Physical Health and Development

Aside from the obvious effects of serious injuries, like broken bones or brain injuries, and possible resulting disabilities from physical abuse, the physical pain from other types of abuse will eventually pass.  However, maltreated children frequently experience additional kinds of physical issues, such as failure to thrive (delayed weight gain and growth) and even brain damage, stunted growth, and mental retardation from chronic malnutrition.  Because neglected and emotionally abused children must focus their mental energies on having their primary needs met, they cannot spend adequate time in motor activities and explorations.  Consequently, delays in their physical development are not uncommon.

report completed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that maltreated children from birth to 36 months are at substantial risk of experiencing developmental problems.  The level of risk for developmental delay remains high even years after the initial maltreatment.  Infants and toddlers who are neglected may exhibit poor muscle tone, delays in fine and gross motor skills, poor coordination and muscle control, and delays in reaching developmental milestones.  They may be difficult to soothe and may have small stature.  They may also be chronically ill; many have upper respiratory infections and digestive problems.

Trauma-affected children, particularly preschoolers, may also regress in their development and lose skills they had previously mastered.  For example, toilet-trained children may suddenly lose their ability to control their bladders and have to re-learn toileting control.  Maltreated children of school age may show general delays in physical development, with awkward gait and motor movement, poor coordination and muscle tone, speech and language difficulties, and low levels of strength as compared to their peers.  They may also lack the coordination and skills necessary for perceptual-motor activities, such as playground activities or sports.  As maltreated children enter their adolescent and teen years, they may begin to participate in risky behaviors such as smoking, promiscuous and/or unsafe sex, picking fights, and substance abuse, all of which may further affect their well-being.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), an ongoing, decade-long collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine, addresses the effects of childhood experiences on adult health.  Findings show that children who experienced adversity such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, or exposure to domestic violence may likely have health problems in adulthood as a result.  The study states that there is “a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults.”  In other words, the effects of childhood trauma and maltreatment that distort children's lives can last for a lifetime.