Newly published study draws on 20 years of data on long-term effects of emotional abuse and neglect of children

Emotional abuse and neglect of children may have more harmful long-term negative effects than physical or sexual abuse, according to a 20-year study published by a team of researchers from Iowa, Australia, and Italy.

In a study published online today in the journal Pediatrics, scientists draw on research from over 8,000 women and children, beginning in pregnancy and continuing for more than 20 years. It shows that emotional abuse and neglect are linked to a wide range of negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including teen pregnancy, school failure, unemployment, delinquency, anxiety, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and even physical health problems.

Child neglect in particular, was linked to cannabis abuse and dependence, promiscuity, and visual hallucinations. According to the study, emotional abuse in particular may lead to experiencing harassment later in life, psychosis, and injecting drug use.

Although the study showed much larger effects from emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse was also associated with early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Physical abuse tended to result in delinquency and externalizing behavior problems, as well as drug abuse.

Lane Strathearn, portrait
Lane Strathearn, MD, PhD

“Emotional abuse and neglect are often hidden from our view,” says Lane Strathearn, MD, PhD, the principal author of the study, “but may result in the most severe and debilitating long-term outcomes.”. Strathearn linked de-identified data from the Mater-University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy (MUSP) with state-confirmed reports of child maltreatment over a 16-year period.

“The problems observed in adulthood are extremely serious and difficult to treat. Our community suffers on so many levels as a result of emotional abuse and neglect,” he says. “How much better it would be for us to focus on preventing these problems in the first place.” Strathearn stresses that supporting at-risk parents and young children should be an urgent priority.

Other studies have shown that simple interventions, such as nurses doing home visits for pregnant women and new mothers, can reduce rates of child maltreatment, as well as improve long-term mental and physical health outcomes for both mother and child.

Strathearn, a native of Brisbane, Australia, is currently the Director of the Center for Disabilities and Development at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Other authors include Michele Gianotti PhD from the University of Trento, Italy, and Ryan Mills MBBS PhD, Steve Kisely MD PhD, Jake Najman PhD, and Amanuel Abajobir PhD from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.