According to the researchers from the University of Washington's School of Social Work, the long-term consequences of childhood maltreatment, though proven to leave a victim with both visible and invisible scarring, can be combated with some protective factors, which, in turn can improve the health of victims during their adult years.
While some adult individuals choose to live their lives rooted in the past, victimizing other people and mimicking the maltreatment they themselves had to go through, other victims do all their best in order to move on and forget their unfortunate pasts and achieve some semblance of normalcy.
In their study, the researchers came to the conclusion that getting married and receiving at least a secondary education, i.e. graduating from high school, are some of the factors that can interfere with the repetitive cycle that turn maltreated people into abusers. It was also revealed that adults who experienced child abuse - whether the maltreatment was psychological, emotional, sexual or physical - reported worse mental and physical health, were less happy and experienced lower self-esteem when compared to their non-abused peers. They also felt more anger and psychological damage, which could be an indicator that child maltreatment has wider-ranging effects than it was previously known.
Todd Herrenkohl, professor in the University of Washington's School of Social Work, who led the two new studies, wanted to figure out the overall lasting effects of childhood maltreatment and examine what factors can alleviate harm of abuse experienced at a young age. He used data from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, which started in the 70s in order to analyze the consequences of going through violence as a child.
The study involved 30 male and female participants (now in their late 30s) whose parents were reported to child welfare agencies for abuse or neglect (neglect means depriving children of basic necessities, such as food, medical care and hygiene). The investigators wanted to know how the participants were doing in their adulthood and asked them series of questions in regards with different aspects of their social life, such as level of education, alcohol or drug use, overall health, quality of relationships (including with family members), friendships, employment and overall well-being and satisfaction in life. Their parents were also interviewed about a range of disciplinary methods that are considered abusive, including slapping a child, kicking, hitting or biting.
The study found that those participants who experienced maltreatment in childhood were more likely to substance abuse and have worse mental and physical health in adulthood when compared to individuals in a control group, who did no not experience any abuse. Nearly 25 percent of child maltreatment survivors reported moderate to severe depression, compared with 7 percent of those who had a normal childhood. About nineteen percent of the survivors admitted having problems with alcohol over their lifetimes, while only 10 percent of the control-group participants reported having such problems.
Getting married or graduating from high school partly decreased, but did not eliminate, the risk for developing depression among maltreated individuals. The victims who received secondary education had a lower risk for lifetime drug and alcohol problems. Surprisingly for the authors, gender and early childhood socioeconomic status had almost no impact on the long-term effects of maltreatment. According to Herrenkohl, the expectation is that being raised in a family with a higher income and higher social status will help children, but child abuse wipes out those advantages.
In the second study, also based on interviews with people from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, Herrenkohl and his team thoroughly analyzed self-esteem, sense of independence, anger proneness, overall satisfaction with life and other factors of well-being that other studies of childhood maltreatment typically ignore. It was found that child maltreatment was associated with lower scores on the majority of these well-being factors, when compared with scores from individuals who had not experienced maltreatment at a young age. Herrenkohl said that the findings of this study demonstrate that the effects of child maltreatment extend far beyond the most common mental health diagnoses. The results show that individuals abused at a young age carry the emotional consequences of early trauma all the way into their adulthood.
The findings of the research are published in the Journal of Family Violence. The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, all of which appear to be part of the National Institutes of Health.