Long-Lasting Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Posted on April 10, 2020

Many modern researchers continue to study the adverse effects of child abuse since such a phenomenon can be regarded as one of the most important social issues existing in the world. The concept of ‘child abuse’ refers to certain behaviors of caregivers that may lead to children’s injuries, emotional distress, or even death. Some psychologists distinguish four major types of child abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and child neglect. Children experiencing physical abuse usually have various traumas, bruises, and other types of injuries. Unfortunately, child sexual abuse, which is frequently regarded as child molestation, is also a common phenomenon in the United States. Following the recent statistics, nearly 20% of children become victims of sexual abuse by family members or caregivers. In turn, severe emotional harm is a common outcome of the psychological abuse experienced by children. A list of early warning signs of emotional abuse includes depressive moods, extreme behaviors, and low academic performance. Modern researchers distinguish different types of child abuse, such as physical abuse, child molestation, psychological abuse, and child neglect, which have a lasting detrimental impact on children’s development leading to a delay in brain development, cognitive processing, and psychological development.

First of all, it is important to discuss a set of risk factors that may influence the incidence of child abuse and neglect in the United States. The majority of modern researchers claim that the quality of family relationships experienced by caregivers in their childhood can be regarded as the primary risk factor affecting the incidence of child abuse. In accordance with the article published in Child Abuse & Neglect, “parents who did not get along with their own parents or who lacked support from their mothers are more likely to maltreat their children” (Thornberry et al. 4). Other important risk factors involve parental deviance and substance abuse, which are common phenomena for American families living before the poverty line. In addition, it is necessary to mention the history of criminal offending or antisocial behavior. According to the same publication, “criminal behavior, anger expression, verbal aggression, and hostility have also been associated with later maltreatment” (Thornberry et al. 5). Indeed, parents with criminal records are more likely to abuse their children compared to other caregivers. Hence, mental health issues represent the following risk factor influencing the incidence of child abuse and neglect.

The first and foremost aspect to be discussed is a delay in the physical development of a child as a result of chronic maltreatment by caregivers. The researchers have managed to find the link between the phenomenon of parental neglect and health-related problems in children. They are certain that those children who experience chronic maltreatment are more likely to have poor health compared to kids living in a loving family. According to the article published in Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, “Abused children have high rates of growth problems, untreated vision and dental problems, infectious diseases, developmental delay, mental health, and behavioral problems, early and risky sexual behaviors, and chronic illnesses” (Chaiyachati, and Christian 2). In addition, some researchers claim that there is a strong link between childhood exposure to domestic violence and the risk of developing severe health issues. For instance, the authors of the recent study claim that “disease conditions including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease has shown a graded relationship to duration of childhood exposures” (Dahake et al. 43). Hence, it is apparent that chronic childhood exposure to domestic violence and maltreatment may increase an individual’s risk of developing serious health conditions.

Another dangerous outcome of child physical abuse is shaken baby syndrome, which is a serious brain injury being occurred in children younger than 18 months of age. Since newborn children have weak neck muscles, shaking a baby violently may cause severe health conditions, such as brain swelling and brain hemorrhage. Apart from that, “the injuries caused so may not be immediately noticeable but may include bleeding in the eye or brain, damage to the spinal cord and neck, and rib or bone fractures” (Dahake et al. 43). Since this particular health condition is almost impossible to diagnose immediately, surviving babies with shaken baby syndrome tend to develop severe disabilities. Among them, one can find paralysis, impaired vision or blindness, epilepsy, or infantile cerebral palsy. It is apparent that the adverse consequences of shaken baby syndrome will certainly affect different aspects of infants’ lives. Unfortunately, all these physical health conditions cannot be treated, and hence, surviving children with shaken baby syndrome do not have an opportunity to live a full life.

While discussing the long-term effects of child physical abuse, it is necessary to mention the issue of impaired brain development. The majority of neuropsychological studies focus not only on childhood structural brain development but also on the brain’s ability to respond to different emotional stimuli. According to Sara McLean, a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, children experiencing domestic abuse and parental neglect tend to develop learning, attention, and memory difficulties. Besides, she has mentioned that “the impact of adversity on brain development may depend on whether children primarily have experienced deprivation or threat during their pre-care life” (McLean). Apart from that, McLean believes that chronic exposure to physical abuse may lead to irreversible changes in brain development. Furthermore, the author provided clear evidence supporting a strong link between childhood trauma and stress hormone dysregulation. According to her findings, “the stress response system can either become chronically over-activated or under-responsive over time in response to a complex mix of factors (including chronicity and timing of abuse) that are currently unclear” (McLean). Therefore, many children experiencing stress in the earliest years of life fail to respond to stress in adolescence.

