March 01, 2015

Representing Child Abuse Victims: A Developmental Lens

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

This article is the first of three based on a webinar developed for Navy Special Victims Counsel co-hosted by the ABA Center on Children and the Law and the Center for Professional Development on October 16, 2014. It looks at child development stages for children from infancy through adolescence and highlights how trauma interplays with these stages. In Part 2, Julie Kenniston, MSW, LISW will offer guidance on forensic interviews with child victims in court. In Part 3, Steven Kelly, JD, will share tips on developing a litigation strategy for child victims in criminal court. 

When representing child abuse victims, knowing the child’s developmental stage helps you frame your approach.  From babies to teens and in between, each group thinks, feels, behaves, and acts differently depending on their development.  Abuse creates a twist, however.

 “Trauma can derail development and can cause regressions,” said Joanne Solchany, PhD, ARNP.  “In a three year old, you might be seeing two-year-old behaviors.” Solchany cautioned that overlapping between age groups is common and that chronic trauma and stress causes kids to shut down and fail to progress. While many children are resilient and can get through their trauma with good care and support, most are impacted. 

Solchany detailed child development from infancy through adolescence across several domains—psychological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.  Brief developmental summaries appear here, along with common risks to children who experience abuse. (See the sidebar for tips when working with victims in court, and watch the webinar for in-depth information. 

Child Development and the Child Victim 

Infants (0-14 months)

What’s going on? “Psychologically infants are totally dependent on their caregivers and can’t survive without someone caring for them,” said Solchany. “They tend to take others for granted and know they are going to be taken care of.” Emotionally, even in early infancy they can show feelings, such as joy and distress. Their feelings develop over time to include: happy, sad, excitement, and fear. 

Infants tend to mirror those around them. “If you have a parent who’s completely chaotic and out of control, the infant will be unable to regulate their own emotions,” said Solchany. “You tend to see infants who are unable to deal with their own emotions, be satisfied, or be calmed easily.” Physiological signs—not eating, throwing up, disrupted sleep, inability to be calmed, and bowel problems—are common as their bodies respond to what’s going on.

However, because infants don’t understand things the way adults or older children do, something terrible in our eyes may not cause them to respond in ways we would think, said Solchany.

Trauma risks. Trauma can derail an infant’s development. Common risks include:

  • Regression
  • Inconsistent routines 
  • Interruptions in physiological stability (sleeping, eating, elimination)
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Increase in new fears
  • Separation anxiety
  • Lost trust due to inconsistent caregiving 
  • Inability to contain emotions

Toddlers (14/15 months - 3 years)

What’s going on? “Toddlers believe they’re the center of the world,” said Solchany. They show more emotions and express pride in accomplishments. Being separated from or losing a caregiver can cause intense grief that can impact their developmental progress.

Cognitively, they start to develop the capacity to know right from wrong. They are concrete in their thinking and repeat things to make sense of them. They also mirror what they see, hear, and experience.  Behavior begins to be purposeful, although “terrible twos” behaviors emerge—tantrums, testing limits, stoicism, showing off, and finding and playing on loopholes. 

Trauma risks

  • Inconsistent/inadequate support from caregivers
  • Easily stressed by repeat separations and disrupted routines
  • Easily overwhelmed by emotional extremes (can’t sort them out intellectually)
  • Interference with ability to develop self-reliance/sense of self

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

What’s going on? At this age, the child is better able to self-regulate, said Solchany. They switch between baby-like and more grown-up behavior. Their emotional repertoire is growing quickly and they are easily overwhelmed. They still rely on caregivers to make sense of their own and others’ feelings and their balance between relationships and independence switches on and off. Maintaining routines is key to controlling their environments.

Cognitively they are present-focused and concrete thinkers. Solchany noted that they are starting to understand simple concepts and can remember events and relate narratives. However, they are easily suggestible and tend to mix fantasy and fill in missing information with their own ideas. 

Preschoolers ask many questions and make demands when they are feeling out of control, said Solchany. Tantrums continue and they may act aggressively towards others, often people they trust most, to help them make sense of things. Play and pretending is used to cope and understand the world. 

Trauma risks

  • Exposure to continued conflict and distress can interfere with developmental progress.
  • “Pseudo-maturity” is often shown in an attempt to be independent. Yet, the child often lacks the substance to deal with situations and still needs structure and support even if he appears mature.
  • The child often feels responsible and wants to make others feel better.

