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Long Term Effects of Child Abuse on Adults

Childhood maltreatment has long-lasting effects, some that could have implications for adulthood. Researchers are concerned that early abuse may increase the risk of various psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression, as people continue development through adulthood. In line with this perspective, researchers have investigated the relationship. This essay appraises the literature on the topic, comparing and contrasting the adopted designs and methods for gaps identification.

Literature Review Synthesis

A review of the extant evidence on the relationship between childhood abuse reveals methodological and thematic similarities. Precisely, most researchers prefer qualitative methodologies (e.g. Suzuki et al., 2018; Quidé et al., 2017; Dodaj et al., 2017). Furthermore, most of the reviewed studies are randomized controlled trials, where researchers strive to compare the effects of early abuse on various outcomes in adulthood. For instance, Suzuki and colleagues examined the reaction to stress in adulthood among participants with and without histories of childhood maltreatment (Suzuki et al., 2017). They recruited seventeen healthy subjects and twenty-four without a childhood trauma experience in one group and twenty depressed persons and eighteen without trauma experienced as children in the other group. The researchers measured salivary cortisol before, during, and after the experiment to determine whether early abuse significantly influenced stress reaction. The study found that exposure to childhood abuse affects stress reactivity in adulthood.

Quidé et al. (2017) also used the quantitative methodology to investigate the impact that childhood traumatic experiences have on the brain functionality in schizophrenic adults and those with bipolar-I and psychotic disorders. The specific focus was to determine whether trauma affects the working memory of the participants. Unlike Suzuki (2017), the respondents in Quidé et al. (2017) were 50 individuals with schizophrenia and psychotic disorder, while 42 respondents had bipolar-I disorder. The control group used healthy participants to provide a benchmark for determining whether childhood trauma affects working memory in adults with the identified conditions. The authors find a positive correlation between early traumatic experiences on working memory in the experimental group.

Dodaj et al. (2017) also studied the connection between childhood abuse and working memory in adulthood. However, the study did not adopt the randomized controlled design; the authors used the retrospective approach. They surveyed 376 female respondents aged sixteen and seventeen, where different childhood maltreatment categories, such as neglect, sexual assault, witnessing family abuse, and others, were used. The literature’s findings have similar implications as Quidé et al. (2017) because they suggest that exposure to abuse as a child could significantly affect the working memory in adulthood.

In their quantitative study, Byrd et al. (2020) examined the effects of early threat exposure and oxytocin receptor among women. Through a longitudinal study of approximately 2,450 women, the authors’ findings were that threat exposure, and oxytocin receptor early in life resulted in one’s vulnerability for psychopathy in adulthood (Byrd et al., 2020). Emotional dysregulation among teenagers was evident for women linked to early threat exposure and oxytocin receptor (Byrd et al., 2020). In another quantitative research conducted by Beilharz et al. (2020) analyzing childhood trauma and its effect on young adults’ psychosocial functioning and physical health, the authors indicated that childhood trauma is linked to various negative psychological and physical health consequences. These include extreme levels of psychological distress, an increase in sleep disturbances in adulthood, a reduction in emotional well-being, and lower alleged social support (Beilharz et al., 2020).

While discussing child maltreatment and how it predicts depression and posttraumatic stress, Capretto’s (2017) quantitative study suggests that the degree to which a child is maltreated physically and sexually determines the extent of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder in adulthood. The author notes that the timing of child maltreatment in these aspects had a huge significance in predicting depression and PTSD in adulthood (Capretto, 2017). The author recruited participants aged 18 to 78 using flyers that he posted online. The participants were specifically those who had a history of sexual or physical child maltreatment.

Scheuer et al. (2018) also discussed the extent to which childhood trauma may result in the rising vulnerability for depression through the accumulation of allostatic load. Through a quantitative study of 324 inpatients exhibiting depression and 261 mentally controlled participants, the study’s findings were that allostatic load mediated the impact of physical abuse while in childhood on depression in adulthood. Teicher et al. (2014) also conducted a quantitative study using interviews to determine the impact of exposure to various physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect physically or emotionally during childhood affected their network structure in their adulthood. Participants were individuals aged 18-25 years, unmedicated and right-handed, with no history of maltreatment (Teicher et al., 2014).