Some researchers claim that chronic child maltreatment may lead to changes in brain structure and functioning. As a response to stress, children experiencing any abuse usually exhibit high cortisol and catecholamine levels. In turn, hormonal imbalance may destruct brain cells, as well as normal brain connections, which have a detrimental impact on children’s development. Among the most common consequences, one can find difficulties with cognitive thinking, language delay, memory performance, and behavior regulation. Many modern researchers are certain that children living under constant stress tend to experience difficulties in cognitive development due to the poor quality of mother-child interactions. The issue of language delay is one of the most typical cognitive development challenges. The reason for such a tendency is the fact that children usually acquire language and develop their speaking skills as a result of interpersonal interaction. According to specialists in Pediatric medicine, “Children who are unable to communicate effectively may not have the necessary skills to negotiate or resolve conflict and may have difficulties understanding and relating to others” (Spratt et al. 7). Being exposed to neglect in early childhood, people are less likely to become socially intelligent individuals.

In their publication, Cowel, Cicchetti, Rogosch, and Toth have found a strong link between the phenomenon of chronic child maltreatment and certain impairments in the development of a child’s working memory. As they have mentioned, physical and emotional violence against children affects mainly brain regions within the fronto-limbic networks, which involve “the prefrontal cortex, both the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala” (Cowell et al. 2). These brain regions are associated with specific working memory, response inhibition, and other executive functions. Cowell et al. state that children experiencing any abuse have certain difficulties related to cognitive control and behavioral regulation. According to another scientific research, early child maltreatment increases an individual’s risk of having poor physical health, substance abuse, financial problems, and low income in adolescence (Moffit et al.). The authors claim that duration, frequency, and type of child maltreatment are important factors influencing the severity of negative health outcomes. In accordance with their findings, “children who experienced maltreatment during a single period of development performed as well as non maltreated children, whereas children who experienced chronic maltreatment performed significantly worse” (Cowell et al. 16). Hence, early childhood maltreatment may lead to various problems of cognitive control and behavioral regulation.

Regarding behavioral outcomes of chronic child maltreatment, adverse consequences may be manifested differently at different ages. For instance, toddlers usually display anger and emotional expression as a response to abuse or neglect. Being under constant stress, children (1-4 years old) may exhibit violent and aggressive behavior to protect themselves against caregivers’ violent actions. In turn, preschoolers may also display aggression and anger to cope with stress. Whereas boys may exhibit aggression and verbal bullying, girls usually experience depressive moods, social withdrawal, and even certain somatic symptoms, which include abdominal pain and chronic headaches. Unfortunately, the difficulties in behavioral regulation are not limited to the issues of substance dependence and abusive behavior. The primary-school-age children tend to exhibit other problems, which involve “poor academic performance, a lack of interest in school, poor concentration during classes, and limited friendships” (Odhayani et al. 833). As it was mentioned above, early child maltreatment may lead to a variety of negative outcomes in adolescence. According to the article that was published in a peer-reviewed journal titled Canadian Family Physician, such individuals usually engage in “risky behavior such as smoking, drinking alcohol, early sexual activity, using drugs, prostitution, homelessness, gang involvement, and carrying guns” (Odhayani et al. 833). Thus, it is evident that early childhood abuse is an important social issue that has detrimental long-term effects on people’s lives.

The last but not least issue that should be discussed is the impact of chronic abuse and neglect on children’s psychological/emotional development. As it was already mentioned, early childhood abuse is frequently associated with depressive moods, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, and the outbursts of anger in children. Sometimes, children may have sleep disturbances, eating disorders, and high levels of anxiety. Besides, modern researchers continue to study the link between child sexual abuse and the development of mental health disorders in children. According to the recent evidence-based study, child sexual abuse can be associated with “a wide range of psychiatric disorders in adulthood that range from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and substance abuse to schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder” (Shrivastava et al.). In most cases, the primary symptoms of such psychiatric disorders begin to appear later in life. Apart from that, victims of child sexual abuse may experience ongoing suicidal thoughts, which is a common symptom among children being exposed to any kind of abuse.

The important thing is that warning signs of PTSD are usually accompanied by different emotional disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. The majority of modern researchers claim that children with intellectual disabilities represent a vulnerable group being more likely to experience child maltreatment and parental neglect. According to Claudia Catani and Iris Sossalla, “children with mental or intellectual impairments seem to have a higher prevalence and risk of violence than do children with other types of disability” (Catani, and Sossalla 2). The authors are certain that children with intellectual disabilities are more likely to develop PTSD later in life. Hence, modern researchers have found a strong ling between the phenomenon of child maltreatment and the development of PTSD in adolescence.

In conclusion, chronic child maltreatment is one of the most important social issues due to the fact that it can be associated with negative long-term effects on children’s development. Many modern researchers claim that children being exposed to chronic abuse and neglect tend to experience severe physical, psychological, and behavioral problems. Regarding physical health-related outcomes, victims of child abuse tend to have a weakened immune system; they are more likely to have vision impairments, dental problems, and chronic infections compared to children who have loving parents. In turn, scientists believe that chronic exposure to child abuse and neglect increases children’s risk of developing severe health conditions, such as ischemic heart disease, skeletal fractures, and various oncological disorders. In addition, researchers state that the majority of children living in abusive families tend to have cognitive development delays and language impairments. Due to the lack of interpersonal interactions, such children do not have an opportunity to become socially intelligent. Concerning mental health difficulties, chronic exposure to child abuse frequently leads to the development of severe psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD, panic disorder, and schizophrenia. Finally, such children may exhibit symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, and uncontrolled anger.

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