Early School-Age (Kindergarten – Fifth grade)

What’s going on? These children are working on distinguishing reality and fantasy, said Solchany. Their sexual identities are forming as they start distinguishing between girl and boy activities, toys, and clothing. They are starting to know that people exist even when they are not present physically.  They can think about Mom or Dad, even if separated from them, and understand they’ll reunite at the end of the day. New attachments to other people, such as teachers, are starting to form.

Distress often comes out as aggression in these children, and regression can occur when they become upset or worried, said Solchany.  An important milestone is the ability to close off some feelings to deal with other feelings. For example, they can temporarily forget about being angry at a parent in order to have fun with a peer. This represents an ability to hold two emotions and manage feelings, said Solchany.

Cognitively, early school-age children can understand slightly more complex ideas and are increasingly curious about why things happen. They are still suggestible but are becoming better at recalling information. They are starting to understand rules and social conformity. 

Defensive behaviors are common and distress is often acted out behaviorally towards trusted people, said Solchany. Disruptions can affect school performance if energy is demanded elsewhere in their lives. She added that their desire for control often leads to sneaky behaviors.

Trauma risks

  • Exposure to things they don’t understand or aren’t prepared for can be overwhelming, especially if they feel hopeless or helpless in the situation.
  • Being emotionally or psychologically overwhelmed often impacts friendships, school, and the ability to develop new interests.
  • Acting out, withdrawing, and closing down are common responses to stress.

School-age children  

What’s going on? These children are becoming more independent and self-reliant, said Solchany. They’re better able to plan before acting and take more responsibility for their actions. Greater confidence and a desire for more control are common traits. Their ability to self-regulate continues to develop and they may start to test their own values and beliefs. Solchany cautioned that under stress, they tend to lose these new abilities.

Reasoning capabilities among school-age children increase and they can consider competing ideas. They are increasingly aware of social norms and expectations and develop a strong sense of right and wrong. With this knowledge, rebellious behaviors begin to be expressed, as well as testing limits and searching for containment. Their peer relationships also grow in significance.

Trauma risks

  • Lack of support can lead to decreased sense of mastery and self-reliance that is critical in this stage of development.
  • Sensitivity to criticism and taking things personally is heightened.
  • The risk of depression increases with loss of control over life events.

Preadolescents

What’s going on? “Pubertal changes become apparent and push relationships to the forefront,” said Solchany. This group is starting to undergo a transition from childhood to adulthood and slide back and forth as they search for greater independence and a sense of identity. They are more likely to acknowledge weaknesses in caregivers and to question authority.

Cognitively, preteens are better at abstract reasoning. They want to know “why” and have reasons for things. They often test out new ideas, interaction patterns, and thoughts on others. Loyalty to someone they care about tends to win out over other concerns or demands. 

Behaviorally, preteens test limits by breaking rules, and they may begin to play people against one another. Rebellious behaviors are easily fueled and they may try to exact control by making quick, rash decisions. “They don’t want people thinking they don’t know what they’re doing or can’t make a decision so they rush to judgment and can be very impulsive,” explained Solchany. Fitting in is also important and they will act in ways that helps them feel they belong.

Trauma risks

  • Higher drug use/abuse
  • Sexual acting out
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Legal trouble
  • Truancy
  • Depression 
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Striving for perfection or overcompliance

Adolescents

What’s going on? Adolescents make rapid gains in self-confidence, said Solchany. They can make independent decisions and start to take ownership of their decisions. They begin to see themselves in adult roles and are less dependent on adults for guidance. 

Adolescents want to feel their contributions matter and take pride in their accomplishments. Their peer relationships are increasingly important and they are often confused over where to place their loyalties.

Cognitively they are more capable of complex and abstract thinking and can hold multiple competing ideas. They often think they know more than they do. Their understanding of right and wrong continues to grow, but they tend to rationalize things they don’t understand. 

Trauma risks

  • Struggle to exercise independence and be compliant
  • Need to exercise control but are easily overwhelmed
  • Need opportunities to be responsible but within their competency limits
  • Pseudo maturity often comes into play.

Conclusion

Children’s developmental paths are rarely straight and predictable. For children who experience abuse and resulting trauma, the path is often derailed. Knowing the risks trauma creates for children at various developmental stages can help you spot and respond to signs in children’s behavior, thinking, emotions, and mental health. It can also guide a more sensitive approach when working with the child in and out of court.

Claire Chiamulera is CLP’s editor.

Stay tuned: In Part 2, Julie Kenniston, MSW, LISW offers guidance on forensic interviews with child victims in court.