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Abuse: How It Effects Cognitive Development Essay


Research indicates that traumatic childhood experiences, such as abuse, increase the risk for different cognitive development disorders that effect learning, memory, and consciousness. Statistics show that no one age, gender, or ethnic group is excluded. Cognitive development that is affected includes depression, learning disorders, developmental disorders, attachment disorders and PTSD. Patterns of attachment affect the quality of information processing throughout the individual’s life. With this evidence, it is imperative to have programs available that focus on prevention for parents and children. There are outside management courses, substance abuse classes, school based educational programs, required registration of offenders, and background checks. Treatment strategies for children are also important and should include establishing safety, dealing with the trauma, and positive self-assessment therapy, and counseling for functional impairment.


Abuse increases the risk for suppressed cognitive development. Maltreatment comes in many forms: physical, sexual, psychological, neglect, and even abuse from peers. Current studies only focus on abuse from guardians. However, peer abuse exists as and does have a psychological effect on cognitive development (Ambert, 1994). Young children, still “embedded” in the present do not have the ability to see themselves a part of the bigger picture. The se themselves as the center of the universe and everything that happens is directly related to their own sensation. Development consists of learning to master those experiences and to learn to encounter the present as part of one’s personal experience over time. Piaget called this ”decentration”: moving from being one’s reflexes, movements and sensations to having them. The age at which the abuse occurs can impact the learning and development leading to mental disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and attachment issues.

Because of the results, help programs and education need to be in place for parents, abusers and children of abuse. For example, van Harmelen, deJong, Glashouwer, Spinhoven, Penninx, and Elzinga (2010) did a study on how childhood abuse affects cognitive disorders. The Implicit Association Test was used to evaluate depression and anxiety, although it has been shown to also impact learning and development and PTSD. Participants were asked questions in order to obtain self-reports in this study of depression and anxiety. It was found that childhood abuse leads to a higher self-depression ad self-anxiety view. From this study it is clear that abuse affects cognitive function.

According to Feldman (2011), cognitive development is the way that an individual grows and changes and the change in their intellectual capabilities can influence one’s behavior and learning abilities. Different cognitive development happens in different stages throughout an individual’s life. These stages include: Infancy and toddlerhood (age birth to three years) children learning to sit, crawl, and walk, memory functions begin, visual recognition, and language development are present. During the preschool period (age three to six years) growth and muscular development carry on, neural interconnects grow and develop, memory functions grows, fine and gross motor skills become more refined so preschoolers can catch, throw, run, use silverware, and tie their shoes. During middle childhood (age six to twelve years) growth of body and brain function continues still. Gross motor functions develop to include biking, swimming, and skating. Increased fine motor skills include writing, typing, zipping, and buttoning.

During adolescence (twelve years to twenty years), growth of body and neurological functioning continue and sexual characteristics develop. During young adult (age twenty to forty years) there is a peak in physical capabilities (strength, coordination, and reaction time), brain function continues to grow, stress can be a health threat (Feldman, 2011). Depending on the age the abuse occurs can affect each individual’s cognitive development to include but not limited to disorders like depression, anxiety, learning and memory disorders, PTSD, and attachment disorders. According to the definition given by Butcher, Mineka, and Hooley, depression is the emotional state that is characterized by extraordinary sadness. Since 1967, Aaron Beck has provided us with a model of his theory on depression. Beck’s diathesis-stress theory suggests that depression leads back to a dysfunctional formation early on, which left the individual vulnerable to depression if encountered with stressors (Butcher, Mineka, Hooley, 2010).

Butcher, Mineka, and Hooly (2010) discuss that according to Beck the parent or guardian are responsible for providing the child or adolescent’s schema. These may lie dormant until activated by a critical incident. It then triggers automatic negative thoughts that lead to depression. Reports of child abuse have suggested an increase in negative self-worth, negative self-attitudes, and negative self-associations. They tend to get caught up in a negative mood, which leads to depression (van Harmelen, deJong, Glashouwer, Spinhover, Penninx, and Elzing, 2010). A learning disorder is a term that refers to a delayed development. It may be with speech, mathematics, reading, memory, or motor skills. Poor motor function and memory are associated with the ability to learn and functioning a school setting.

Contributions to exploring the relationship of cognitive development and learning are growing. According to the studies done by Giesbrecht and Merckelbach (2012) some victims of abuse tend to compartmentalize their trauma. While research shows that some learning disabilities are hereditary, other studies have shown the impact that abuse has on the ability to learn and retain information. Learning disabilities are the products of delicate central nervous system impairments. These learning disabilities are the consequence of immaturity, deficiency, or dysregulation partial to those cognitive skills that are in normal brain functions (Legano, McHough, and Palusci, 2009). In addition, there is a positive correlation between abuse and cognitive failures from Broadbent, Cooper, Fitzgerald, and Parkes’s Cognitive Failures Questionnaire that measures everyday lapses and errors.

