Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect
Every child has a right to a safe childhood and a life free from violence. The experience of child abuse and neglect infringe upon that right.
The effects of abuse affect each child differently. While the effects of abuse can be severe and long-lasting, children who have been abused or exposed to violence can and do go on to have healthy and productive childhoods and adult lives. Children are resilient, and being able to discuss and guide our children through a recovery process is crucial to their success. It is often the first step towards healing. In most cases, once their safety is assured, children can overcome the effects of trauma through professional counseling or other supportive interventions.
Developmental and psychological effects
The brain develops at an incredible pace during the early developmental stages of infancy and childhood. Studies about early childhood development indicate that the brain develops in response to experiences with caregivers, family and the community, and that its development is directly linked to the quality and quantity of those experiences. Meeting a child’s needs during these early stages creates emotional stability and security that is needed for healthy brain development. Repeated exposure to stressful events can affect the brain’s stress response, making it more reactive and less adaptive. With time a child may react as if danger is always present in their environment regardless of what the presenting situation actually is.1
Research has found that children exposed to violence or abuse, if left unaddressed or ignored, are at an increased risk for emotional and behavioral problems in the future.2 Children who are abused may not be able to express their feelings safely and as a result, may develop difficulties regulating their emotions. As adults, they may continue to struggle with their feelings, which can lead to depression or anxiety.3
The following are some of possible effects of child abuse and neglect on a child’s mental health:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Academic problems in school-aged children and adolescents
- Withdrawn and/or difficulty connecting with others
- Increased hypervigilance
- Difficulty sleeping
The overall impact of abuse also depends on the child’s natural reactions to stress and ways of coping with stressful situations. Other factors can include age at which the trauma occurred, previous exposure to unrelated traumatic incidents and extent of therapy or timing of intervention.
Children are more physically susceptible to injury than adults as their bodies are still in development. When a child is being physically abused or neglected some of these injuries are apparent. However, there are times when a perpetrator is careful not to leave marks or injuries that are visible so that the abuse is not discovered. Being able to recognize the physical effects of abuse can be crucial in identifying an abusive situation and taking steps to protect a child from further abuse or neglect.
These are some common effects observed in children who have been physically or sexually abused and/or neglected:
- Bruises, welts or swelling
- Sprains or fractures
- Lacerations or abrasions
- Difficulty in walking or sitting
- Torn, stained or bloody clothing
- Pain or itching in the genital area; bruises or bleeding in the external genital area
- Sexually transmitted infections or diseases
- Lack of adequate supervision, nutrition or shelter
- Poor hygiene
- Inappropriate dress
Children may develop these as ways to cope with complex trauma, or perhaps even to forget or suppress the traumatizing memories.
Possible emotional and behavioral effects of trauma include:
- Eating disorders
- Drug use
- Risky sexual decision-making
- Troubled sleeping
- Discomfort with physical touch
For more information, learn about the signs of child abuse and neglect here.
Effects on children who witness domestic violence
The emotional toll on children who witness threats or violence against others can be substantial, especially when those involved are familiar to the child and the violence takes place in the home. Children may be affected when they witness domestic violence, regardless of whether or not they are directly abused.
Current research has found that children exposed to domestic violence are at an increased risk for emotional and behavioral problems, including anxiety, depression and academic problems. The research also suggests that some children who have witnessed domestic violence show no symptoms of psychological distress.
Children's responses may depend on the severity and frequency of the abuse, the availability of family and community support, and the child's resilience. Once their safety is assured, most children can overcome the effects of trauma through professional counseling or other supportive interventions.
Once their safety is assured, children who have experienced abuse or neglect can go on to heal and thrive. Being able to discuss and guide our children through a recovery process is crucial to their success, and often the first step towards healing. Most children who have been abused go on to recover and live healthy, productive lives.
2 Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect,” Factsheets, (2008), www.childwelfare.gov.
3 Smith, Melinda and Segal, Jeanne, “Child Abuse & Neglect: Recognizing, Preventing, and Reporting Child Abuse,” (June 2013), www.helpguide.org.