What Is the Impact of Child Abuse on Teenagers?

As we know, teenagers experience multiple developmental changes. It is also a time of life when cumulative effects of abuse and neglect can emerge more strongly. This is true because the brain lags behind the body in development, especially in the areas that allow teenagers to reason and think logically. Most teenagers act impulsively at times (using a lower area of their brain—their “gut reaction”) because their frontal lobe is not yet mature. Since impulsive behavior, poor decision-making, and increased risk-taking are part of the normal teenage experience, it may be difficult to discern whether teenage behavior is due to abuse or neglect or normal impulsiveness.

What does abuse and neglect look like in teens?

Mother and teen daughter conflict
Teens who have experienced abuse and neglect may show delays in school and development of social skills; they may be drawn to taking riskssuch as experimenting with drugs and crime, especially if they live in environments of increased risk for these behaviors.

Teens who have been abused, neglected, or traumatized may demonstrate more apparent impulsive behavior. Often, these youth’s brains focus on survival at the expense of more advanced thinking processes that take place in the brain’s cortex.

An underdeveloped cortex can lead to increased impulsive behavior as well as difficulties with tasks that require higher-level thinking and feeling. Therefore, teens who have experienced abuse and neglect may show delays in school and development of social skills. They may be drawn to taking risks, or have more opportunity to experiment with drugs and crime, especially if they live in environments of increased risk for these behaviors.

Teenagers who lack stable relationships with caring adults, who can provide guidance and model appropriate behavior, may never have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for developing healthy adult relationships or becoming good parents.

Repercussions that show up in adulthood

There is a great deal of research and supporting evidence that indicates maltreatment during infancy and early childhood can have enduring repercussions into adolescence and adulthood.

The experiences of infancy and early childhood provide the organizing framework for the expression of children’s intelligence, emotions and personalities. When these experiences are negative, children may develop emotional, behavioral and learning problems that persist throughout their lifetime.

Lasting impact can be lessened if targeted interventions occur, but if those interventions do not occur, some long-term effects are bound to show up in adulthood. Some of the specific long-term effects of abuse and neglect on the developing brain can include:

  • Diminished growth in the left hemisphere, which may increase the risk for depression
  • Irritability in the limbic system, setting the stage for the emergence of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Smaller growth in the hippocampus and limbic abnormalities, which can increase the risk for dissociative disorders and memory impairments, and
  • Impairment in the connection between the two brain hemispheres, which has been linked to symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

The rise of mental illness and depression in the US

Statistics show an increase of depression, panic disorders, dissociative disorders and ADHD in our culture. It could be that many of these cases can be connected to early childhood maltreatment.

Imagine how healthy outcomes may happen if we can keep our children safe during early childhood. Their emotional health will have major positive impact in our schools, families and communities.

It is so important to raise our awareness to these facts of abuse and neglect as we help teenagers who seem to be struggling with these developmental types of issues. Awareness may lead us to different types of interventions that may help them toward healing and restoration.

Appropriate awareness and intervention could prevent a lifetime of struggles and prevent many other issues detrimental to healthy future growth.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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