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Childhood Psychological Abuse Essay


The objective of this paper is to discuss the effects of abuse on childhood behavioral development as well as to highlight some clues regarding behavior that may alert the community on ongoing child abuse. A young child’s behavior is a mirrored external manifestation of inner security or stability.

All kinds of abuse have adverse effects on children and may cause long-term behavioral and sociological behaviors. Scholars in the field of counseling and psychology have taken on a strong interest in how a hostile environment affects one’s developmental progression more so through Erikson’s psychological phases. Often, such forms of abuse hinder the child’s development as he grows into a mature adult. Child psychological abuse sets in motion a vicious cycle that if left unchecked may create future perpetrators of similar vices on their offspring. Throughout the paper, the impact of psychological abuse on the brain and social development will be examined.


Psychological abuse leads to impairment of the body’s neuroendocrine mechanism. Exposure to extreme stress levels activates the body’s fight or flight mode as a form of survival. This mode activates the sympathetic system while at the same time suppressing the parasympathetic system (Lutzker, 2007). The fight or flight mode significantly increases the levels of cortisol in the human body’s central nervous system that allows the individual experiencing the given circumstances to take any action that will increase his chances of survival. However, at extreme levels of abuse, these sudden developments may lead to alterations in the development of the brain leading to the destruction of its cells.


In Children, significantly high levels of cortisol may disrupt the process of cell differentiation, migration as well as critical aspects of the functioning of the body’s central nervous system. Abuse and trauma affect the basic regulatory processes that are concentrated in the brain stem, the neocortex, the limbic brain as well as integrative functioning across numerous core systems in the central nervous system (Pandey, 2007). Traumatic experiences are usually saved or stored in the child’s mind, and any forms of fear, dissociation, and arousal associated with the initial trauma may carry on even after the arousal or danger threat has subsided (In Reece, In Hanson & In Sargent, 2014).

Development of the capacity to effectively regulate may be disrupted or impaired by severe forms of abuse or trauma. Children exposed to chronic or acute trauma may have regular mood swings, emotional irritability, aggression and anger, impulsivity, anxiety, depression, or dissociation. Early abuse, more so under the care of a parent or guardian, may markedly alter the young child’s normal perception of self, trust in other human beings as well as the perception of the world around him (Richardson & Williams, 2008).

Children that undergo severe psychological abuse are likely to develop a foreshortened sense of the future. They grow up expecting that life will always be dangerous meaning the chances of them surviving are low. They thus end up giving up any hope or expectations for themselves that may extend into the future (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009).

One of the most devastating impacts of early abuse is the disruption of the young person’s individualism or differentiation of a separate sense of self. Fragmentation of this sense of self occurs as a response to stress that overwhelms the young body’s limited capacities to self-regulate. Consequently, survival becomes the primary focus of the young child’s activities or interactions (Sturmey & Hersen, 2012). The young child prioritizes adaptation to the extreme demands of his immediate environment.

Severely traumatized children often lose themselves in the process of trying to cope with inherent threats to their basic survival. Such children find it difficult to trust, relax, and even fully explore their feelings, interests as well as ideas. Character development is usually shaped by the young child’s experiences during their initial attempts to forge relationships with others at a tender age.

The young trauma victims often grow up believing that there must be something wrong with them, they believe that they are unlovable, always at fault, helpless, hateful, or even unworthy of any form of lover or protection (Turner & Rogers, 2012). Such perceptions contribute to a poor self-image, self-destructiveness, and even self-abandonment. Ultimately such feelings may create a victim state of body mind and spirit that leaves the individual vulnerable to subsequent victimizations or abuse in the future (Richardson & Williams, 2008).

Young children that are lacking insecure attachment relationships are at a bigger risk of extreme dysregulation in the presence of trauma and the development of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. On the other side of the spectrum, the presence of a secure attachment relationship may offer a buffer to the adverse effects of abuse or trauma and generate the safety or nurturing that allows the young child to competently process the traumatic events and return to a healthy sense of well-being or safety (Skuse, 2011).

