Maltreatment at an early age is related to poor developmental outcomes (Bolger, Patterson, & Kupersmidt, 1998; Keiley et al., 2001; Manly et al., 2001; McGee & Wolfe, 1994). Specifically, many maltreated infants, toddlers, and preschoolers present with physical, cognitive, socioemotional, relational, and psychological difficulties. These problems are not unlike those for children living in poverty; generally speaking, maltreated children have similar medical and health concerns, are less ready for school, have maladaptive coping styles, and experience problematic peer relationships. However, rates of these problems are higher and the dysfunctions are more severe among maltreated children.
Several reasons explain why maltreatment at an early age, in particular, has a lasting negative effect. First, maltreatment that begins at an early age often spans a longer duration than maltreatment that begins when children are older (Bolger et al., 1998; Bolger & Patterson, 2001; English, Upadhyaya et al., 2005). The longer duration alone does not, however, fully account for the lasting negative effects. Maltreatment during the first 5 years of life occurs during a period of rapid development (Cicchetti & Toth, 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). For example, brain development, rapid physical growth, locomotor skills, object knowledge, language skills, emotion comprehension and regulation, attachment formation, emerging self-concept and self-esteem, initiative, behavioral control, and burgeoning social skills are among the developmental accomplishments of early childhood. Harsh parenting, including maltreatment during the earliest years, hinders normal development by retarding or prohibiting the progress toward appropriate milestones. Because the developments that occur during this period provide the foundation for subsequent cognitive and social-emotional developments (Cicchetti, 1991; Cicchetti & Rizley, 1981), their impairment can have particularly far-reaching effects (Cicchetti & Tucker, 1994; Sameroff, 1993; Sroufe & Rutter, 1984).
Not every young maltreated child, however, will exhibit problematic behavior and compromised functioning. Research suggests the some maltreated children show academic, emotional, and behavioral resiliency (Lansford et al., 2006; McGloin & Widom, 2001). Successful adaptation in the face of abuse and neglect is more likely, however, when maltreatment is isolated from other risk factors or when children possess or are surrounded by protective factors (Lansford et al., 2006). Nonetheless, research has shown that young maltreated children typically face numerous additional factors known to negatively influence child functioning, factors such as low cognitive stimulation, poor parental education, parental psychopathology, low SES, inadequate social support, poor nutrition, insufficient health care, and preexisting disabilities (Kotch, Browne, Dufort, & Winsor, 1999; Palusci, et al., 2005; Sullivan & Knutson, 1998; Wu et al., 2004). These cumulating risk factors further complicate the development of cognitive and socioemotional functioning in maltreated children (Appleyard et al., 2005; Greenberg, Speltz, Dekyen, & Jones, 2001; Rutter, 1979).