Objective: The immediate impact of child maltreatment on health and developmental trajectories over time is unknown. Longitudinal studies starting in the direct aftermath of exposure with repeated follow-up are needed.
Method: We assessed health and developmental outcomes in 6-month intervals over 2 years in 173 children, aged 3-5 years at study entry, including 86 children with exposure to emotional and physical abuse or neglect within 6 months and 87 nonmaltreated children. Assessments included clinician-administered, self- and parent-report measures of psychiatric and behavioral symptoms, development, and physical health. Linear mixed models and latent growth curve analyses were used to contrast trajectories between groups and to investigate the impact of maltreatment features on trajectories.
Results: Maltreated children exhibited greater numbers of psychiatric diagnoses (b = 1.998, p < .001), externalizing (b = 13.29, p < .001) and internalizing (b = 11.70, p < .001) symptoms, impairments in cognitive (b = -11.586, p < .001), verbal (b = -10.687, p < .001), and motor development (b = -7.904, p = .006), and greater numbers of medical symptoms (b = 1.021, p < .001) compared to nonmaltreated children across all time-points. Lifetime maltreatment severity and/or age at earliest maltreatment exposure predicted adverse outcomes over time.
Conclusion: The profound, immediate, and stable impact of maltreatment on health and developmental trajectories supports a biological embedding model and provides foundation to scrutinize the precise underlying mechanisms. Such knowledge will enable the development of early risk markers and mechanism-driven interventions that mitigate adverse trajectories in maltreated children.