Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Faculty News Psychology

George Holden, Psychology, a call for paradigm shifts in preventing and treating child abuse

New ways to protect kids
A conference co-sponsored by APA and the American Bar Association calls for paradigm shifts in preventing and treating child abuse.

By Rebecca A. Clay
July/August 2014, Vol 45, No. 7
Print version: page 30

…Understanding child maltreatment

Family violence is rampant in our society, said George W. Holden, PhD, a psychology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

An estimated 676,000 children each year suffer from child maltreatment, which typically takes the form of physical, psychological or sexual abuse or neglect. But those confirmed cases are “a woeful underestimate of the problem,” said Holden.
For one, many cases are still not reported. And that number doesn’t include the 10 percent of children who research suggests are exposed to intimate partner violence at home. For a quarter to half of them, such an environment can cause signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Other reactions include attachment problems and disruptions in eating and sleeping routines in toddlers and anxiety, depression and aggression among older children, Holden said.

What’s more, many children face multiple challenges simultaneously. “One of the major new insights in the last 15 years is the concept of polyvictimization — that is, children being multiply victimized,” Holden said, adding that the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study of 17,000 adults was the first major research to reveal the extent of polyvictimization. Almost two-thirds of participants reported at least one adverse experience, while more than one in five had three or more such experiences. The more adverse experiences a child has, the more problems those experiences are likely to cause, Holden said.

The problems may also continue on into adulthood. The ACE study and other research have found that adverse child experiences are linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer in adulthood, Holden said. Part of the reason may be that maltreatment in the first three years of life — and the resulting release of stress hormones — can affect brain development and compromise the immune system, research has found. Meanwhile, children’s social and emotional health can suffer from an insecure attachment style and negative ideas about themselves and others that can affect later relationships.

The good news: Many children are resilient. In fact, studies find that about one-third of children exposed to violence experience no negative consequences. “The key finding is that resiliency is not a personality trait but rather is better characterized as a mindset,” Holden said, explaining that resilient children view their vulnerabilities as areas for development instead of personality flaws. What’s needed, he said, are interventions to help all children develop this kind of mindset. READ MORE

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