Lilly et al. (2014) also utilized a quantitative study to identify the causal factors that link PTSD and intimate partner victimization in adulthood. Through a sample of 98 women who survided childhood abuse, the authors’ findings supported the direct connection of abuse to future outcomes like emotional management issues for intimate partner victimization though not for PTSD. Vieira et al. (2020) did not focus on the adverse effects of childhood abuse on their 1560 respondents in a cross-sectional study. Instead, the study concentrated on resilience as a moderating factor in fostering emotional management in adults with histories of child abuse (Vieira et al. 2020). The study found that resilience plays a critical role in downplaying the adverse effects of childhood abuse in adulthood (Vieira et al. 2020).

Research and Methodological Gaps

The reviewed studies mostly focus on the psychological and mental effects of childhood abuse in adulthood, including response to stress and the working memory, leaving room for exploring other outcomes, such as criminal tendencies, health, and others. Furthermore, the studies tend to use a randomized controlled trial design, except a few, such as Dodaj et al. (2017). Therefore, other quantitative designs may be applied to study the relationship.


Beilharz, J. E., Paterson, M., Fatt, S., Wilson, C., Burton, A., Cvejic, E., Lloyd, A., & Vollmer-Conna, U. (2020). The impact of childhood trauma on psychosocial functioning and physical health in a non-clinical community sample of young adults. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry54(2), 185–194.

Byrd, A. L., Tung, I., Manuck, S. D., Vine, V., Horner, M., Hipwell, A. E., & Stepp, S. D. (2020). An interaction between early threat exposure and the oxytocin receptor in females: Disorder-specific versus general risk for psychopathology and social–emotional mediators. Development and Psychopathology, 1–16.

Capretto, J. J. (2017). Developmental Timing of Childhood Physical and Sexual Maltreatment Predicts Adult Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 088626051770496.

Dodaj, A., Krajina, M., Sesar, K., & Šimić, N. (2017). The effects of maltreatment in childhood on working memory capacity in adulthood. Europe’s Journal of Psychology13(4), 618–632.

Lilly, M. M., London, M. J., & Bridgett, D. J. (2014). Using SEM to examine emotion regulation and revictimization in predicting PTSD symptoms among childhood abuse survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy6(6), 644–651.

Quidé, Y., O’Reilly, N., Rowland, J. E., Carr, V. J., Elzinga, B. M., & Green, M. J. (2016). Effects of childhood trauma on working memory in affective and non-affective psychotic disorders. Brain Imaging and Behavior11(3), 722–735.

Scheuer, S., Wiggert, N., Brückl, T. M., Awaloff, Y., Uhr, M., Lucae, S., Kloiber, S., Holsboer, F., Ising, M., & Wilhelm, F. H. (2018). Childhood abuse and depression in adulthood: The mediating role of allostatic load. Psychoneuroendocrinology94, 134–142.

Suzuki, A., Poon, L., Papadopoulos, A. S., Kumari, V., & Cleare, A. J. (2014). Long term effects of childhood trauma on cortisol stress reactivity in adulthood and relationship to the occurrence of depression. Psychoneuroendocrinology50, 289–299.

Teicher, M. H., Anderson, C. M., Ohashi, K., & Polcari, A. (2014). Childhood Maltreatment: Altered Network Centrality of Cingulate, Precuneus, Temporal Pole and Insula. Biological Psychiatry76(4), 297–305.

Vieira IS, Pedrotti Moreira F, Mondin TC, Cardoso TA, Branco JC, Kapczinski F, Jansen K, Souza LDM, da Silva RA. Resilience as a mediator factor in the relationship between childhood trauma and mood disorder: A community sample of young adults. J Affect Disord. 2020 Sep 1;274:48-53. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2020.04.011. Epub 2020 May 1. PMID: 32469831.


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