Maltreatment of Our Youngest Children

BlogChild WelfareApr 29 2011

For those of us concerned about children, April is a somber month. It’s when we observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month and recommit ourselves to preventing the physical and emotional injuries that are associated with the maltreatment of children.

While all child abuse and neglect is disturbing, it is particularly distressing to learn of maltreatment among very young children given their dependence on others. An analysis of federal data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) show that young children – those from birth to age 5 – are more likely than older children to be victims of abuse and neglect. In fact, data on child fatalities consistently show that children age 5 and younger experience the greatest risk of death from abuse or neglect.  In 2009, 87 percent of all child maltreatment deaths occurred among those 5 and under, and nearly half of child deaths (46 percent) were among infants (under 12 months of age).

Abuse and neglect can have a lasting impact on children. Scientists from Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child have described the experience of “toxic stress” for infants and toddlers when their earliest experiences, environments and relationships are not sufficiently nurturing, or when they experience harm. These experiences can result in levels of stress that inhibit growth and learning.

The life-long effects of child maltreatment on physical health and social and emotional development are just beginning to be understood.  Long-term health consequences can include allergies, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure and ulcers. The trauma associated with abuse and neglect can also include neurological effects that keep children in a persistent state of fear, leading to hyper vigilance, anxiety and impulsivity.

When children in the early years are neglected through lack of stimulation, the effects can include cognitive delays, apathy, listlessness and lack of curiosity. This can, in turn, lead to language and speech delays and noticeable differences in brain size. It should come as no surprise that early abuse and neglect can affect cognitive development, impacting a child’s ability to succeed academically.

According to the Zero to Three Journal, the abuse or neglect of infants can also include significant social and emotional effects.  When caregivers are unavailable, nonresponsive, or abusive, infants may be unable to develop basic trust, leading to a child’s diminished ability to form healthy relationships later.

To learn more about the prevalence and effects of maltreatment among the very youngest children, please read our latest “Early Childhood Highlights” brief, Young and Vulnerable: Children Five and Under Experience High Maltreatment Rates.  Another resource is the federal Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood, which provides information on programs and strategies to prevent child maltreatment.