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The long-term consequences of childhood abuse are well researched. Abused children are at increased risk of mental health problems and criminality, and they are more likely to be exposed to violence later in their lives. But relatively little work has focused on the impacts of abuse in the earliest years of the child’s life, when the brain is rapidly developing and highly sensitive to stress.
We examined the association between early life abuse and developmental problems at the age of five years. Our sample was large, involving 68,459 children in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, who began formal schooling in 2009. We looked at five developmental domains in five-year-olds: social competence; emotional maturity; physical health; language and cognition; and communication and general knowledge. Teachers who knew the children completed a 104-item questionnaire, and a child was classified as “vulnerable” in a developmental domain if his or her score was in the bottom 10% of the scores from all the children in the country who began school the same year.
Out of the total sample of 68,459, 2,135 children (that is, 3.1%) had a substantiated record of abuse according to NSW child protection services. These five-year-olds were half as likely as non-abused children to be on track in all five developmental domains (30% of them were, compared to 57% of non-abused children). They were three times as likely to be vulnerable in three or more domains (15% were, compared to 4% of non-abused children).
Twenty-two percent of the 2,135 abused children had experienced multiple forms of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional or neglect. Their developmental vulnerabilities were even worse. They were more than six times as likely as non-abused children to be vulnerable in three or more developmental domains.
We also looked at the timing of abuse in critical periods of early child development. Approximately 35% of the 2,135 children who had experienced abuse had experienced it early, before they were 19 months old. Children whose first abuse was reported after 19 months showed greater likelihood of vulnerability in three or more developmental domains, relative to non-abused children. Other studies have shown a different result, with earlier abuse more strongly associated with development problems. But that research has typically focused on later periods in the children’s lives (e.g., adolescence), not on five-year-olds as we did.
Our research highlights the need for broad developmental support of children who have suffered abuse in their first five years, and particularly those exposed to multiple forms of abuse.
Green MJ, Tzoumakis S, McIntyre B, Kariuki M, Laurens KR, Dean K, Chilvers M, Harris F, Butler M, Brinkman SA & Carr VJ (2017), Childhood maltreatment and early developmental vulnerabilities at age 5 years, Child Development