The impact of maltreatment spreads across many developmental domains and extends across the entire life span. Identifying unidirectional or bidirectional drivers of developmental cascades of the effects of maltreatment experiences is critical to efficiently employing interventions to promote resilient development in maltreated children. This 1-year longitudinal study utilized a multiple-levels approach, investigating bottom-up and top-down cascades using structural equation modeling between cortisol regulation, externalizing behavior, and peer aggression. Neither a bottom-up model driven by cortisol regulation nor a top-down model driven by peer aggression fit the data well. Instead, lower rates of externalizing behavior at Year 1 most strongly predicted improvements at all levels of analysis (reduced cortisol, externalizing behavior, and peer aggression) at Year 2. These results provide initial indication of a mechanism through which interventions for maltreated children may be most effective and result in the most substantial positive changes across developmental domains.
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We are grateful for the research team at Mt. Hope Family Center, for the support provided by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Spunk Fund, Inc., and for all the families who participated in this research.