Post No.: 0562
Like domestic abuse in general, it’s highly likely that many childhood maltreatment cases go unreported, despite the number of children who are on a child protection plan or register. (See the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for the UK.) Abused or neglected children may learn to just keep quiet. It’s hard for children to open up with their innermost feelings when they don’t even understand what they’re feeling. They may not know any differently to understand that anything’s even wrong with how they’re being treated. They may be afraid of change – even if it’s for the better – because they don’t understand that there’s a better life they could be living.
Childhood maltreatment can come in the form of physical abuse (deliberate physical harm), emotional abuse (any continual emotional harm such as deliberately trying to frighten, humiliate, isolate or ignore a child), sexual abuse (any kind of sexual activity, whether in-person or online, usually through force or deceit), exposure to domestic violence (witnessing any type of bullying, controlling, threatening or violent behaviour between people in a relationship), and neglect (the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs).
Neglect is one of the most common forms of maltreatment and can be subdivided into physical, emotional, educational and medical neglect. Other forms of child abuse include child exploitation and grooming (e.g. by criminal gangs), child trafficking, female genital mutilation, and bullying (including cyberbullying). This list is not exhaustive.
All forms of maltreatment can hugely adversely affect a young person’s mental and physical health – and this isn’t just at the time but there are potential latent and lasting effects in adulthood too. Children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect are more likely to develop mental health problems like depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse disorders when older. They may develop social problems and are more likely to have poorer educational and physical health outcomes too.
It’s however crucial to note that many children who’ve experienced maltreatment go on to lead healthy, productive and fulfilled lives, hence maltreatment increases the probability of lower well-being and poorer life outcomes but this isn’t a certainty. Most young people who experience maltreatment don’t develop severe mental health disorders or become antisocial. Why some go on to develop these difficulties and others don’t still isn’t clear because it’s complex. Other factors have an influence, such as being subsequently received into a loving adoptive family early enough, and perhaps genetics. Some may receive appropriate and effective interventions in time, or simply not get pushed quite enough over the edge? Resilience is the way we bounce back from adversities, and this requires both personal self-care and external support.
Yet we must re-emphasise that the adverse impacts of childhood maltreatment aren’t always immediately apparent – they can surface in late adolescence or adulthood. The memories of traumatic abusive events never quite disappear. Trauma and chronic stress change the way our brains and bodies perceive and react to the world around us – a maltreated child is more likely to have trouble regulating his/her emotions, focusing in school, finding learning success, socially developing, and interacting with peers and adults in a positive way. So childhood maltreatment doesn’t just impact upon a child’s mental health but also a wide range of cognitive and social abilities, which are important for their learning (e.g. grades, grade retention, dropping out of education) and psychosocial well-being (e.g. poorer social skills and interpersonal relationships), at school, and in turn beyond. A child might still actually be academically competent despite experiencing sustained maltreatment at home or elsewhere – but someone who doesn’t seem to have suffered academically perhaps would’ve done even better had they not been maltreated?
Earlier events in our lives are generally more impacting than later ones, even though the further we go back in time, the more difficult it can be to identify the causes to their effects. Well imagine being time travellers – if we change something 100 years ago, we’re going to be less sure whether the world today will be about the same as it is now compared to if we just change something 1 minute ago. Thus earlier events in our lives are more probabilistically important in shaping us than later events in our lives. In some cases, a metaphorical ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ will only manifest when one is an adult, but the groundwork for getting vulnerably close to that snapping point was set up during one’s youth.
But that means there’s a more positive flipside – the earlier a person receives a protective and non-abusive or non-neglectful environment, the more that’ll build furry resilience in them. And that’s what we should aim for with everyone – make every person’s childhood a happy and peaceful one. Woof!
Everyone has a story for explaining why they are exactly the way they are. It might be a story they don’t even realise themselves, such as the importance of the impact of certain events during their developing years, or even during their time in their mother’s womb (e.g. maternal stress, or of course a bad diet or recreational drug-taking, during pregnancy, which risks long-term physical and mental health problems for the offspring). Or it might be a story they don’t want to acknowledge even to themselves – sexual, mental and physical abuse victims sometimes take a long time before they’re ready to open up about their stories to others. Like with mental health issues, it can take a collective courage before people open up i.e. some people open up about their private experiences, then others find the courage to open up too.
