It is often assumed that child abuse falls on a spectrum, with physical or sexual abuse on one end and emotional or verbal abuse on the other.  And that the impact of physical abuse may be “worse” than the lesser, verbal abuse.  It turns out based on new research, this assumption may be wrong.

SafeHorizon, the largest non-profit victim services agency in the US, tracks the current state of child abuse in the US and their findings may surprise you:

  • 1 in 10 children suffer from some form of maltreatment.
  • 1 in 16 children suffer child abuse
  • Nearly 1 in 10 are witnesses to family violence

Child abuse is damaging not only to the child, but to the communities that need to support those children into adulthood, as victims of child maltreatment have increased risks for a host of issues including mental and emotional disorders, general ill health, additions and drug use and teen pregnancy – all issues that require supportive services for treatment.  In fact, the impact of child abuse is evidenced quite immediately in children:

  • Child abuse victims have shown signs of depression as young as 3 years old
  • Child abuse victims have increased rates of anti-social behaviors and mental health disorders including borderline personality disorders and violent behavior.
  • Child abuse victims in foster due to abuse or neglect scored lower in cognitive capacity, language development, and academic achievement than the non-abused.
  • Child maltreatment has many long-term effects on physical health, 28% of abused children had a chronic health condition after abuse was reported.
  • Almost half of babies in foster care that were abused show cognitive delays and have lower IQ scores and language difficulties compared to the non-abused.

And alarmingly, the effects of abuse continue well into the teen years and adulthood.  In a study of young adults who suffered abuse as childrent, 80% met the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, panic and dissociative disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, post- traumatic stress disorder and suicidality.  Child abuse victims are also 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 28% more likely as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crimes in general (SafeHorizon, 2015).

The effects on health aren’t just limited to mental or emotional health either, it has been found that adults who suffered child maltreatment develop allergies, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, and ulcers, and other physical disabilities because of poor health caused by abuse (SafeHorizon, 2015).  Child maltreatment also increases the risk for additions to drugs and alcohol; studies have found as many as 2/3 of adults in drug treatment programs reported being abused as children (SafeHorizon, 2015).

Because of these devastating effects of child abuse, it’s important for treatment professionals, educators, parents and care givers to understand the definitions of abuse and their impact.  What researchers have found is that although it has been assumed that physical abuse defined as “any non-accidental physical injury to the child” including striking, kicking, burning, or biting” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is worse than other forms of abuse, that may not be the case.

In a new study from McGill University published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers have discovered that all forms of abuse, including emotional, sexual and neglect do in fact have the same consequences.    Researchers accessed data from a study of 2,300 racially and ethnically diverse boys and girls who participated in a summer research camp of low-income, school-aged children ages 5-13 years, about half of whom had well documented histories of abuse.  What their study of this research concluded is that the perception of a “scale” of abuse ranking physical abuse as worse is wrong – all types of abuse have effects that are “equivalent, broad, and universal” according to David Vachon, professor of Psychology at McGill University and the study’s first author (ScienceDaily, 2015).

What are the implications of these new findings?  Researchers believe they can impact the way abuse is treated and how parents are educated on abuse.  Vachon also indicated next steps for researchers will be studying the impact of abuse on the shaping of personality.