Negative Cues

Neutral Cues figure 4.1. Mean number of emotion terms produced per memory as a function of childhood abuse exposure and cue type.

memories related to punishment and arguing, teens with childhood abuse histories produced fewer positive, negative, and neutral emotion terms; made fewer explicit and implicit references to emotion; and mentioned fewer self-referent and other-referent terms than teens without such a history. It is also worth mentioning that the lack of emotional content was not a direct consequence of overgeneral autobiographical memories, because the frequency of overgeneral memories was unrelated to the number of emotion terms elicited by each cue.

There are several potential explanations for the low levels of emotional language observed in the conflict-related memories of teens with childhood abuse histories. Conflict-related events may be especially confusing and difficult to appraise for children from abusive homes. Adults from abusive families, moreover, may be unlikely to talk about these events with their children, or perhaps might even actively discourage such discussion. It is also possible that children with Year 1 Abuse Exposure were desensitized to conflict, as there is evidence that abused children have dampened physiological responses to emotional stimuli (Carrey, Butter, Persinger, & Bialik, 1995). But the findings are also consistent with the prevailing explanation of other memory abnormalities seen among individuals with abuse histories: traumatic experiences might lead to a strategic avoidance of certain types of memory content in an attempt to regulate affect. Specifically, teens in the Year 1 Abuse Exposure group may have been reluctant to think or talk about their own and others' affective reactions to conflict-related experiences because they were likely to be unpleasant.

In contrast to childhood abuse exposure, recent (Year 6) exposure to abuse did not predict internal states language in childhood recollections. It is possible that tests of the effects of recent abuse were weaker than tests of childhood abuse in this study because we selected the sample based on childhood exposure, and recent exposure was far less frequent and severe. Yet when the analyses of emotional language were conducted on the entire sample for whom AMTs were available (in the alternative analyses using continuous abuse variables), recent abuse continued to be unrelated to emotional language. Moreover, recent abuse was a consistent predictor of specificity and related dimensions of performance on the AMT in Johnson et al. (2005). Therefore, it seems more likely that this pattern reflects age differences in the effects of abuse on affective processing, or that it is due to differences in the types of events being remembered, as the childhood experiences of teens with recent abuse exposure are not necessarily abuse-related and traumatic.

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