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Implications of Child Abuse on Physiological and Psychological Health


By Arvin Gouw, Ph.D.

Cancer InCytes Magazine - Volume 4, Issue 2, Winter 2015

Published December 7th, 2015



Childhood is something that we often wish we could relive, because children seem to be so happy and carefree all the time. But actually, children struggle, learn, and go through several critical stages of development. At the age of 1-2, they learn to walk. After they have just learned to walk, they are eager to explore the world at the age of 3-4, going from object to object and developing their gross motor function. Around the age of 5-6 their cerebellum becomes developed enough to learn movements that require balance, such as hopscotch, jump rope, swimming, and riding a bicycle. At each step, their brain develops rapidly to enable them to accomplish the aforementioned physical feats.


In the case of abuse and acute stress, suddenly children have to deal with additional physical challenges of growing up. With stress, not only is their growth stunted, but even at the genetic level, their telomeres are shorter, as if they were aging rapidly – how ironic. Moreover, their slower brain development predisposes them to neurological changes throughout the rest of their lives. Early exposure to abuse impairs their brain’s ability to handle stress overall. Thus, they are more prone to falling into depression and harmful behaviors.


The effects of abuse do not stop at physiological problems. Psychologically, according to Erik Erikson, we undergo distinct stages and patterns of development from infancy into adulthood and even old age. This development is a combination of a person’s biological development combined with a person’s social interactions. Children of 5 to about 10 years of age generally undergo two stages of development.


First, children must overcome the crisis between “initiative” vs. “guilt”, meaning that they have to learn to be a self-starter and initiate their own activities. Second, children have to overcome the crisis of “industry” vs. “inferiority”, where they have to be able to learn how things work, and to understand and organize actions following orders. Abuse pushes children into “guilt” and “inferiority”, which is why abused children often develop a sense of low self-esteem, guilt, and inadequacy.


Last but not least, abused children develop impaired morality. Kohlberg divides the stages of moral development into three broad steps: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. In the pre-conventional stage of children (about 0-9 years old), morality is not well-defined. In fact, what is right and wrong is determined by what is punishable and what is rewardable. Since abused children are hurt or “punished” regardless of their actions, it is challenging for them to develop a clear moral code. Thus it is not surprising that psychopathy has been correlated with abuse in childhood.


The combination of physiological impairment (inability to handle stress), psychological impairment (low self-esteem), and impaired morality makes child abuse a lifelong problem, and makes those abused more likely to be abusive to others. Child abuse is not simply a criminal problem where the perpetrator needs to be punished. Child abuse is also a public health problem. The physiological, psychological, and moral developmental impairments make child abuse an ongoing vicious cycle that cannot be broken merely by simple judicial intervention.





Arvin Gouw, Ph.D.

Senior Editor, Biological Sciences


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