Tracking the Impact of Early Abuse and Neglect

Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Maltreatment experienced before age 5 can have negative effects that continue to be seen nearly three decades later, according to a new study led by Lee Raby, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

“It is not a controversial statement to say abuse and neglect can have harmful consequences,” Raby said. “This study adds to that by showing that these effects are long term and don’t weaken with time. They persist from childhood across adolescence and into adulthood.”

The journal Child Development published the study. Co-authors are: Glenn I. Roisman and Madelyn H. Labella, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota; Jodi Martin, Department of Psychology, York University; R. Chris Fraley, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Jeffry A. Simpson, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota.

Raby said his team wanted to know two things: Does maltreatment early in life have long-term associations that extend into adulthood and do those effects remain stable or weaken over time?

The researchers used data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, which has followed participants since their births in the mid-1970s. The U study looked at data on 267 individuals who had reached ages between 32 and 34.

Information about the participants’ exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect was gathered from multiple sources during two age periods: 0-5 years and 6-17.5 years. Throughout childhood and adolescence, teachers reported on the children’s functioning with peers. The children also completed standardized tests on academic achievement. The participants were interviewed again during their 20s and 30s, during which they discussed romantic experiences and educational attainment.

Unlike studies based on adults’ retrospective accounts of their childhood experiences, the data used here were collected in real-time. In addition, because data on the participants has been collected throughout their lifetimes, the researchers were able to disentangle the effects of maltreatment that occurred in their early years from experiences of abuse and neglect during later childhood.

“The design allows us to ask our two questions in a way no other study has before,” Raby said.

Raby said the findings showed those who experienced abuse or neglect early in life consistently were less successful in their social relationships and academic performance during childhood, adolescence and even during adulthood. The effects of maltreatment did not weaken as the participants got older.

“The harmful effect of early abuse and neglect was just as important when we were looking at outcomes at age 32 years as when we looked at outcomes at age 5,” he said.

The researchers found abuse and neglect in later childhood also impacted these competencies in adulthood, but that later maltreatment did not fully account for persistent and long-term influences attributed to abuse and neglect experienced in early childhood. They also found long-term difficulties with social functioning — but not academic achievement — occurred independent of such factors as gender, ethnicity and early socioeconomic status.

“These findings add more evidence for the importance of identifying high-risk families and attempting to intervene before experiences of abuse and neglect occur,” Raby said.

Finding What’s Right with Children Who Grow Up in High-Stress Environments

A new research article proposes that more attention be given to what’s right with children who grow up in high-stress environments so their unique strengths and abilities can be used to more effectively tailor education, jobs and interventions to fit them.

Stress-adapted children and youth possess traits — such as heightened vigilance, attention shifting and empathic accuracy — that aren’t tapped in traditional learning and testing situations. In addition, these skills may actually allow at-risk children to perform better than their peers from low-risk backgrounds when faced with uncertainty and stress.

Most research to date has focused on detrimental effects of growing up under stressful conditions and the deficits in cognitive development that can result, said Bruce J. Ellis, lead author.

“We’re not arguing that’s wrong, but that it is only part of the picture,” said Ellis, a University of Utah psychology professor. “The other part is that children fine-tune their abilities to match the world that they grow up in, which can result in enhanced stress-adapted skills. We’re trying to challenge a world view and give consideration to an alternative adaptation-based approach to resilience.”

The study “Beyond Risk and Protective Factors: An Adaptation-based Approach to Resilience” is forthcoming in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Co-authors include JeanMarie Bianchi, University of Arizona; Vladas Griskevicius, University of Minnesota; and Willem E. Frankenhuis, Radboud University Nijmegen.

The prevailing view is that children who experience high-stress environments are at risk for impairments in learning and behavior and that interventions are needed to prevent, reduce or repair the damage that has been done to them.

These high-stress environments include neighborhood danger; exposure to environmental chemicals; bad housing conditions; neglectful and abusive parenting; low-quality childcare; and peer and school violence. Research has shown that the more stressors children are exposed to, the more their performances in traditional learning and testing situations is compromised.

Most interventions are aimed at countering these deficits and getting “children and youth from high-risk backgrounds to act, think, and feel more like children and youth from low-risk backgrounds,” the authors say.

In other words, the dominant approach assumes at-risk youth are somehow broken and need to be fixed.

Virtually no research attention has been paid to what strengths and abilities youth possess as a result of growing up in high-risk environments, Ellis said.

Although there is a rich body of literature examining adaptive responses in birds and rodents to stressful environments, the first theoretical work related to humans was published in 2013 by co-author Frankenhuis, followed by the first experiments in 2015 by co-author Griskevicius, Ellis said.

That research showed repeated or chronic stress does not exclusively impair cognition and can improve forms of attention, perception, learning, memory and problem-solving.

“Our argument is that stress does not so much impair development as direct or regulate it toward these strategies that are adaptive under stressful conditions,” Ellis said. “Stress-adapted children and youth may perform better on tasks that involve situations and relationships that are relevant to them, such as social dominance. They also may perform better in settings that do not attempt to minimize the reality of daily stressors and uncertainties.”

These stress-adapted skills should be understood, appreciated and seen as building blocks for success, Ellis said. A first, essential step is that researchers catalog the strengths and abilities of people who grow up in high-stress environments and focus on how to leverage those abilities to enhance learning, intervention and developmental outcomes.

