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Marriage, Education Buffer Effects of Childhood Abuse

Adults who had been abused or neglected as children reported worse mental and physical health in their 30s than their peers who were not abused, according to a new study.

The new study also found that being married or graduating from high school buffered the severity of these symptoms.

Additionally, adults who experienced child abuse reported less happiness and self-esteem, more anger and other psychological damage, according to the new research.

“As we understand more of how individuals overcome early trauma, we can develop programs to support and nurture kids exposed to abuse,” said Todd Herrenkohl, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, who is the lead author of two new studies examining what factors can mitigate the harm of abuse and neglect during childhood.

The studies are based on data from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, which began in the 1970s. The study’s purpose was to evaluate the consequences of experiencing violence at a young age.

Participants became involved in the study if their parents were reported to child welfare agencies for abuse or neglect. Parents were asked about a range of disciplinary practices that are considered abusive, such as slapping and leaving a bruise, kicking, hitting or biting. Neglect involved depriving children of necessities, such as food, medical attention and hygiene.

Herrenkohl and his collaborators interviewed more than 80 percent of the original participants — about half of whom were abused — who are now in their late 30s.

The researchers, who wanted to know how the participants were faring in their adult lives, asked about mental and physical health, use of drugs and alcohol, quality of relationships with family and friends, education, employment, and overall well-being and satisfaction in life.

In a study published in the Journal of Family Violence, Herrenkohl and his co-authors reported that childhood abuse led to worse mental and physical health and substance abuse in adulthood.

For instance, 24 percent of child abuse survivors reported moderate to severe depression, compared with 7 percent of participants who had not been abused.

About 19 percent reported problems with alcohol, whereas only 10 percent of the non-abused participants reported these problems.

Being married or a high-school graduate partly lowered, but did not eliminate, the risk for depression among those who had been abused, the researchers found. Survivors who graduated high school also had a lower risk for lifetime alcohol problems.

Gender and early childhood socioeconomic status had little bearing on the long-term effects of abuse, according to the researcher. “The expectation is that growing up in a household with a higher income and higher social status will help kids, but child maltreatment erases those advantages,” Herrenkohl said.

In a second study, published in Violence and Victims and also based on interviews with the adults from the Lehigh Longitudinal Study, Herrenkohl and his co-authors explored anger proneness, self-esteem, sense of independence, satisfaction in life, and other measures of well-being.

Child abuse and neglect was linked to lower scores on most of these well-being measures when compared with scores from individuals who hadn’t been abused, the researchers noted.

“The results show that the effects of child maltreatment extend beyond the most common mental health diagnoses,” Herrenkohl said. “It shows that adults abused as children experience the emotional consequences of early trauma well into their adult years.”

Source: University of Washington

Marriage, Education Buffer Effects of Childhood Abuse

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Marriage, Education Buffer Effects of Childhood Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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