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Am J Psychiatry. 1999 Mar;156(3):379-85.

Childhood trauma and perceived parental dysfunction in the etiology of dissociative symptoms in psychiatric inpatients.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



Research on the etiology of dissociation in adults has focused primarily on childhood sexual abuse. The role of co-occurring childhood stressors and of more chronic adverse conditions such as neglect is less clear. This study examined the level of dissociation in relation to childhood trauma (sexual/physical abuse, witnessing interparental violence), early separation from a parent, and perceived parental dysfunction.


One hundred sixty inpatients consecutively admitted to a general psychiatric hospital were administered the Dissociative Experiences Scale and the Structured Trauma Interview.


The mean Dissociative Experiences Scale score was 17.4; 18.0% of the patients scored beyond 30. Early separation was reported by 26.4% of the patients; 30.1% had witnessed interparental violence; 23.6% reported physical abuse; 34.6% reported sexual abuse; 11.7% reported rape before age 16; and 42.1% reported sexual and/or physical abuse. The level of dissociation was primarily related to reported overwhelming childhood experiences (sexual and physical abuse). When sexual abuse was severe (involving penetration, several perpetrators, lasting more than 1 year), dissociative symptoms were even more prominent. Highest dissociation levels were found in patients reporting cumulative sexual trauma (intrafamilial and extrafamilial) or both sexual and physical abuse. In particular, maternal dysfunction was related to the level of dissociation. With control for gender and age, stepwise multiple regression analysis indicated that the severity of dissociative symptoms was best predicted by reported sexual abuse, physical abuse, and maternal dysfunction.


These findings indicate that dissociation, although trauma-related, is neglect-related as well. This implies the importance of object relations and attachment in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with dissociative disorders.

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