Such safe or secure attachment bonds work as primary defense mechanisms against trauma-induced psychopathology in both adults and younger children. Children that have been exposed to extreme stressors, the overall quality of the parental bond is the single most important determinant of subsequent ling term damage (Lahey & Kazdin, 2008).

Guardians and Caregivers play a crucial role when it comes to modulating the young child’s physiological arousal through the provision of a balance between stimulation and soothing. Such a balance, in turn, regulates the child’s normal exploratory activities and play. Good caregivers strive to maintain an optimal amount of physiological arousal while on the other hand, abusive or unresponsive ones contribute to the child’s incapability to modulate strong emotions or self-soothe (Lutzker, 2007). Chronic hyperarousal significantly contributes to a young child’s inability to modulate their string emotions or even self-soothe.

Research has illustrated that as high as 80% of abused children and infants exhibit disorganized attachment patterns which may include unpredictable alterations and avoidance toward their caregivers or mothers (In Reece et al., 2014). Early attunement may be combined with temperamental predispositions to set each of the child’s capacity to regulate their levels of arousal. Limitations in such capacities may play a key role in their long-term vulnerability to psychopathology after direct exposures to traumatizing experiences (Pandey, 2007).

Young children often come up with an internal working model of the world and environment around them based on their experiences in initial primary attachment relationships. The World and self-views are often undermined by fear, hostility as well as violence. Children who are insecurely attached often lack protection in their most valuable relationships, and if they are exposed to abuse, their compromised coping capabilities are highly likely to be easily overwhelmed by stress (In Reece et al., 2014).

Coping on their own with restricted options, these are likely to respond with dissociation or being hyperarousal. Research has shown that young children and girls have a higher probability of responding to stress with dissociation while the older children and boys more so, are more likely to react to similar stressful situations through with hyperarousal (Richardson & Williams, 2008). Response patterns that incorporate both hyperarousal and dissociation may permit more immediate recovery from stress or trauma and a faster return to one’s pre-trauma state or condition. Stressful situations and trauma have the effect of shocking the body and dysregulating its sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The young child’s initial neurophysiologic response to high levels of stress creates a response pattern that will likely be triggered again shortly at increasingly lower threat thresholds (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). In this manner, a patterned response linked to the young child’s survival eventually becomes firmly embedded in the neurophysiology of the young child. These kinds of response patterns grow even more embedded with frequent use and more difficult to alter. Traumatized individuals tend to become fixated at the cognitive and emotional levels at which they were initially traumatized. They will, therefore, tend to make use of the same means to deal with contemporary stresses that they at the developmental phase at which the trauma took place (Sturmey & Hersen, 2012).

Brain development carries on even after a child is born. This means that early experiences have the effect of shaping the initial development of the central nervous system and by extension the sense of self that the child holds. The brain is designed to mediate threats with various predictable neurobiological responses. Two predominant and adaptive patterns of response to extreme threats take place along the hyperarousal continuum and the dissociative continuum (Turner & Rogers, 2012).

Dissociation is usually a defense mechanism against pain or fear. It allows young children to mentally escape from painful or frightening things that are occurring to them. Every single one of these response patterns activates a unique combination of the bodily neural systems. Such neurophysiological activations that are witnessed during an acute response to stressful situations are usually immediate but reversible. However, the response patterns tend to take place again at relatively lower stimulation thresholds. The more the pattern gets activated, the more likely it tends to get re-activated. In this manner, any form of the acute stress response may end up becoming a long-lasting posttraumatic pattern that is designed to respond to stress (Richardson & Williams, 2008).

Severe psychological abuse and trauma during one’s early childhood directly affect all the domains of development including social, physical as well as psychological development. The pervasive negative effects of such forms of early trauma lead to significantly higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems among children who have been abused (Skuse, 2011). Early childhood psychological trauma contributes to negative outcomes in one’s adolescence which includes dropping out of school substance abuse or early childhood sexual activity (Lahey & Kazdin, 2008).

