Long Term Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect


How many times have you heard adults say that children are resilient? That they have an innate ability to magically “bounce back” from any situation, regardless of how stressful. Recent work in child development and neuroscience increasingly suggests that children require safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments to thrive. Evidence shows that stress and trauma, especially when prolonged, can interrupt healthy child development, putting them at risk for lifelong health issues.

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Childhood trauma and adversity, such as ACEs, including abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence in the home or community, can lead to toxic stress, prolonged or excessive activation of the stress response system.

The Consequences of ACEs

Researchers have identified how high-stress levels and trauma can change a child’s brain chemistry, brain architecture, and even gene expression. While nearly everyone experiences stress at some point, chronic stress sustained over time can damage the body and the brain, especially for children, because early childhood is critical for development.

Toxic stress interferes with developing healthy neural, immune, and hormonal systems and can alter our DNA expression. Over time, multiple ACEs—especially without adequate adult support—can affect the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems and have lasting effects on attention, behavior, decision-making, and response to stress throughout a lifetime.

There are decades of research linking ACEs to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and behavioral challenges, including obesity, autoimmune disease, diabetes, heart disease, poor mental health, alcoholism, and even reduced life expectancy by as much as 20 years.

Multiple ACEs also put individuals at a greater risk for adverse outcomes, including poor school performance, unemployment, and the development of high-risk health behaviors, such as smoking and drug use. New research has also uncovered a correlation between ACEs and an increased risk for prescription opioid misuse.

Preventing the Adult Health Consequences of ACEs

While the connection between ACEs and adult chronic health conditions has been well-documented, a 2019 report focuses on implementing comprehensive public health approaches to prevent ACEs.

President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse American (PCA America), Dr. Melissa Merrick, who led the ACEs team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for nearly ten years, is the lead author of a 2019 report, which finds that working with available data and resources and leveraging evidence-based information about ACEs to understand, prevent, and mitigate negative outcomes.

Countering ACEs

A recent study found that positive experiences in childhood buffered the effects of ACEs. Even in the context of significant adversity, those who reported high levels of positive experiences in childhood reported fewer mental health challenges in adulthood.

Researchers are still working to understand how children develop resilience. However, there is agreement among professionals that various important individual, family, and community conditions can support resilience, such as:

  • Close and stable relationships with competent caregivers or other caring adults
  • Parents or adults who model resilience
  • Identifying and cultivating a sense of purpose (faith, culture, identity)
  • Individual developmental competencies (problem-solving skills, self–regulation, agency)
  • Social connections
  • Socioeconomic advantages and concrete support for parents and families
  • Communities and social systems that support health and development and nurture human capital

Talking about child abuse and neglect are difficult conversations, but those discussions are crucial to support survivors and help stop it from happening to future generations. Prevent Child Abuse America took the opportunity to start the conversation with the new Biden-Harris Administration, laying out a comprehensive plan for a healthier future.

There are so many ways you can help. Get involved with your state chapter, make a donation (and don’t forget to ask your employer if they will match your gift), or participate in a fundraiser; your donation will help prevent child abuse and neglect. Even simply sharing the message with friends, family, and associates can help.


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