To examine whether internal resiliency and external assets directly protect juvenile offenders exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) from psychological distress and moderate the relationship between ACE exposure and psychological distress.
A total of 429 male and female adolescents involved with juvenile justice systems in a Western state completed an audio computer-assisted self-interview. Validated measures assessed ACEs, psychological distress, internal resiliency, and external youth assets. Hierarchical linear regression was used to assess the direct and moderating protective effects of internal resilience, family communication, school connectedness, peer role models, and nonparental role models on psychological distress. All models controlled for age, sex, race/ethnicity, free/reduced lunch qualification, current custody, supervision status, detention, and site.
The mean ACE score among participants was 3.7 (standard deviation = 2.2) and 52.8% reported four or more ACEs. Participants with 4–5 ACEs (β = .37, p < .001) and 6–8 ACEs (β = .49, p < .001) were at increased risk for psychological distress. High internal resilience (β = −.20, p < .001), family communication (β = −.19, p < .001), school connectedness (β = −.14, p < .01), and peer role models (β = −.09, p < .05) were associated with a reduction in psychological distress in the presence of high ACE exposure. In the interaction models, having a high number of ACEs remained strongly associated with increased psychological distress. However, internal resilience (β = −.24, p < .01) and school connectedness (β = −.18, p < .05) significantly moderated (reduced) the relationship between high ACE exposure and psychological distress.
Our findings suggest that programs and policies that promote internal resilience and protective factors across multiple levels of influence may protect juvenile offenders exposed to childhood trauma from psychological distress.