The impact of child abuse and neglect is often discussed in terms of physical, psychological, behavioral and societal consequences. In reality, however, it is impossible to separate them completely.
Physical consequences, such as damage to a child’s growing brain, can have psychological implications, such as cognitive delays or emotional difficulties. Psychological problems often manifest as high-risk behaviors. Depression and anxiety, for example, may make a person more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, or overeat. High-risk behaviors, in turn, can lead to long-term physical health problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, cancer and obesity.
Not all children who are abused or neglected will experience long term consequences. Outcomes of individual cases vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors, including:
— The child’s age and developmental status when the abuse or neglect occurred;
— The type of abuse (physical, neglect, sexual abuse, etc.);
— The frequency, duration and severity of abuse; and
— The relationship between the victim and his or her abuser.
Some children experience long-term consequences of abuse and neglect while others emerge relatively unscathed. The ability to cope, and even thrive, following a negative experience, is sometimes referred to as “resilience.”
There are a number of factors that can contribute to a child’s resilience. These factors can include a child’s individual characteristics, such as optimism, self-esteem, intelligence, creativity, humor and independence.
The acceptance of peers and positive individual influences, such as non-offending parents or caregivers, teachers, mentors and role models also contribute to resilience.
Other factors may include the child’s social environment and the family’s ability to nurture and provide a stable family relationship. Access to health care and social services significantly impacts a child’s resilience.
The immediate physical effects of abuse or neglect can be relatively minor (bruises or cuts) or severe (broken bones, hemorrhage, burns or even death). In some cases the physical effects are temporary; however, the pain and suffering they cause a child may live on far after the abuse is over.
The relationship between childhood trauma and later health concerns has been the subject of many studies. Research has found that childhood experiences of abuse contribute to the likelihood of depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviors, personality disorders, eating disorders and sexual disorders (Draper et al., 2007).
When thinking about the long-term effects of child abuse, here are a few statistics to keep in mind:
— 22 percent of maltreated children have learning disorders requiring special education.
— 27 percent of children who are abused or neglected become delinquents, compared to 17 percent of children in the general population.
In a study of 17,000 adults, those who were abused as children were more likely to become suicidal; more likely to have heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease; twice as likely to be smokers; twice as likely to be severely obese; twice as likely to become alcoholics; and three times as likely to develop a drug addiction.
Studies conducted have shown an increase of sexually transmitted diseases in childhood abuse or neglect survivors tracked over time.
Although this article has focused on the effects of child abuse, it ends with the question: How do we ameliorate those long-term impact of child abuse?
The answer is simple — stop child abuse and neglect. There must be a resurgence of community education and intervention, and a commitment to help end this horrific childhood experience.
Child abuse continues to be an epidemic — for which there is a cure. Every person, whether they are a parent, educator, professional or a customer shopping at Walmart must advocate and protect the most vulnerable members of our community.
If a child discloses abuse to you, believe them, then take the appropriate steps to report the disclosure — The Department of Health and Human Services will take a report 24 hours a day, as will all law enforcement entities.
The impact of child abuse does not end when the abuse stops. A person abused as a child may experience long-term effects that can interfere with their day-to-day functioning. With help and support, however, it is possible for that person to live a full and constructive life, and even thrive — to enjoy a feeling of wholeness, satisfaction in life and work, as well as genuine love and trust in their relationships.
Keri Myrick is the coordinator and forensic interviewer for the Andros