12 Long- And Short-Term Effects Of Child Abuse

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The effects of child abuse and neglect can be serious and detrimental, both short-term and long-term. It can be important to recognize the effects of child abuse and neglect and to report possible mistreatment whenever you see it. People who have been mistreated may also face a greater risk of becoming harmful to others later in life, although many people who were once abused move on to become careful, kind, and productive part of society. If you survived childhood abuse and are still experiencing negative effects, therapy with a licensed mental health professional can be beneficial.

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You can overcome adverse childhood experiences

Effects of child abuse and neglect: Potential long-term consequences

Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect can be physical, psychological, and behavioral. The following may occur after mistreatment:

Health problems

While some long-term effects of child abuse and neglect can occur instantly, such as brain damage from head trauma, other effects may take months or even years to become detectable. Survivors of abuse may face a higher risk for a variety of long-term or future physical health problems, including:

  • Malnutrition
  • High blood pressure
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Bowel disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Lung problems

Survivors of mistreatment and neglect may also be at risk for the effects of stunted or improper brain development. Regions of the brain, including the amygdala, which typically plays a large part in processing emotions, and the hippocampus, which can be critical for learning and memory, can be negatively affected by child abuse and neglect. However, with the help of treatment and intervention, it can be possible to help these areas of the brain recover.

Substance use disorders

Children of parents with substance use disorders may face a greater risk of experiencing abuse or neglect. Abuse, in turn, can increase their risk of turning to various substances as coping mechanisms when they grow older. 

One long-term study that followed survivors until they reached age 24 found that experiencing physical abuse during the first five years of life can be strongly linked to developing a substance use disorder later in life.

Juvenile delinquency and criminal acts

According to research funded by the National Institute of Justice, those who are neglected or abused as children may be more likely to develop antisocial behaviors, which can include criminal acts and juvenile delinquency, and may choose to associate with others who also display these antisocial tendencies. 

Psychological and behavioral issues

Experiencing abuse and neglect when you're young can also be a risk factor for developing psychiatric disorders, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anorexia or bulimia
  • Behavioral disorders

Research on childhood trauma and its effects on the brain suggests that stunted or impaired brain development from abuse may play a part in the potential development of these disorders.

Impaired cognitive skills and executive functioning

Child abuse and neglect can disrupt brain development, potentially resulting in the impairment of the brain’s executive functions. These functions may include working memory, self-awareness, planning, and problem-solving. This damage can result in:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Poor grades
  • A higher chance of dropping out of school

These short-term effects can sometimes have a drastic impact on a child’s future.

Direct and indirect costs to society

Abuse and neglect can have far-reaching consequences that often do not stop at the person who is or was abused. Society, as a whole, can be affected by childhood abuse.

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control found that the total lifetime economic cost of child abuse and neglect generally added up to $428 billion. Direct costs, such as hospitalizations and foster care payments, and indirect costs, such as long-term care, like therapy and medication, factored into this total.

Child mistreatment and neglect: Potential short-term consequences


Depending on their age, children who experience abuse and neglect can respond to it in a variety of different ways. Preschool-aged children or toddlers may start bed-wetting and displaying signs of severe anxiety. Elementary school kids might have low grades or very few friends. Some teenagers might experiment with substances or fight with their families, though these aren’t always signs of abuse or neglect.

Depression and anxiety

Children of any gender or age can experience depression and anxiety as a result of abuse (or unrelated to abuse). Feelings of guilt and anger may also be common, especially among adolescent survivors of abuse.

Altered sleep cycles

Those who are abused as children may also experience altered sleep cycles. Nightmares, sleep disturbances, and hypervigilance can contribute to their sleep problems. These symptoms typically occur in preschoolers, but can occur later in life as well, especially if PTSD or anxiety are present.

Regressive behavior

Regressive behavior can occur when a child regresses to an earlier developmental stage emotionally, socially, or behaviorally. Wanting a bottle or pacifier after they have already been weaned off them may be one example of regressive behavior. Age regression can occur in people of all ages. 

Separation anxiety disorder

Preschool-aged children may develop separation anxiety disorder as a result of abuse and neglect. Symptoms of this disorder can include constantly shadowing a caretaker around the house, as well as stomachaches and dizziness in anticipation of separation.

Low self-esteem

People abused as children may develop low self-worth. They may internalize the abuse and believe they caused or deserve it. These feelings of incompetence and shame can carry into adulthood and become long-term effects of child abuse and neglect.

Risky behavior

Teenagers may start to engage in unsafe sex or start misusing substances as a result of abuse or neglect from loved ones. They may also start fights in school or bully others.

Possible signs of mistreatment in children

Many people abused as children feel afraid to tell someone about the situation. This may stem from shame or confusion. It could also occur if the abuser is a parent or trusted adult. That’s why it can be so important to remain aware and alert for signs of child abuse in anyone under your care.

Common red flags of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect may include:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Sexual behavior or knowledge that is inappropriate for their age
  • Depression
  • Low attendance in school
  • Poor hygiene

You may also notice disturbing behavior from the children’s parents when they are around. This can include verbal abuse, a lack of concern for their children’s well-being, and even physical abuse. While child health experts generally condemn the use of any kind of violence, some people still use corporal punishment to discipline their children. 

Types of child abuse

Child abuse can take many forms. Some of them may even occur at the same time. They may include the following:

  • Physical abuse: Hitting, punching, and choking can be several examples of physical abuse. Anything that puts a child in harm’s way or that is meant to physically injure them is typically considered physical abuse.
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual abuse generally includes any form of sexual activity with a child.
  • Emotional abuse: Emotional abuse, such as verbal assault or ignoring a child, can negatively affect self-esteem and emotional well-being.
  • Neglect: Failing to provide adequate food, shelter, supervision, education, or healthcare is normally considered to be child neglect.

Prevent child abuse and neglect

As a parent, you can work to prevent child abuse and neglect by ensuring that your child is always nurtured and looked after. As a friend or a relative, you can help babysit or look after children in your life and keep an eye out for any of the potential signs of abuse discussed above. 

You can also get involved in the local community by developing parenting resources at the local library, asking leaders to create services to meet the needs of different families, and volunteering at child abuse prevention programs.

You can overcome adverse childhood experiences

Seeking professional help as an adult survivor of childhood abuse

If you experienced abuse as a child, it may be beneficial to seek professional help so you can address any long-term effects you may be experiencing. Both in-person and online therapy can be valid options for treatment.

You may feel more comfortable trying online therapy, as you can attend sessions from home at a time that fits your schedule. When discussing vulnerable topics like abuse, it can be helpful to be in a familiar place where you feel safe and comfortable. In addition, you can choose to speak to your therapist via phone call or online chat if a video call feels too intimidating.

Although there isn’t yet much research regarding the efficacy of online therapy for adult survivors of childhood abuse, studies show that, in general, online therapy tends to be just as effective as in-person therapy. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you deserve.


Child abuse and neglect can result in a variety of short-term and long-term consequences. In the short term, some of the effects children may experience can include depression, anxiety, altered sleep cycles, regressive behavior, and low self-esteem. In the long term, those who survived childhood abuse may experience health problems, develop substance use disorders, and live with impaired cognitive skills and executive functioning.
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