Child abuse can affect a child mentally and physically while impacting choices throughout life. Children who were abused were at a greater risk to take drugs and abuse their own children as adults.

A new study focuses on the impact chronic child abuse has in decisions made as a teen and adult. The more severe the abuse, the more likely a child was at risk to make poor decisions later in life.

Melissa Jonson-Reid, PhD, from the Washington University in St. Louis, evaluated 5,994 children from low-income families in St. Louis, 3,521 children had reports of abuse, from 1993 to 2006. Researchers looked at how chronic child abuse affected drug use, violent delinquency, sexually transmitted diseases, suicide attempts and brain injuries for teens under the age of 18. For children who were adults at the end of the study, researchers looked at how child abuse affected drug use and if child abuse led to the abuse of their own child in adulthood.

Even one instance of child abuse increased the risk of poorer outcomes for a child during their teen years and as adults by 20 to 50 percent when compared to children who were not abused.

Children with chronic reports of abuse, more than four instances, had the greatest risk increase when compared to no reports of abuse. Child abuse not only affected the risk of poor decision making during their teen years but also affected decisions as adults.

Adults who were chronically abused as children were at a greater risk of having mental problems or harming their own children. Chronic child abuse, four or more reports, were twice as likely to abuse their own children or required mental health services, note Dr. Jonson-Reid.

Stopping abuse early can go a long way to improving a child’s quality of life and reducing the risk for future poor decisions. Dr. Jonson-Reid believes preventing child abuse can reduce the total estimated lifetime cost of health problems, be it mental or behavioral, resulting from child. For America, the estimated lifetime cost of child abuse is more than $100 billion.

By understanding the effect of child abuse on poor decisions later in life, intervention programs and treatment options can be tailored to improve future decisions. Intervention programs for teenagers could help reduce the number of substance abuse cases as adults. Educating and providing support to teenagers could also reduce the risk of an adult repeating the cycle of abuse. 

The study was published in Pediatrics.