Shocking headlines draw attention to the horrors of child abuse and neglect—the 2018 discovery of the Turpin family’s neglect of their 13 children. The indictment of former Delaware pediatrician, Dr. Earl Bradley, in 2010, on 471 charges of child abuse. The decade’s long abuse claims of more than 1,700 Catholic clergies. All cases of abuse and neglect committed by adults in positions of trust and authority. While extreme cases may make headlines, there are many more cases that don’t make the news.
The numbers are staggering. Nearly 700,000 children were abused in the US in 2018, which only accounts for the number of reported cases. The thought of helpless children suffering from abuse or neglect is upsetting. What many people may not be aware of is the long-term impact of neglect and abuse for those who reach adulthood.
All children are different and respond and cope differently. Some adult survivors shut down emotionally. Others lash out and suffer from frequent outbursts of anger.
There are many forms of maltreatment. While physical abuse may be the most obvious to detect, other types of abuse and neglect, such as emotional and sexual, are equally detrimental. Exposure to violence, poverty, food insecurity and systemic racism can also contribute to child abuse and neglect. Decades of research has enabled scientists to examine and study changes to the brain after childhood maltreatment.
All forms of abuse and neglect can cause toxic stress, which can have a cumulative toll on a person’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime—creating a significant public health issue.
Child abuse and neglect can cause a variety of psychological problems. Children who suffer from abuse and neglect can feel isolated, fearful and distrustful, all of which can translate into lifelong psychological consequences that can manifest as educational difficulties, low self-esteem, depression or trouble forming and maintaining relationships. Researchers have identified links between child abuse and neglect and the following psychological outcomes:
Attachment and social difficulties
Studies have determined that infants in foster care who have experienced maltreatment followed by disruptions in early caregiving can develop attachment disorders. Attachment disorders can negatively affect a child in numerous ways, including forming positive peer, social, and romantic relationships later in life. Antisocial traits are also more prevalent in adults who experienced abuse or neglect, which can lead to criminal behavior in adulthood (US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 2017).
Diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills
Brain development disrupted as a result of maltreatment can cause impairments to the brain’s executive functions: working memory, self-control, and cognitive flexibility. Maltreated children are also at risk for other cognitive problems, including difficulties learning and paying attention (Bick & Nelson, 2016).
Poor mental and emotional health
Childhood maltreatment puts people at risk for depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders throughout adulthood. Studies have found that adults with a history of childhood abuse and neglect had a higher prevalence of suicide attempts than those who did not. Adults with major depression who experienced abuse as children had poorer response outcomes to antidepressant treatment, primarily if the maltreatment occurred when they were aged seven or younger (Williams, Debattista, Duchemin, Schatzberg, & Nemeroff, 2016).
Post Traumatic stress
Abused and neglected children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by symptoms such as persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic events related to the abuse. They may avoid people, places, and events that are associated with their maltreatment. They may feel fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame and startle easily. Depression, suicidal behavior, substance use and oppositional or defiant behaviors can be caused by PTSD, affecting their ability to succeed in school and nurturing meaningful relationships.
Physical Health Consequences
Less obvious are the considerable physical health outcomes of children subjected to abuse and neglect, which can take months, even years, to emerge. A wide range of long-term and future health problems have been linked to child abuse and neglect, including:
- Lung disease
- Vision problems
- Functional limitations (i.e., being limited in activities)
- Heart attack
- Back problems
- High blood pressure
- Brain damage
- Migraine headaches
- Chronic bronchitis/emphysema/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Bowel disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
Conversations about child abuse and neglect are difficult. But ending child abuse and neglect depends on having those conversations to support survivors and stop it from happening to future generations. We need to create a world where survivors are empowered, not embarrassed, to tell their stories. A world where researchers can continue to uncover valuable information about abuse and neglect to prevent it. A world where those who abuse and neglect children can get the education and training they need. Together, we can do it.
Get Support and Continue the Conversation – Join our Survivor Community
EndCAN is committed to growing a community of survivors to end child abuse and neglect. We recently launched the Louder than Silence: Ending Child Abuse and Neglect Survivor Community through Inspire. Inspire is a free, online community of support groups where people exploring health conditions can feel safe, be authentic, anonymously discuss their experiences, and learn from other people who have “been there.” Ask questions about your experiences with child abuse and neglect, get support from other survivors, and join us in the movement to create a world safer for future generations. You can join our survivor community today at https://www.inspire.com/groups/prevent-child-abuse/.