Children Facing Neglect or Abuse See Health Problems Earlier, Study Finds

Children who experience two or more adversities in the home are more likely to experience health problems, according to research published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Dr. Emalee Flaherty, of the Ann and Robert H. Laurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and colleagues used data from 933 children who were all part of the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect study. 

Ninety percent of those 14-year-olds surveyed say they experienced some kind of measurable adversity in their home lives. The children in the ongoing study were surveyed or interviewed at ages 4, 6, 8, and 12, and again at 14. 

Researchers used the following eight categories when examining the adversities children went through by the time they turned 14:

  • psychological maltreatment
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • neglect
  • caregiver's substance use/alcohol abuse
  • caregiver's depressive symptoms
  • caregiver treated violently
  • criminal behavior in the household

Comparing them with any health problems, including illness requiring a doctor’s attention or illnesses affecting the body (i.e. not mental health-related), researchers found the more recent the adversities, the more likely a child would have poor health.

“These findings suggest that greater efforts to minimize or ameliorate childhood adversities, especially those occurring during adolescence, will have a demonstrable impact on the health of adolescents and adults,” the study concludes.

Other Factors Impacting Children’s Health

Previous research into child’s health showed early childhood trauma can physically alter the makeup of a child’s brain. Researchers with the Swiss think-tank EPFL found that mice who underwent traumatic situations later had alterations in the parts of their brains that control punishment and rewards and potential for violence.

While not all children who experience trauma at a young age become violent or antisocial, their risk of doing so increases with prolonged stress after traumatic events.

Earlier this year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found elevated levels of stress can bring out mental illness in children who have a genetic predisposition for mental disorders.

Abuse and trauma increases a child’s risk of depression, which increases their risks of substance abuse, obesity, risk-taking behavior, and suicide. 

In order to reduce the likelihood of these problems from arising in adults, we need to work to protect children from harmful events that can have lasting, life-altering effects.

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