver-rated measures. These significant effects were found to be consistent with the immediate reactivity perspective of environmental sensitivity and probing of the interactions via regions of significance showed the effects to be consistent with the diathesis-stress pattern of interaction. Results are discussed in the context of an integrated framework of environmental sensitivity, and framed within the broader context of implications for child development.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Psychology|Individual & family studies

Recommended Citation

Gabbert, Melanie G, "A Developmental Study of Environmental Sensitivity in Children at Risk for Maltreatment" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30490497.