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Keywords:

  • Early childhood;
  • symptoms;
  • disorders;
  • posttraumatic stress;
  • violence;
  • contextual risk

Objective:  To examine associations between exposure to potentially traumatic events (PTEs) and clinical patterns of symptoms and disorders in preschool children.

Method:  Two hundred and thirteen referred and non-referred children, ages 24 to 48 months (MN = 34.9, SD = 6.7 months) were studied. Lifetime exposure to PTEs (family violence and non-interpersonal events) and recent stressful life events were assessed with the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA) and Child Life Events Scale. Child psychiatric symptoms and disorders were assessed with parent-reports in the PAPA, a comprehensive, developmentally sensitive interview. Sociodemographic risk, parental anxiety and depressive symptoms (Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression, Beck Anxiety Inventory), and child developmental level (Mullen Scales of Early Learning) also were assessed.

Results:  Violence exposure was broadly associated with psychiatric status in the areas of depression, separation anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and conduct problems, whereas potentially traumatic non-interpersonal exposure was associated with phobic anxiety. The majority of the associations between violence exposure and preschoolers’ symptoms were significant even when other key factors, including economic disadvantage and parental mood and anxiety symptoms, were controlled statistically. However, parental depressive/anxious symptoms may have partially or fully mediated the relationships between violence exposure and depressive and conduct symptoms.

Conclusions:  Evidence of robust associations between violence exposure and early childhood internalizing and externalizing disorders and symptoms highlights the need for longitudinal prospective research concerning neurodevelopmental mechanisms and pathways. Findings underscore the relevance of assessing trauma exposure, particularly interpersonal violence, to identify young children at risk.