VIII. Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect
The consequences of child abuse are tremendous and long lasting. Research has shown that the traumatic experience of childhood abuse is life changing. These costs may surface during adolescence, or they may not become evident until abused children have grown up and become abusing parents or abused spouses. Early identification and treatment is important to minimize these potential long-term effects. Whenever children say they have been abused, it is imperative that they be taken seriously and their abuse be reported. Suspicions of child abuse must be reported as well. If there is a possibility that a child is or has been abused, an investigation must be conducted.
Children who have been abused may exhibit traits such as the inability to love or have faith in others. This often translates into adults who are unable to establish lasting and stable personal relationships. These individuals have trouble with physical closeness and touching as well as emotional intimacy and trust. Further, these qualities tend to cause a fear of entering into new relationships, as well as the sabotaging of any current ones.
Psychologically, children who have been abused tend to have poor self-images or are passive, withdrawn, or clingy. They may be angry individuals who are filled with rage, anxiety, and a variety of fears. They are often aggressive, disruptive, and depressed. Many abused children have flashbacks and nightmares about the abuse they have experienced, and this may cause sleep problems as well as drug and alcohol problems. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and antisocial personality disorder are both typical among maltreated children. Research has also shown that most abused children fail to reach “successful psychosocial functioning,” and are thus not resilient and do not resume a “normal life” after the abuse has ended.
Socially (and likely because of these psychological injuries), abused children have trouble in school, will have difficulty getting and remaining employed, and may commit a variety of illegal or socially inappropriate behaviors. Many studies have shown that victims of child abuse are likely to participate in high-risk behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse, the use of tobacco, and high-risk sexual behaviors (e.g., unprotected sex, large numbers of sexual partners). Later in life, abused children are more likely to have been arrested and homeless. They are also less able to defend themselves in conflict situations and guard themselves against repeated victimizations.
Medically, abused children likely will experience health problems due to the high frequency of physical injuries they receive. In addition, abused children experience a great deal of emotional turmoil and stress, which can also have a significant impact on their physical condition. These health problems are likely to continue occurring into adulthood. Some of these longer-lasting health problems include headaches; eating problems; problems with toileting; and chronic pain in the back, stomach, chest, and genital areas. Some researchers have noted that abused children may experience neurological impairment and problems with intellectual functioning, while others have found a correlation between abuse and heart, lung, and liver disease, as well as cancer (Thomas, 2004).
Victims of sexual abuse show an alarming number of disturbances as adults. Some dislike and avoid sex, or experience sexual problems or disorders, while other victims appear to enjoy sexual activities that are self-defeating or maladaptive—normally called “dysfunctional sexual behavior”—and have many sexual partners.
Abused children also experience a wide variety of developmental delays. Many do not reach physical, cognitive, or emotional developmental milestones at the typical time, and some never accomplish what they are supposed to during childhood socialization. In the next section, these developmental delays are discussed as a means of identifying children who may be abused.