There has been a major change in the way one is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a severe and chronic condition, which is no longer conceptualized as a normal response to and abnormal stressor but rather a pathological response to an extreme form of stress (Butcher, Mineka, Hooley, 2010). There may be a bidirectional and temporal relationship between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the hippocampus and neuropsychological functioning in the structural and functional part of the brain. These may either precede the development of PTSD or emerge after the onset of PTSD (Gould, Clarke, Heim, Harver, Majer, and Nemeroff, 2012). Those that have been sexually abused have long-term mental and emotional suffering that lingers. They are likely to have feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and low self-esteem and are more likely to suffer PTSD (Milner and William, 1995).

These can impact marriages and other close relationships. Research by DeBellis, Hooper, Woolley, and Shenk (2009) pediatric PTSD symptoms are associated with lower visual memory, developmental trauma, anxiety and can lead to problems with adult PTSD. A cognitive treatment for PTSD is to vividly recount the traumatic event over and over until there is a decrease in the emotional responses. One other important aspect of a child’s development is their form of attachment. This begins within the home and with the guardian. According to Ainsworth, there are four classifications of infant attachment that can have an impact on the child’s future.

A secure attachment is where the mother is a confident base when she is in attendance. As soon as she leaves the child is obviously upset and immediately goes to her upon return. The avoidant attachment is a style in which the child does not seek closeness to the mother and seems to avoid her upon arrival. The ambivalent attachment is an attachment in which the child shows varied reactions. They cry when she leaves but upon return they kick and hit her. Last is the disorganized-disoriented attachment. This style shows contradictory behavior. They will not look at the mother upon arrival. These seem to be the most negatively attached children (Feldman, 2011). Infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents are more likely to develop negative attachments if abused. Separation anxiety seems to be the biggest problem of individuals that have been abused (Barth, 2009). According to Butcher, Mineka, and Hooley (2010), early victims of rejection and abuse have damaging effects on a person’s worldview.

They also suggest that a parent-child relationship is bidirectional. Some children are easier to love than others based on their temperaments while the guardian’s mental stability affects the attachment relationship. The type of attachment formed correlates to the type of parenting style. The different parenting styles are authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful. According to Butcher, Mineka, and Hooley (2010), the authoritative parent is high on warmth and moderate on control. Research shows that children of authoritative parents tend to be friendly and confident. The Authoritarian parent is low on warmth and high on control Research shows that children of the authoritarian parent can be conflicted and moody. These adolescents usually have more negative outcomes especially with social anc cognitive skills.

Next, the permissive parent is high on warmth but low on discipline. Studies indicate that children of permissive parents are impulsive and aggressive. They are often. selfish and demanding. Last, the neglectful parent is low on warmth and low on control. Children of neglectful parents are moody with a low self esteem. They have conduct and peer problems. They also reflect poor academics. Researchers have shown that providing structure and guidance while allowing a sense of control and freedom gives the child a more positive attachment (Butcher, Mineka, and Hooley, 2010). Thus negative parenting styles can have an overwhelming effect on an individual’s ability to cope with later challenges.


Harmelen, deJong, Glashouwer, Spinhoven, Pennix, and Elzinga (2010) explored the negative cognitive scars of abuse. The study dated from 2004-2007, which consisted of participants in the regular general population and those of mental care institutes at different stages of psychopathology. The ethical review board of the University Medical Center in Amsterdam approved it. Adults were between ages 18 and 65, had a past or present depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and/or social disorder.

There were a total of 2981 participants (age M=41.9, SD=13.0). The DSM-IV was used as the diagnostic measure and past childhood abuse was measured by self-report and with the Beck Anxiety Inventory. Childhood abuse was assed by utilizing the Nemesis trauma interview which asks participants whether they and experienced emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse prior to the age of sixteen. Answers were recorded. Computation came from subtraction of the mean rating of anxiousness from the mean rating of calm on the IAT-stimuli. A written consent was obtained after reviewing the study to the participants.


The findings in the study of Harmelen, deJong, Glashouwer, Spinhoven, Pennix, and Elzinga (2010) explain that, when compared to the no abused group, abused individuals have a stronger depression, higher anxiety, and a lower self-esteem when compared to non-abused individuals. There was not a difference in age or education. However, females showed a higher effect of negative self-associations although both genders are affected by maltreatment. The study also showed a higher significance in correlation to sexually abused participants versus physically abused participants. Cognitive emotional maltreatment is related to the negative self-associations and development that individuals face. The study suggests that the longer that children are exposed to any form of maltreatment, the more likely they are to develop damaging cognitive schemas which lead to cognitive disorders (Harmelen, deJong, Glashouwer, Spinhoven, Pennix, and Elzinga, 2010.


According to a recent study (Child Maltreatment, 2010) over 3 million children are abused or neglected in the United States each year. 8.7 million of the nations children or 1 in 7 have been maltreated. This could be mentally, physically, or sexually. Seventy five percent of all perpetrators are between the ages twenty and thirty nine. Studies have also shown that abused children are more likely to abuse substances (Wulczyn, 2009). There are certain reasons that increase the likelihood of abuse. These include family that bring in an annual income of under $15,000, presence of drug or alcohol addiction, the cycle of past abuse or cycle of violence hypothesis, stressful environments, high marital conflict, single parent families, and families that have more than four children. Incest happens in more wealthy families (Feldman, 2011). In addition, children that already have certain risk factors such as learning disabilities, behavior problems, visual or hearing impairments, or other medical problems can increase the possibility of abuse (Child Maltreatment, 2010).

