Developmental Difficulties Resulting From Child Abuse and Maltreatment

Early childhood experiences create the basis for expression of intelligence, emotions, and personality. When these experiences are predominantly negative, the stage is set for emotional, developmental, and behavioral problems that persist throughout life. Studies have shown that the brains of children who have experienced chronic abuse and neglect remain in a state of "hyperarousal" or expectation of imminent danger. This hyperarousal may interfere with learning and the ability to form emotional bonds with others.

Common symptoms include—

  • Inability to control emotions or frequent outbursts.
  • Unusually quiet or submissive behavior.
  • Difficulty learning in school.
  • Interpersonal difficulties with siblings or classmates.
  • Unusual eating or sleeping behaviors.
  • Aggressive or sexually provocative behavior.
  • Socially or emotionally inappropriate behavior for their age.
  • Lack of response to affection.

Prominent studies of child abuse and maltreatment point to several unfortunate outcomes for victims as they grow up. Adolescents who were victims of sexual assault are three to five times more likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, be abused again, be dependent on drugs and alcohol, or commit delinquent acts than adolescents who were not victimized, according to a nationally representative sample. In addition, girls who witnessed violence were nearly twice as likely as boys to experience posttraumatic stress disorder later in life.

For additional details on these findings, see Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development.

Date Reviewed: March 3, 2011