Research on institutional betrayal has found that institutional wrongdoing that fails to prevent or respond supportively to victims of abuse adds to the burden of trauma. In this two-study investigation with young adult university students, we demonstrated parallels between institutional betrayal and ways that families can fail to prevent or respond supportively to child abuse perpetrated by a trusted other, a phenomenon we call family betrayal (FB). In Study 1, psychometric analysis of a new FB questionnaire provided evidence of its internal consistency, unidimensionality, and convergent and discriminant validity. The majority (approximately 72%) of young adults abused in childhood reported a history of FB, with an average of 4.26 FB events (SD = 4.45, range 0–14). Consistent with betrayal trauma theory, Study 2 revealed that FB was 4× more likely to occur in relation to childhood abuse by someone very close to the victim (vs. non-interpersonal victimization), with a particularly strong effect for female participants. FB history predicted significant delay to disclosure of a self-identified worst traumatic event (ηp 2 =.017) and significant increases in dissociation (∆R2 =.05) and posttraumatic stress (∆R2 =.07) symptoms in young adulthood. Moreover, with FB in the regression models, only FB—not child abuse nor recent interpersonal victimization—predicted dissociation and clinically significant elevations in posttraumatic stress. Findings suggest that FB is a prevalent phenomenon among young adults abused as children and that it explains unique, clinically significant variance in posttraumatic distress, warranting increased attention from trauma researchers and clinicians.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Health Professions (miscellaneous)
- Clinical Psychology
- Psychiatry and Mental health