Childhood Trauma and Cognitive Decline

Maltreatment abuse and witnessing violence linked to lower test scores for young children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Children are fast learners, and the actions of their parents can affect them for their entire life. But how much effect does a negative experience have for very young children and infants? It may be more than you think.

A new study suggests that the younger the child is, the greater effect that parental actions can have. In fact, those children that experienced maltreatment or neglect before two years old showed the greatest damage years later.

"Providing a nurturing environment can help you raise an emotionally healthy child."

The study was led by Michelle Bosquet Enlow, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at Children's Hospital Boston.

The study followed 206 children from birth to eight years old and was part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Every few months the researchers assessed participating families.

The team observed mother and child interactions, held interviews with the mother, and also reviewed medical records and child protection records. From this data they were able to determine if a child was abused physically, sexually, emotionally, witnessed parental violence, or was neglected.

At two, five, and eight years old the children were tested in order to measure intellectual development. What they found was that those children who had been exposed to violence, abuse, or maltreatment showed lower cognitive scores - even after correcting for other factors, like birth weight, gender, and mother’s IQ.

Children that experienced abuse, violence, or maltreatment before age two showed the lowest scores.

The study found that about one in three children had been victim to violence, abuse, or maltreatment before age five. Twenty percent of these children experienced this before age two.

“This study underscores the need to raise public awareness about the critical and enduring effects of parental and adult behavior on the health and well-being of children,” says psychiatrist and abuse expert Barbara Long, M.D., Ph.D. “Moreover, if we get professionals to intervene when we see young people being subjected to violence, perhaps we can soften or even prevent their suffering permanent emotional and cognitive damage.”

The study was funded by the Maternal and Child Health Service, the William T Grant Foundation, New York, and the National Institute of Mental Health. It was published April 4th, 2012 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 4, 2012
Last Updated:
April 5, 2012