Adversity in childhood along with maltreatment affects children’s development and increases their vulnerability for mental health concerns later in life. Trauma, bullying, victimization, exposure to violence, loss or bereavement, or even relocation are some of the adverse circumstances which may affect lives in the short and long term. Some suggest that one-third of adult mental health conditions are rooted in adverse experiences during childhood.
The developmental differences correlated with childhood adversity include diminished social reward, emotional dysregulation, enhanced threat bias and difficulty with executive functioning. Almost every child in special education programs presents with one or more of these differences.
Childhood adversity and developmental differences
Children exposed to early adversity may not process and regulate emotions in the same way as others; leading to suppressed or intensified emotional expression. This developmental difference could lay the neural foundation for the development of mood disorders in adolescence and later life.
Children exposed to early adversity may not respond in the same way as non-abused peers to rewarding events or activities. This developmental difference could lay the neural foundation for the development of depression and addiction in adolescence and later life.
Children exposed to early adversity may not be able to plan, organise, execute and monitor their activities and their behavioural responses as easily as same age peers who have not experienced abuse. This developmental difference could lay the neural foundation for the development of learning and behaviour disorders in adolescence and later life.
Children exposed to early adversity can over-react to everyday events and stimuli; triggering an automatic “threat” bias. This developmental difference could lay the neural foundation for the development of anxiety disorders in adolescence and later life.
Source: McCrory et al., 2017
Research on brain development suggests that predictable developmental differences in brain functioning precede the development of mental and behavioral health in children who’ve experienced maltreatment. This informs us that there should be evidence based preventive mental health services provided for all who have experienced some form of maltreatment. Research in this area supports the idea that the process of emotional regulation requires more cognitive effort for maltreated children, and the inefficient emotional control may increase the risk for future social and emotional concerns, such as anxiety disorders.
Children who can express their emotions freely and can regulate their emotions, have better peer relationships, stronger social connections and better educational outcomes. They tend to have better mental health throughout their lives. Children who can recognize and respond well to their feelings, and the feelings of others, express their emotions in healthy ways are better able to make and keep friends. Emotional intelligence is associated with life satisfaction and better educational and vocational outcomes.
Poor emotional regulation is a core difficulty in many childhood disorders that are associated with challenging behaviors. Supporting children to tolerate and manage strong emotions can help to relinquish those behaviors. Children who have experienced maltreatment may have few socially acceptable ways of self-calming, commonly relying on emotional over-control (e.g., not crying when hurt) or emotional under-control (e.g., disproportionate reactions to minor events). They need support to build more adaptive self-regulation activities into their daily lives (Essau et al., 2017).
Adaptive emotional regulation is founded on at least three components:
- the recognition and naming of emotions;
- the association between bodily sensation and emotions; and
- appropriate and safe emotional expression/regulation.
Children who have experienced maltreatment can have difficulty in each of these areas. Taken as a whole, this research suggests the importance of putting strategies in place to support maltreated children to develop emotional literacy (accurately recognizing and naming emotions) and appropriate regulation and expression of emotions. If you are a practitioner, clinician, or educator offering support for vulnerable children and families, it can be helpful to incorporate strategies for supporting children’s emotional regulation as part of a family intervention.