The immediate emotional effects of neglect or abuse may translate to lifelong consequences that may include depression, lowered self-esteem, relationship difficulties as well as depression. When children and infants are admitted into out of home care because of neglect or abuse, the trauma that they experienced from their primary caregiver adversely affects their attachment and subsequent social development (Lutzker, 2007).

Studies have shown that 50% of Children that gave been admitted into foster care exhibit lower IQ as well as some form of cognitive delays, difficulties in communication, as well as neonatal challenges compared to children that have not been neglected during their infancy years. Experiencing any forms of childhood adversity and trauma such as sexual and physical abuse is a high-risk factor for borderline personality depression, disorder, and even anxiety. NSCAW researchers have found that children that have undergone substantial forms of maltreatment were at risk for severe cognitive and developmental problems including repetition of a grade or learning difficulties (Richardson & Williams, 2008).

Children that undergo neglect are more likely to develop traits that are anti-social as they grow up. Parental neglect is closely linked with borderline personality complications, affectionate behaviors, and attachment issues with individuals that are unknown to them. It should, however, be noted that not all the victims of neglect and child abuse will experience behavioral consequences. However, statistics illustrate that behavioral issues seem to be more likely to be prevalent among such a group. More than 50% of youth reported for maltreatment are at heightened risk of a behavioral or emotional problem (Richardson & Williams, 2008).

Studies have also shown that psychological child abuse correlates with future juvenile delinquency. Children that have experienced psychological abuse are more than eight times more likely to get involved in criminal activities and get incarcerated.

It is worth noting that abusive parents often have also experienced some form of abuse during their initial childhood years. Data that was drawn from the longitudinal study of adolescent health illustrated that girls that experienced childhood emotional or psychological abuse are seven percent more likely to end up becoming perpetrators of the same when they become adults (O’Dougherty, 2014). On the other hand, boys that experienced childhood sexual violence are three to twelve percent more likely to be violent to their peers in the future (Sturmey & Hersen, 2012).


Even though childhood neglect and abuse normally take place within the family setting, the impact is not confined to within the family. The effects of child abuse vary depending on the surrounding circumstances of the neglect or abuse, the child’s characteristics, as well as the environment in which they grow up. The consequences may be severe or mild, dissipate after a brief period or last a lifetime, and affect the child psychologically, physically as well as behavioral.

Ultimately, due to the related costs to the society and public entities, communities must offer a framework of viable prevention strategies or services before neglect and psychological abuse occurs. The society should also be prepared to offer treatment and remediation whenever necessary. The effects that early childhood psychological abuses are becoming increasingly clear. At the same time, the human brain has displayed its resilience and that several years later any emotional and social difficulties or even health problems can be dealt with by recognition and relatively simple interventions earlier in the child’s life.


Fulero, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2009). Forensic psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Fulero, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2009). Forensic psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

In Reece, R. M., In Hanson, R. F., & In Sargent, J. (2014). Treatment of child abuse: Common ground for mental health, medical, and legal practitioners. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Lahey, B. B., & Kazdin, A. E. (2008). Advances in Clinical Child Psychology. Boston, MA: Springer US.

Lutzker, J. R. (2007). Handbook of child abuse research and treatment. New York: Plenum Press.

O’Dougherty, W. M. (2014). Childhood Emotional Abuse: Mediating and Moderating Processes Affecting Long-Term Impact. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Pandey, S. (2007). Psychological consequences of child abuse. New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co.

Richardson, T. I., & Williams, M. V. (2008). Child abuse and violence. New York: Nova Biomedical Books.

Richardson, T. I., & Williams, M. V. (2008). Child abuse and violence. New York: Nova Biomedical Books.

Skuse, D. (2011). Child psychology and psychiatry: Frameworks for practice. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sturmey, P., & Hersen, M. (2012). Handbook of evidence-based practice in clinical psychology. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons.

Turner, R. A., & Rogers, H. O. (2012). Child abuse: Indicators, psychological impact and prevention. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Childhood Psychological Abuse'. 13 October.

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