Children Who Experience Early Childhood Trauma Do Not ‘Just Get Over It’

Humans are relatively adaptable beings which is why we are thriving and not dying out like other species. Horrendous disasters such as the Philippines typhoon, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the nuclear disaster in Japan, the major wars of our time, and horrific famines see great suffering, but these events also inspire survival through adaptation. It turns out we possess a strong survival mechanism in our brains directly linked to our bodies, fight, flight, freeze, flop and friend (fffff).

In fact, the survival part of our brain, which is primitive yet effective, is the first to develop in utero starting at around 7 weeks. It regulates our breathing, digestive system, heart rate and temperature, along with the ‘fffff’ system which operates to preserve our life.

If we have to dodge a falling object, jump out of the path of a speeding car, keep very still to avoid being seen, run for the hills from a predator, or get someone potentially threatening ‘onside’ we need this to happen fast. If a baby is scared, cold, hungry, lonely, or in any way overwhelmed, this triggers their survival system and they cry to bring an adult to them to help them survive.

If a baby is repeatedly scared and emotionally overwhelmed and they do not get their survival brain soothed, so they can cope, they begin to develop a brain and bodily system which is on hyper alert and the World seems to be a scary place. Sadly, this is not something they can ‘just grow out of’. Far from it as what neuroscience is showing us from all the recent findings. An early experience has a profound effect on the way in which a child’s brain forms and operates as the survival brain is on overdrive and senses threats everywhere so works too hard, too often, for too long.

Babies and young children systems are flooded with potent stress hormones which help in the event of needing the 5 fffff’s, but they are not good to have at high levels for too long. Imagine the feeling when you truly believe you have lost your wallet with all your cards and money in it. You feel a bit faint, your brain is whirring, your heart is racing, your breathing is shallow, and you may get the urge to empty your bowels or bladder. Hopefully, this may only last for the usual 45 minute cycle for those who are not traumatised.

Then, stress hormone levels drop and you can think more clearly and resume your day fairly unscathed. What if you are 4, 9 or 15 years old? How will you cope if your repetitive early childhood trauma of living with domestic violence, unavailable or rough carers, chaos and unpredictability has left you traumatised?

As I referred to at the start, humans are amazingly adaptable in order to survive, although not necessarily thrive. So a child’s system adapts to get whatever basic needs met it can and to live to the next moment, think the soldier in a war zone kind of survival. In an abusive environment, this will make sense but it is not something a child can just stop doing as their survival brain is in charge and has to do what it has learnt to keep them alive.

The kinds of survival behaviours they commonly develop are:

Regression

Presenting as helpless may have made carers frustrated, even angry and rough with them but will mean they sometimes had to touch a child who presented as unable to say get dressed or wipe their bottom or feed themselves – this can look like immaturity and ‘babyish’ behaviour in an 8 year old but it has previously served a purpose

Being held and touched kindly is a basic human need and tragically children in Romanian orphanages who were not, died. Almost ‘pathetically’ children often devise ways which can seem strange, given their age and previous capabilities, to get some physical contact, even if it’s unpleasant

Children often learn to survive by being ‘like a baby’ as they have either learnt how babies get more kindness and attention or have some in-built ‘memory’ of this. However, ‘acting like a baby’ can be negatively viewed as regression, yet it is often an expression of trust in carers as they feel safe enough post abuse to seek out kindness from them. These behaviours need to be handled gently until the child is ready to move on. Imagine you had never experienced physical closeness and gentle touch, but you were driven to seek it out which requires real courage.

Dramatic reactions

When a child is in the ‘I’ve lost my keys’ panic state most of the day, it’s like a pan boiling on the stove and the smallest extra heat causes it to boil over

The survival brain leaps into action at the slightest thing, an accidental shove from another child, a small scratch on the arm, a lost pencil, a ‘look’ from another child and the 5 fffff’s are triggered, for most children that’s flight but if cornered and unable to escape, or previously overused, it will be a fight.

Children may cry more readily and for much longer and louder as they do not have the ability to self soothe or to be soothed easily as their brain has not been exposed to this and is not wired that way so telling them to ‘calm down’ is of no use

They are feeling things as deeply as they seem to be at this point and are not just ‘attention seeking’

Disassociation

Disassociation or ‘zoning out’ is another way the brain and body cope with high levels of potentially toxic stress hormones for overly long periods. It can also be a learnt survival strategy, submit, switch off and wait for the frightening, painful, incomprehensible act to be over. This ability to switch off can look like defiance or non-compliance as a child may just stare ahead and not respond to requests from adults

Children cannot continuously cope with the muscle tension, nausea, thudding heart, racing thoughts so finding something to fixate on to soothe them can become a great coping strategy and again will look as if they are being non-compliant whereas they are escaping from their trauma the only way they know how.

How long until they do ‘get over it?’

It’s a fair question as to why it’s so hard for traumatised children to trust caring adults. If they were removed from the abuse and trauma as a baby or even directly after birth, surely they should not be having these dramatic reactions?

Going back to our survival part of our brain, this is not designed to be the dominant part of anyone’s brain as we also have an emotional memories part and a thinking, reasoning, socially able cognitive part which should mostly be ‘in charge’. All three areas are interlinked and share info back and forth all the time but mostly we need to think before we act and then we do better. However, if your start in life has made your survival brain ‘hyper alert’ then to manage this is like repeatedly trying to get a squirrel into a matchbox!

Children need us to be calm, kind, to use rhythm, patience and to try to step into their world and emotional state and show empathy. As practitioners, it can be helpful to research ways of supporting traumatised children, pushing for appropriate training and most importantly being very aware of the extra strain that comes with working with and caring for traumatised children. However, with the right long term acceptance, kindness and support children can get a better chance at eventually being able to manage their reactive survival brain which has, after all, got them this far. 

Exit mobile version