The main focus of my lab's current program of research concerns the quest to better understand the mechanisms accounting for the link between childhood trauma and adolescent involvement in the juvenile justice system. We have received a grant from the National Institute of Justice for a 4-year (Jan 2015 – Dec 2019) longitudinal study investigating the emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the link between various forms of childhood adversity and youth's involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Attempts to better understand the cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and psychophysiological mechanisms associated with aggression have converged upon the “dark triad” of three traits: callousness, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Our research has contributed to this work, and also has helped to shed new light on developmental pathways to the emergence of callousness that arise as a function of exposure to traumatic stress.
A significant limitation of existing research related to JJ-involved youth is that it has relied entirely on self-report. Discrepancies commonly are found between self-report and physiological measures of emotion regulation. Not only may JJ-involved youth be motivated to deny emotional arousal to present a “tough-guy” facade and to defend against further victimization but youth who engage in experiential avoidance may be particularly poor reporters about their own emotional responses. Moreover, leading theorists increasingly emphasize the importance of understanding psychophysiological systems underlying the trauma response in that these may represent sources of not only risk but of resilience for victimized youth.
In comparison to boys involved with the juvenile justice system, girls systematically receive harsher punishments than boys. Gender differences in how boys and girls experience stress and how they behave in response to the same emotions may also affect female rates of delinquency. In comparison to boys, Research has shown that girls in the JJ system may experience more conflict and adversity in their family relationships, experience particularly troubled relationships with mothers and that these factors may predict girls delinquency and aggression.
Overall, girls in the JJ system have more severe mental health issues, have experienced more significant childhood adversity, particularly sexual trauma, and receive disproportionate sanctions for low-level forms of antisocial behavior, such as status offenses and provocative sexual behavior. These risk factors also appear to be dynamically interrelated, with trauma and family adversity increasing the likelihood that girls will act out or engage in risky behaviors that, in turn, lead to involvement in the JJ system. However, these factors also are found to contribute to boys delinquency, as well, and therefore, further research is needed to explore if the pathway to delinquency for girls is in fact “unique”.
Family and caregiver attachment can often be a source of resilience in the aftermath of trauma. Youth exposed to family violence may develop increased aggression, and emotional numbing has been found to be prevalent among youth in at-risk families. Low family involvement may be a risk factor for further delinquency and negative mental health outcomes. It is important to examine caregiver roles and family systems among JJ-involved youth, as they provide a clarifying role into factors of risk or resilience.
The traumatic, stressful and upsetting experiences of the majority of the youth involved in the JJ system are characterized not by any single form of violence, but rather polyvictimization. Polyvictimization among JJ-involved youth typically does not involve discrete events, but rather chronic, repeated victimization experiences, which have the most severe effects on the development of young people.
Common childhood mental health problems that can affect JJ-involved youth include externalizing (conduct problems, inattention-hyperactivity, and peer problems) and internalizing (emotional problems) issues. Theory suggests that traumatized youth are not inherent callous but rather actively use emotional numbing and experiential avoidance to cope with traumatic or unpleasant events and experiences. We hope to advance our understanding of both psychopathology and resilience among JJ-involved youth with our research.
Moral injury is a concept that refers to negative consequences that arise when people undergo experiences that violate their deeply held moral beliefs. Moral injury is also related to the concept of perpetration-induced trauma, which proposes that traumatic stress reactions can follow from experiences in which one is the perpetrator of harm against another—whether through an action was intentionally committed, was compelled to commit, witnessed, or failed to perform. Although these concepts arose in the context of the study of adults in extreme experiences, such as soldiers in a time of war, or individuals involved in performing executions, we recognized that interpersonal harm comes in all shapes and sizes, and occurs at all ages. Even children and adolescents may undergo experiences that cause them to question their beliefs about themselves and the world around them. To this end, we have engaged in a number of studies exploring these concepts in samples of children, adolescents, and emerging adults, including former child soldiers in international contexts and youth gang members in the US.