Abuse and Neglect: Factors Affecting the Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

For fiscal year (FY) 2011, States reported that 676,569 children were victims of child abuse or neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). While physical injuries may or may not be immediately visible, abuse and neglect can have consequences for children, families, and society that last lifetimes, if not generations.

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 the types of impacts. 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 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 have been abused or neglected will experience long-term consequences, but they may have an increased susceptibility.

This factsheet explains the long-term physical, psychological, behavioral, and societal consequences of child abuse and neglect. For more information on abuse and neglect, including definitions, the different types, and the signs and symptoms, read Child Welfare Information Gateway’s

What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan.cfm

Factors Affecting the Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect

Individual outcomes vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors, including:

Researchers also have begun to explore why, given similar conditions, 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 often referred to as “resilience.” It is important to note that resilience is not an inherent trait in children but results from a mixture of both risk and protective factors that cause a child’s positive or negative reaction to adverse experiences. A number of protective and promotive factors—individually, within a family, or within a community—may contribute to an abused or neglected child’s resilience. These include positive attachment, self-esteem, intelligence, emotion regulation, humor, and independence (Shaffer, 2012).

Physical Health Consequences

The immediate physical effects of abuse or neglect can be relatively minor (bruises or cuts) or severe (broken bones, hemorrhage, or even death). In some cases, the physical effects are temporary; however, the pain and suffering they cause a child should not be discounted.

Child abuse and neglect can have a multitude of long-term effects on physical health. NSCAW researchers found that, at some point during the 3 years following a maltreatment investigation, 28 percent of children had a chronic health condition (Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation [ACF/OPRE], 2007). Below are some outcomes other researchers have identified:

Abusive head trauma

Abusive head trauma, an inflicted injury to the head and its contents caused by shaking and blunt impact, is the most common cause of traumatic death for infants. The injuries may not be immediately noticeable and may include bleeding in the eye or brain and damage to the spinal cord and neck. Significant brain development takes place during infancy, and this important development is compromised in maltreated children. One in every four victims of shaken baby syndrome dies, and nearly all victims experience serious health consequences (CDC, n.d.).

Impaired brain development

Child abuse and neglect have been shown to cause important regions of the brain to fail to form or grow properly, resulting in impaired development. These alterations in brain maturation have long-term consequences for cognitive, language, and academic abilities and are connected with mental health disorders (Tarullo, 2012). Disrupted neurodevelopment as a result of maltreatment can cause children to adopt a persistent fear state as well as attributes that are normally helpful during threatening moments but counterproductive in the absence of threats, such as hypervigilance, anxiety, and behavior impulsivity (Perry, 2012). Child Welfare Information Gateway has produced two publications on the impact of maltreatment on brain development. Supporting Brain Development in Traumatized Children and Youth: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/ braindevtrauma.pdf

Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/ issue_briefs/brain_development/brain_ development.pdf

Poor physical health

Several studies have shown a relationship between various forms of child maltreatment and poor health. Adults who experienced abuse or neglect during childhood are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, lung and liver disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and obesity (Felitti & Anda, 2009). Specific physical health conditions are also connected to maltreatment type. One study showed that children who experienced neglect were at increased risk for diabetes and poorer lung functioning, while physical abuse was shown to increase the risk for diabetes and malnutrition (Widom, Czaja, Bentley, & Johnson, 2012). Additionally, child maltreatment has been shown to increase adolescent obesity. A longitudinal study found that children who experienced neglect had body mass indexes that grew at significantly faster rates compared to children who had not experienced neglect (Shin & Miller, 2012).

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Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.