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Seeking factors that help maltreated children heal

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 22 October, 2001  (Technical Article)
While you read this, countless children across America are being slapped, kicked, burned with lighted cigarettes or locked in closets. Others will be raped, or told over and over that their mother wishes they never had been born. Some children will drift along city streets until, or if, a caregiver comes home. Other kids will miss breakfast and dinner for days on end. Some will be dropped off in parking lots and never picked up. And some, of course, will die.
Some of that number will grow up to be respected business owners and diplomats, beloved entertainers, revered educators and civic leaders. Others will become thieves and killers. And some will abuse others.

Why do some maltreated children overcome their adversities more successfully than others? What makes the difference? The questions haunt Kerry Bolger, new assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having earned her doctorate from the University of Virginia five years ago, Bolger already has established a national reputation as an expert on the effects of child abuse and neglect.

Bolger's most recent paper, about to appear in the journal Development and Psychopathology, addresses possible factors that allow some abused or neglected children to grow into more well-adjusted, productive adults. The research also may provide clues as to why others fail.

Bolger and her colleagues found that perceived control, how much of a say maltreated children believe they have about circumstances, might be instrumental in determining whether victims are able to regroup from such early adversity. The perceived-control factor, Bolger says, may help substantially in lowering the level of vulnerability, depression and anxiety that a victim of maltreatment may experience. The research team also concluded that acceptance by schoolmates may be another important factor in later psychological adjustment.

Working with more than 100 Virginia children whose cases of physical and/or sexual abuse and/or neglect had been well-documented, Bolger's research has found:

-- Behaviors including aggression, anxiety, depression and isolation seem linked to the time in the child's life of the abuse or neglect. Bolger says that, generally speaking, abuse or neglect occurring during the toddler years or before more profoundly compromises the child's ability to work through those experiences in a healthy way.

-- Children who experience more than one type of maltreatment, for example, sexual abuse combined with neglect, are more likely to display inappropriate behavior or suffer from psychological problems.

-- Maltreatment that goes on for a long period of time (more than five years) increases the risk of problems such as aggression toward others.

The research, funded by the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will provide vital clues into the process of making us who we are, Bolger says.

'How exactly do our early experiences help shape us? That's one of the things I find so exciting about this work, it combines theory and practical application. For example, girls are much more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, and that may be a factor in explaining why so many more women than men suffer from depression,' Bolger says.

The next phase of her research will focus on abuse victims' resilience, or their ability to overcome significant setbacks and obstacles.

'Unfortunately, the research so far on this issue suggests that the rate of overall positive adjustment among maltreated children is low,' she says. Nevertheless, 'There's so much we can learn from these children.'

What is clear right now, Bolger emphasizes, is the crucial role adults play in shaping the emotional and psychological development of children, and in helping maltreated young people move beyond their difficulties.

'Teachers can help by creating safe places for kids, every child doesn't have to like every other child, but everyone does need to be civil and respectful. A stable environment is especially important when things at home may not be that nurturing or predictable,' she says.

This fall, Bolger is teaching a graduate seminar dealing with understanding close relationships. In spring she will offer an undergraduate course in parenting education and support programs. In that class her research will add a heightened dimension, she predicts. It also could help tomorrow's parents.

'These students probably will have children themselves someday. I really like kids myself, and in the back of my mind I hope all my efforts will contribute to making the world a better place for them.'
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