Not all abused and neglected children will experience long-term consequences. Outcomes of individual cases vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors, including:
* Age of the child when the abuse happened. Younger is usually more harmful, but different effects are associated with different developmental periods.
* Who committed the abuse. Effects are generally worse when it was a parent, step-parent or trusted adult than a stranger.
* Whether the child told anyone, and if so, the person's response. Doubting, ignoring, blaming and shaming responses can be extremely harmful - in some cases even more than the abuse itself.
* Whether or not violence was involved, and if so, how severe.
* How long the abuse went on.
Additional factors that are difficult to research or may differ in significance for different people:
* Whether the abuse involved deliberately humiliating the child.
* How "normal" such abuse was in the extended family and local culture.
* Whether the child had loving family members, and/or knew that someone loved her or him.
* Whether the child had some good relationships - with siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, etc.
* Whether the child had relationships in which "negative" feelings were acceptable, and could be expressed and managed safely and constructively.
* Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
* Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents' attention
* Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
* Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
* Lacks adult supervision
* Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
* Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
* Shows little concern for the child
* Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child's problems in school or at home
* Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
* Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
* Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
* Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs
The Parent and Child:
* Rarely touch or look at each other
* Consider their relationship entirely negative
* State that they do not like each other
Some of these factors are about how severe the abuse was, and some are about the relational context of the abuse and the child's reactions. Both types of factors are extremely important.
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 sometimes referred to as "resilience." A number of protective and promotive factors may contribute to an abused or neglected child’s resilience. These include individual characteristics, such as optimism, self-esteem, intelligence, creativity, humor, and independence, as well as the acceptance of peers and positive individual influences such as teachers, mentors, and role models. Other factors can include the child's social environment and the family’s access to social supports. Community well-being, including neighborhood stability and access to safe schools and adequate health care, are other protective and promotive factors (Fraser & Terzian, 2005).
Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know. Prevent Child Abuse America © 2003.
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Felicity Lee, MA