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Comprehensive Help for Young Moms Can Interrupt Cycles of Maltreatment, Study Finds

Public Health Researcher Says Parenting, Psychological Support Should Be Intertwined

By Kelly Blake

String of red paper dolls

A new study led by a UMD researcher Elizabeth Aparicio whose work focuses on interrupting intergenerational cycles of violence and trauma and preventing child abuse finds that intertwining parenting and mental health support for young mothers can lead to improved outcomes.

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Alongside the constant demands of caring for young children, teen mothers with a history of being abused or neglected as children must cope with their own trauma and the inherent uncertainties of young adulthood. A new University of Maryland study focused on understanding their unique needs finds that providing intertwined parenting and mental health support can improve outcomes and brighten the lives of families.

The study, which was published recently in the Journal of Family Violence, was led by Elizabeth Aparicio, an assistant professor of behavioral and community health whose work focuses on interrupting intergenerational cycles of violence and trauma and preventing child abuse.

Aparicio and her team interviewed young mothers 18-25 years old in Maryland and Washington, D.C., who had one or more children by age 19, as well as professionals serving them and some of the mothers’ own caregivers. Aparicio and colleagues partnered with the organization Hearts and Homes for Youth to conduct this community-engaged research and analyze the data using a method called “grounded theory,” which allowed them to characterize how maltreated mothers access and receive mental health and parenting support.

“These moms have experienced child abuse and neglect themselves, but they are young and full of energy and optimistic about wanting to change the trajectory of their families,” Aparicio explained. “From a prevention standpoint, they are usually really motivated to access services, but from the system side, we need to make sure that they can access all the supports they need.”

Most interventions address parenting and mental health needs separately, she said, but the study helped make clear the two threads need to be woven together.

“Our next step is to test an integrated approach and the impact that can have,” she said.

With a background in social work, Aparicio understands the seemingly insurmountable barriers young moms face—including their own mental health struggles, need for safety from abusers and internalized stigma. They also contend with competing priorities of their kids’ and their own needs, challenges in accessing therapy or substance abuse treatment, concerns about affording and accessing transportation, and ongoing needs to secure education and employment, food, housing and child care.

Aparicio cites two examples of programs that provide a model for what is sometimes called “wraparound” support that provides integrated and comprehensive care. The Hearts and Homes for Youth program and the Children’s Hospital's Healthy Generations program both include comprehensive services ranging from access to medical and mental health care to legal referrals, parenting classes, diapers and healthy food, among others.

Previous research has shown that children born to young parents are at elevated risk of abuse and neglect and that about a third of people with a history of childhood maltreatment, including physical or sexual abuse or neglect, will go on to abuse or neglect their children.

Aparicio says that people often experience multiple types of child abuse and neglect in combination.

“These are all things that could individually affect a person, but the cumulative effect can be really a lot to cope with, so having systems that are ready and available to provide trauma-informed care is super important so that people can grow and heal from those experiences,” she explained.

Through the interviews, Aparicio and team looked at how young moms reckoned with their trauma and accessed and received mental health and parenting support.

Because of their young age, some of these mothers are still experiencing trauma and abuse from their own parents and not in control of what their children are exposed to daily. In addition to waitlists, referral challenges and changing providers, young moms often expressed a lack of trust in therapists and mental health care systems because of negative past experiences.

Health care professionals, meanwhile, expressed frustration in not being able to find the resources the young moms need.

Aparicio and colleagues recommend that referral and intake processes be made as simple as possible to reduce barriers to engagement. In addition, they found that helping young moms connect with other moms who could be mentors was very important.

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