Consequences of Child Maltreatment

The consequences of child maltreatment can be profound and may last long after the abuse or neglect occurs.  The effects can appear in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood and may affect every aspect of an individual's development -- physical, cognitive, psychological, societal, and behavioral.  While the effects of child abuse and neglect are often discussed in terms of these specific categories, it is not truly possible to separate them completely.  Physical consequences, such as damage to a child's growing brain, for example, can have psychological implications as well, including cognitive delays, emotional difficulties, depression, or anxiety.  These might then manifest as high-risk or violent behaviors, such as an increased likelihood to smoke, abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, or overeat.

While research differs on the effects of trauma on a child's cognitive development, verbal abilities, and problem-solving skills, it has consistently found that maltreatment increases the risk of lower academic achievement and problematic school performance.  Physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and psychological maltreatment can all affect a child's emotional and psychological well-being and lead to behavioral problems.  These emotional and psychological issues may appear immediately or years later and can involve behaviors that range from passive and withdrawn (internalizing) to active and aggressive (externalizing).  Maltreated children who developed insecure attachments to caregivers may become more mistrustful of others and experience difficulties in understanding the emotions of others, regulating their own emotions, and forming and maintaining relationships with peers.  Victims of child maltreatment are also more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and violent behavior.

Physically abused children, followed closely by neglected children, were the most likely to be arrested later for violent crime.  The health and physical effects of abuse include the immediate effects of bruises, burns, lacerations, and broken bones, as well as the longer-term effects of brain damage, hemorrhages, and permanent disabilities.  There can also be severe negative effects on a child's physical development resulting from physical trauma such as blows to the head or body, violent shaking, scalding with hot water, or asphyxiation, as well as from neglect such as inadequate nutrition, lack of adequate motor stimulation, or the withholding of medical treatments.

It is important to note that while maltreated children will have a higher risk of certain problems, not all of them will necessarily suffer severe or long-term consequences.  A number of factors may influence the effects of maltreatment, including the child's age and developmental status at the time of the maltreatment, as well as the type, frequency, duration, and severity of the maltreatment and co-occurring problems.  So, while the risk is higher, most abused and neglected children will not become delinquent, experience problem behaviors, or become involved in violent crime.