Continuing Effects of Childhood Maltreatment

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Here's more from the science investigating childhood maltreatment. I respect all the feedback you've sent. This is a most important problem.

Some have written, recalling early abuse, loneliness. You say, “I just want to forget.”  

Some wonder about recovery. “It was so long ago, what can I do now?”

Note: Scientists & clinicians use various labels/definitions: child ‘abuse’, ’trauma’, ‘childhood maltreatment’, ’childhood adverse experiences’, etc.  For practical purposes, such labels are interchangeable.

Next week’s post shows how women can help themselves heal from childhood trauma (an optimistic message!)

But this week, let’s look at how early trauma can continue to affect us, even decades after childhood ends. 

If we recognize the effect of childhood maltreatment, we’re more able to help it!

Emotional Neglect

Childhood maltreatment isn’t just active abuse. Children suffer from neglect too, especially emotional neglect. 

Even when a child isn’t physically neglected, she can be damaged by emotional neglect — she is starved for the emotional connection she needs. 

Research shows that emotional neglect can have physical as well as psychological effects (including a higher risk for heart disease in later decades).

Researchers say:

“Past research has focused on active forms of childhood maltreatment such as emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. But childhood neglect, as a relatively silent form of childhood maltreatment, has received less attention. Childhood emotional neglect is the most common form of neglect.  [1]

Psychological Effects

Psychological effects of childhood deprivation & abuse can continue even into senior years.

Adults who experienced childhood maltreatment have greater risk for psychiatric disorders involving depression, emotional instability, isolation, personality disorders, substance abuse, and suicidality.

Social scientists tell us survivors of maltreatment often find it hard to build stable, loving relationships. Intimacy can be a challenge after a childhood of abuse or neglect. And survivors can have the tendency to repeat the dysfunctional patterns of their childhood. 

Physical Effects

Research studies show that survivors of childhood maltreatment are at greater risk for ‘premature mortality’, and they often show accelerated ‘functional decline’ in later life.  [2] [5]

In 2017, the American Heart Association released a statement acknowledging "substantial evidence" of an association between childhood adversity, and adult conditions of “obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease”.  [3]

In other words, the American Heart Association now advises that childhood maltreatment is a risk factor for adult heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes. This is a significant new advance in medical thought! 

The Sleep of Adult Survivors

Childhood maltreatment predisposes a child to sleep problems in her later life. Dozens of research papers confirm this connection.

A 2022 article in Sleep Medicine Reviews analyzed the results of 73 different research studies. Scientists concluded that adult sleep problems are significantly associated with childhood maltreatment. They even wondered if better sleep could help improve other long-term effects of childhood maltreatment.  [4]

Another recent study showed that maltreatment survivors often develop “sleep problems or poorer sleep quality in midlife (around age 57) and increasing physical limitations in late adulthood (average age 68)."  [5]

Here too, scientists suggested that improving sleep could be a “key factor “ to help survivors of childhood maltreatment reduce their risk of functional decline with age.



1]  Childhood Emotional Neglect and Cardiovascular Disease: A Narrative Review , Stefan Salzmann et al; Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine Feb 2022

2] Child maltreatment, early life socioeconomic disadvantage and all- cause mortality in mid-adulthood: findings from a prospective British birth cohort, NT Rogers, et al; BMJ Open 2021

3] Childhood and Adolescent Adversity and Cardiometabolic Outcomes: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association, SF Suglia, et al; Circulation Jan 2018

4] Associations between childhood maltreatment and behavioral sleep disturbances across the lifespan: A systematic review, SM Brown, et al; Sleep Med Reviews Aug 2022

5] Childhood maltreatment exposure and physical functional limitations in late adulthood: Examining subjective sleep quality in midlife as a mediator. AA Mishra, et al; Psychol Health May 2020