The point is that there are historical cause(s) for every present effect. They aren’t excuses but just the way this cause-and-effect universe works from a scientific perspective – causes that no one chose, earned or deserved from young, hence how can anyone judge anyone else’s unfortunate life outcomes in this world with any moral superiority? And everyone only ever lives their own life so we may not know any differently to our own youths and upbringings – thus we mightn’t know how bad other children had it, and they mightn’t know how good we had it, when young, without education and listening to other people’s diverse stories. How lucky we feel also depends on whom we’re comparing to, so if we compare ourselves to children of millionaires then we mightn’t consider ourselves lucky, but perhaps we were compared to most other children in the world?
Kind of like additive genetics, where it’s not just one gene but lots of genes each accumulating a very small effect but adding up – environmental events are often additive too. So we mightn’t be able to definitely say that it was a particular event that caused someone to become the way they are. Some single, particularly traumatic, events can certainly have an enormous effect, but it’s still the aggregate accumulation and combination of everything, good, neutral and bad, that shapes a person’s life outcomes – where possibly, if only a few of those events didn’t occur or if only a piece of the chain were broken, then that person’s outcomes would’ve been noticeably different (the butterfly effect). The timings of events are crucial too – two or more traumatic events that occur close together in one’s life (e.g. a bereavement and a job loss) amplify the risk of developing mental health problems exponentially rather than linearly.
And like the way it takes ~5 good comments to counterbalance every 1 bad comment we receive (this ratio varies for each individual but most people certainly find that 1 bad comment affects them far more and is more memorable than 1 good comment) – experiencing maltreatment, especially during childhood, can be so impacting despite all of the good one may have also received around the same time too. It seems to take a lot of protective factors to counterbalance such traumatic memories. We should nonetheless try our best to take note of and remember all of the good things in our childhoods, such as those who loved us into being; whilst concurrently acknowledging how impactful even just one major traumatic event, such as sexual or physical abuse, can be for children and the adults they’ll potentially become.
Being told one is a burden, will always be a failure, should’ve been more like someone else – hurtful comments like these from our parents when young can stay with us forever if they’re not counterbalanced with enough loving comments and moments. A child might steal things if his/her parents don’t provide at least a few joys like birthday presents. Empty promises can break a child’s trust not only in his/her parents but other people.
Because of the butterfly effect and not being able to view or experience counterfactual parallel-world lives, we won’t know what significant or seemingly insignificant at-the-time events or moments took us down one path over another in our life (e.g. a path of depression versus one of narrowly avoiding it). Therefore no one can ever smugly say, “Well I faced the same thing(s) but I turned out okay” because no one has ever lived or will ever live the exact same combination of life experiences as anyone else at the exact same ages and in the exact same places/contexts (not even identical twins will); in lives where walking down one road instead of another one night can change one’s future forever. People don’t have the same genetics either. Non-identical siblings only directly share, on average, 50% of their genes with each other i.e. their chances of sharing the same direct copy of a gene from their mother or father is akin to flipping a coin (even identical twins can have different expressed genes, and mutations). And then there are the environmental differences even if they’re raised in the same household, which includes stemming from the dynamics of one being older than the other, the different political parties in power or employment environments at important stages of their lives that affected their university costs or employment prospects, etc.. So you were only lucky if you avoided mental illness.
Some people talk big about how they would easily cope if they had to sleep on the streets – when for those who’ve been there and done that know that it’s not anything to want to ever brag about. Some people are braggadocios about being fortunate, such as surviving from a gunshot wound, when those who know of someone who’s died from gunshot wounds would rather feel humble about being so fortunate. Experiencing true hardships and adversities makes us more humble and empathic rather than arrogant.
Whatever the case, if a person is, for example, clinically depressed then he/she is clinically depressed. It’s like one entomologist once believed – according to what he understood about aeronautics at the time – that a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. But it evidently does fly. So whatever the balance of positive protective versus negative risk factors, and whatever our current level of understanding about how people develop mental health problems – if a person has one then he/she has one, and we should be compassionate towards them rather than question whether they should or shouldn’t have one based on the life they’ve had so far. There’s still a lot more to learn about mental health disorders and the primary goal is prevention or early enough intervention.
So childhood maltreatment can have severe immediate and long-range consequences for a child’s cognitive, emotional and social development, and their risk of developing mental health difficulties later in life. But we can do something about it because it’s not inevitable! However, it’s best to intervene as early as possible because the older and gradually less neuroplastic a brain gets, the generally more difficult it becomes or longer it takes to remould it in more resilient ways that stick.
Woof. We’ll focus on some of the specific impacts on a maltreated child’s brain that science has discovered to date in a future post shortly…