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Adolescent sexual abuse victims: Examining the heterogeneity of symptom presentation based on the bioecological model

Tiffany West, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Adolescence is a challenging stage of development that involves physical and cognitive changes, social and academic pressures, and the pursuit of autonomy. Adolescents are at risk for developing a variety of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and experiencing sexual abuse may exacerbate these symptoms. However, this population is a heterogeneous group in that victimization does not result in a unified presentation of symptoms. An assessment of the combined influence of the myriad factors impacting adolescent victim outcomes is important to better understand the diverse development of symptoms among this population. One method of conceptualizing the diverse contexts that influence normal development is through a systems approach such as the bioecological model, which considers variables impacting development across four levels of functioning: proximal processes, personal characteristics, context, and time. The purpose of the current study was to gain a better understanding of the heterogeneity in symptom presentation of adolescent sexual abuse victims by utilizing the bioecological model to explore how interactions between systems impact victim functioning. Participants included 84 sexually abused adolescents and their nonoffending caregivers presenting to treatment. This study utilized a number of youth- and parent-report measures, allowing for a comprehensive examination of variables across levels of the bioecological model and their relation to symptom presentation including quality of daily interactions; personal characteristics; family, abuse, social, and school factors; treatment participation; and intergenerational abuse. Several significant findings were noted, including the identification of four distinct clusters of symptom presentation: internalizing problems, externalizing problems, a combination of both internalizing and externalizing problems, and minimal problems. Results revealed that adolescents who reported both internalizing and externalizing problems experienced the most difficulty across levels of the bioecological model followed by adolescents who reported internalizing problems only, externalizing problems only, and minimal problems, respectively. Further, results examining the interactions between levels of the bioecological model revealed negative interpersonal interactions were strongly associated with experiencing a combination of internalizing and externalizing problems and sexual abuse related experiences were strongly associated with experiencing internalizing problems. Implications for future research and practice with adolescent sexual abuse victims were discussed taking into considering properties of the bioecological model.

Subject Area

Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

West, Tiffany, "Adolescent sexual abuse victims: Examining the heterogeneity of symptom presentation based on the bioecological model" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3706321.