The consequence of early abuse may carry on into adolescence and even the early stages of adulthood. The results of this study make it clear that the United State needs to make sure that there are prevention programs, community management programs, and counseling programs all with the correct education and proper training. Wulczyn (2009) shows how prevention programs offer a chance to minimize the effects of maltreatment on the developing child, but many, if not most, jurisdictions lack the infrastructure to do so within the traditional child welfare system. Home visiting programs aim to prevent child abuse by providing knowledge, belief in abusing parenting, empathy, sensitive, responsive parenting, and the ability to provide a safe and stimulating home environments (Wulczyn, 2009).

Barth (2009) describes a triple P-Positive parenting program to help parents deal with issues. This includes five levels of intervention 1. A media campaign that informs parents about issues and gets them involved 2. Targets an individual topic at a time such as toilet training or bedtime. Parents would be in direct contact with a trainer. 3. Helps parents concerned with their child’s development and attend brief programs to learn how to manage certain behaviors. 4. This is for parents of children with more severe problems like aggression or behavior issues. They are given certain skills along with contact with a primary care physician. Last is level 5. This is for parents of dysfunctional families with behavior problems. They attend eleven 1-hour sessions and practitioners conduct home visits to ensure the skill being thought are being used.

The biggest question of how to prevent sexual abuse remains unanswered. There are numerous signs and prior efforts have been useful but new methods still need to be further explored and researched. Finklehor (2009) suggest that offender management and school-based programs should be necessary to help regulate sexual abuse. Registering sex offenders, notifying communities about their presence, background checks, controlling where they can live, and longer prison terms. Finklehor (2009) continues to say that one third of the offenders are juveniles which is why there is such a need for school based programs as well. This will help to teach students the skills necessary to identify dangerous situations. Abused children will demonstrate different behaviors once removed temporarily from the home and placed in a therapeutic environment (Ambert, 1994).

In addition to providing services, sometimes a temporary removal needs to be entertained until the family dynamics can be evaluated. Until recently, no study actually showed that participation in a prevention program resulted in reduced rates of sexual abuse for participants (Legano, McHugh, Palusci). It is important for counselors or facilitators of programs to have an understanding of screenings, treatment evaluations, and treatment planning (Milner and Murphy, 1995).

There needs to be sufficient legal and clinical instruction and training about child abuse before any assessment is conductive. The American Counseling Association has put into place a Code of Ethics for professionals to follow. Individuals need to be careful not to obtain a false positive based on bias in their findings. Working with children of abuse requires special training in order to achieve the desired outcome. It is the counselor’s responsibility to practice in the boundaries for which they are qualified to work. In addition, they have a responsibility to read and understand their ethics code (ACA Code of Ethics, 2005).

ACA Code of Ethics (2005) American Counseling Association. Retrieved September 22, 2012 from Ambert, A. (1994). A qualitative study of peer abuse and its effects: Theoretical and

empirical implications. Journal of Marriage and Family, 56 (1), 119-130. Retrieved from Barth, R. (2009). Preventing child abuse and neglect with parent training: Evidence and opportunities. The future of children, 19 (2), 95-118. Retrieved from Butcher, J., Mineka, S., & Hooley, J. (2010). Abnormal psychology. (14 ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc Child Maltreatment (2010). Retrieved November 2, 2012 from DeBellis, M., Hooper, S., Woolley, D., & Shenk, C. (2009). Demographic,

maltreatment, and neurobiological correlates of ptsd symptoms in children and adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 35 (5), 570-577. Retrieved from Feldman, R. (2011). Development across the life span. (6 ed., pp. 178-251). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc Finkelhor, D. (2009). The prevention of childhood sexual abuse. The future of children 19(2), 169-194. Retrieved from

Giesbrecht, T., & Merckelbach, H. (2009). Betrayal trauma theory of
dissociative experiences: Stroop and directed forgetting findings. The Americal Journal of Psychology, 122(3), 337-348. Gould, F., Clarke, J., Heim, C., Harvey, P., Majer, M., & Nemeroff, C. (2012). The effects of child abuse and neglect on cognitive functioning in adulthood. Journal of psychiatric research, 46 (4), 500-506. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.01.005 Legano, L., McHugh, M., & Palusci, V. (2009). Child abuse and neglect. Current problems of pediatric and adolescent health care,doi:10.1016/j.cppeds.2008.11.00 Milner, J., & William, W. (1995). Assessment of child physical and sexual abuse offenders. Family Relations, 44 (4), 478-488. Retrieved from van Harmelen, A., deJong, P., Glashouwer, K., Spinhoven, P., Penninx, B., & Elzing

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