Developmental Perspectives Of Child Maltreatment
It is very important to have an understanding of the relationship between child development and child maltreatment. Childhood is typically a time of rapid change and growth. Each stage of development brings new challenges and changes in the physical, cognitive, and behavioral makeup of a child. These changes are reflected in the epidemiology of maltreatment, which is the pattern of abuse and neglect that is commonly seen. Child development affects all of the following: the precipitating factors that lead to maltreatment; the susceptibility of a child to different types of maltreatment at different ages; the physical findings of abuse or neglect; the treatment options following maltreatment; and the likelihood of long-term sequelae (secondary effects) from abuse or neglect.
Infants are at the greatest risk for all types of maltreatment, including fatal maltreatment. This is relatively easy to understand from a developmental standpoint. Child neglect occurs commonly as infants are the most dependent on their caregivers to provide the basic necessities of life in a stable, secure environment. Parents who are overwhelmed by life stressors and have personal limitations, or have certain cognitive or medical conditions (such as mental retardation or depression) may become caregivers who cannot pick up on infant cues. In these situations there is a risk of poor attachment and emotional neglect. Parents can also be easily frustrated by an infant whose crying or temperament makes them difficult to handle, leading to the potential for physical abuse. This risk is dangerously high given that infants are already at higher risk for physical abuse because of their physical attributes, such as softer bones, small size, and the inability to resist physical harm or verbalize what happens to them. The "shaken baby syndrome" illustrates this principle. An infant has limited muscle tone, particularly in the neck, and an infant's head size is proportionately larger than other parts of its body. An infant that is forcibly shaken can get a form of whiplash, which creates forces that shear the delicate and developing brain. These infants suffer significant neurological damage and often die as a result of the brain injury and swelling.
The toddler and preschool years provide new challenges as children are growing and developing new physical skills. These physical skills enable children to run, climb, and openly explore in areas they previously could not, so caregiver supervision becomes increasingly important. A neglectful caregiver will not make the environment safe or provide appropriate boundaries. Verbal skills increase and children vocalize their emerging independence. A parent unprepared for the typical use of the word "no" may interpret this as defiant behavior and resort to harsh physical punishment that becomes abusive, not recognizing the appropriateness of the child's behavior for this developmental stage. Toilet training during these years is one of the more common parental stressors and precipitant of abuse.
School-age children and adolescents have a lower overall risk of maltreatment. They spend less time in the presence of caregivers because of school, after-school activities, and peer interactions. They are also less dependent as their physical and cognitive development allows them to do many things for themselves. Physically they are larger in size, stature, and strength, and it takes more force to cause injury. Sexual abuse, however, is more prevalent among school-age children and teens, particularly girls. The reason for this increase is related in part to the physical developmental changes that occur in both boys and girls as they enter puberty.