Developmental Problems of Maltreated Children and Early Intervention Options for Maltreated Children. Social-Emotional Disturbances


These examples highlight common problems seen in maltreated children younger than the age of 3:

  • Poor emotional comprehension (Edwards, Shipman, & Brown, 2005; Pears & Fisher, 2005; Pollak, Cicchetti, Hornung, & Reed, 2000)
  • Heightened arousal to negative emotions (Cicchetti, & Curtis, 2005; Pollak, Cicchetti, Klorman, & Brumaghim, 1997)
  • Increased expression of negative emotion (Bennett, Sullivan, & Lewis, 2005; Egeland, Sroufe, & Erickson, 1983)
  • Increased evidence of insecure attachment relationships (Barnett, Ganiban, & Cicchetti, 1999; Carlson, 1998; Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991)
  • Poor peer relations and social competence (Darwish, Esquivel, Houtz, & Alfonso, 2001; Howe & Parke, 2001)

When infants do not experience responsive relationships; do not see adaptive regulation being modeled; are met with threats or criticism during emotional events; and are exposed to violence, intense anger, and fear, then social-emotional development may be thwarted (see Edwards et al., 2005; Howes, Cicchetti, Toth, & Rogosch, 2000; Shipman & Zeman, 2001).

Other studies demonstrate that varying types of abuse result in different abilities to recognize emotions. Having a history of neglect is a factor that has been related to a child's poor discrimination of all emotions (Edwards et al, 2005; Pollak et al., 2000) and to atypical emotional response such as less remorse or more fear (Smetana, Daddis et al., 1999). However, children with a history of being physically abused show specific problems associated with discriminating anger: they are as accurate as nonmaltreated children with respect to anger detection but have a tendency to guess that someone is angry during times of ambiguity (Pollak, Vardi, Bechner, & Curtain, 2005). These findings are similar to other studies showing that physically abused children are more likely to interpret ambiguous emotional stimuli and social transgression as being angry and intentional (Dodge, Pettit, Bates, & Valente, 1995; Weiss, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1992).

In addition to the emotional problems discussed above, the ramifications of child maltreatment extend further to the social domain. Studies found that maltreated preschoolers characterized parents as being more negative than did nonmaltreated preschoolers (Toth, Cicchetti, Macfie, & Emde, 1997; Toth, Cicchetti, Macfie, Maughan, & Vanmeenen, 2000). Research has also shown that maltreated infants, toddlers, and preschoolers evidence avoidant, anxious, and atypical attachment relationships (Carlson, 1998; Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991). The underlying principle of these insecure attachment relationships is mistrust and, in some cases, fear of the mother-attachment figure. In other words, these children have difficulty trusting the primary caregiver to protect, comfort, or support them. Studies indicate that children who have experienced abuse or neglect have higher rates of disorganized (insecure) attachments (61%-86%), than their nonmaltreated peers (27%-36%), (Barnett et al., 1999; Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991).

However, attachment relationships may vary across the lifespan (Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991), which raises questions about the long-term effect of attachment relationships. Studies of high-risk groups have shown that attachment relationships can change over time (Vondra, Hommerding, & Shaw, 1999; Weinfield, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2000). Weinfield, Sroufe, and Egeland (2000) found that for a sample of high-risk adults in which 41% had been maltreated as children only 38.6%-50% continued to evidence signs of insecure attachment relationships into early adulthood. The preponderance of insecurely attached adults in this sample was related to a variety of stressful life events. Transitions from a pattern of insecure attachment relationships as infants to secure attachment relationships as adults did sometimes occur and were related to improvements in family functioning. Barnett et al. (1999) found that, for maltreated infants, disorganized attachment was quite stable between 12 and 24 months, with 87.5% of maltreated infants demonstrating attachment continuity. Taken together, it appears that maltreatment places infants at risk for developing tenuous relationships with their caregivers and that these insecure attachment relationships have a tendency to persist, especially when negative parental characteristics and stressful life circumstances remain unchanged.

Research has also found that maltreated preschoolers exhibit not only poor relationships with the primary attachment figure but also poor relationships with peers. Studies indicate that maltreated children show less empathy during times of peer distress than nonmaltreated children (Howe & Parke, 2001; Klimes-Dougan & Kistner, 1990; Main & George, 1985). In other cases, maltreated children were found to cause conflict and distress in their peers (Klimes-Dougan & Kistner, 1990). Maltreated preschoolers have difficulty controlling their behavior in social situations and have problems initiating social interactions (Darwish et al., 2001; Howe & Parke, 2001; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002). Neglected children, in particular, evidence withdrawn behavior and often play by themselves (Crittenden, 1992). Other studies indicate that abused and neglected children engage in more aggressive behavior than children of typical development, with physically abused children committing more aggressive acts than neglected children (Connor, Steingard, Cunningham, Anderson, & Melloni, 2004; Crittenden, 1992; Herrenkohl, & Russo, 2001). Sexually abused children (when compared with neglected, physically abused, and nonmaltreated children) also display problems in peer interaction and play and tend to include more sexually themed behaviors and more sexual exploration (Friedrich, 1993; Friedrich et al., 2001). Not surprisingly, teachers and children report that maltreated children are least liked and have fewer friends than nonmaltreated children (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995; Rogosch, Cicchetti, & Aber, 1995).

In summary, maltreated children demonstrate deficits in emotional competence. Although children who have been physically abused tend to overidentify and overexpress anger, neglected children have trouble recognizing all emotions and show atypical emotional responses. This disturbed emotional development negatively affects peer relationships. Not surprisingly, the quality of relationships that are established within the family is also compromised. Maltreated infants, toddlers, and preschoolers show higher rates of insecure and disorganized attachment. These poor attachments  which are thought to be the foundation of other important social competencies  are fairly stable, especially if negative family circumstances persist.

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