Australian study shows early association between maltreatment and development

The long-term effects of childhood maltreatment are well known. It increases the risk of mental health problems, crime, and violence. But research has mostly looked at outcomes in middle childhood and adolescence, overlooking early childhood. Understanding more about the impact on early childhood is important. The brain is most flexible during this time, providing an opportunity to buffer the effects of maltreatment.

Research Summary

  • Maltreated children have greater risk of developmental vulnerabilities compared to their peers.

What is the research about?

Researchers from the University of New South Wales studied the types and frequencies of abuse and their impact on early childhood development. The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) was used to measure development.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers collected AEDC data on 68,459 children in New South Wales, Australia. These scores were linked with information on maltreatment from registries and national directories.

Researchers looked at:

  • Childhood maltreatment (types and age when maltreatment occurred)
  • Developmental vulnerability based on the AEDC
  • Child’s sex
  • English as a Second Language status
  • Socioeconomic Index (including average family income)
  • Parents’ smoking status
  • Maternal age when child was born
  • Problems with pregnancy
  • Hospitalization of child due to infection
  • Parents’ mental illness

What did the researchers find?

Out of the 68,459 children included in the analysis, 2,135 (3.1%) experienced maltreatment. Of those, 60% experienced maltreatment before age 3. Nearly a quarter of these children experienced more than one type of maltreatment.

Children who experienced maltreatment were twice as likely to be vulnerable across all areas of development, even after taking into account other factors that hinder children’s development.

Maltreatment also affected the severity in which development suffered. Maltreated children were three times more likely to be vulnerable on three or more areas of development. For children exposed to multiple types of maltreatment this risk jumped to over five times. The more developmental domains a child is vulnerable on, the greater the risk of poorer outcomes later in life.

The link between maltreatment and development was only somewhat stronger for children when maltreatment occurred before 3 years.