Mediating the Effects of Child Abuse

Child abuse long term results affected by marriage and education

(RxWiki News) Are there factors that can help protect victims of child abuse from developing issues as adults? New research says yes, and marriage and education may play a role.

New research shows that adults who suffered abuse as children have worse physical and mental health than others.

However, these differences were less severe among those who were married or had graduated high school.

"If you suspect child abuse, call a professional."

Led by Todd Herrenkohl, PhD, from the University of Washington, the research relied on data from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, a study that started in the early 1970s in Pennsylvania. The study looked at 457 children (aged 18 months to 6 years), 144 of who were involved in reports of abuse to child welfare and 105 whom were involved in reports of neglect.

Behaviors considered abusive included hitting, kicking and slapping to the point of creating a bruise, and behaviors considered neglectful included the deprivation of necessities like food and medical and hygienic care.

Several follow-up interviews and studies were completed with the participants, the last of which took place in 2010, when their average age was 36. Questions covered a range of topics including physical health, mental health, relationships, employment, education and drug and alcohol use. Around 80 percent of the original participants were involved in the final follow-up, about half of whom had been abused.

Herrenkohl and team found that mental health, physical health and substance abuse problems were more common in the adults who had been involved in reports to child welfare as children.

For example, 24.4 percent of those abused or neglected as children reported moderate to severe depression while only 6.9 percent of their non-abused peers reported the same levels. Twenty-four percent of the child welfare group also reported moderate to severe anxiety, as compared to 8 percent of the other participants.

Additionally, the authors reported that “those in the child welfare group reported lower physical functioning, more bodily pain and poorer general health.” When rating overall current health, 24.4 percent of those abused categorized theirs as “poor/fair” as compared to 9.7 percent of their non-abused counterparts.

Furthermore, 19 percent of abuse survivors reported the presence of alcohol problems over their lifetime, while 10 percent of those who had not been abused reported the same. The levels of moderate to high risk for substance abuse were present in 19.4 percent of the child welfare group and 6.9 percent of the non-abused group.

The researchers did find that being married and having graduated high school partially lowered the risk of depression in abuse survivors, and graduating high school also partially lowered the risk for alcohol issues over the lifetime of abuse survivors. These factors, however, did not eliminate the presence of these issues, but only somewhat lowered the risk.

In an interview with dailyRx News, LuAnn Pierce, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), said that these findings are encouraging.

“People may find the emotional and social support of spouses or partners to be an antidote to the wounds of early abuse. Those who complete high school are more likely to find employment, thus experiencing greater financial independence and perceived well-being,” said Pierce. “Success in work and/or relationships can help people feel more confident and competent which can enhance their opportunities in life.”

The authors did take care to note that this study did not take into account variations in severity or duration of abuse.

Despite these limitations, "The results show that the effects of child maltreatment extend beyond the most common mental health diagnoses. It shows that adults abused as children experience the emotional consequences of early trauma well into their adult years," said Dr. Herrenkohl.

"As we understand more of how individuals overcome early trauma, we can develop programs to support and nurture kids exposed to abuse."

The study was published online September 28, 2012 in the Journal of Family Violence. The study was funded by departments within the National Institutes of Health and no conflicts of interest were reported.

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Review Date: 
November 26, 2012
Last Updated:
March 22, 2013