Although child abuse is always damaging, early childhood is particularly susceptible to the dangers of abuse. The earlier in a child's life that the abuse occurs, the more global the effects will be. Abuse between the ages of 2 to 6 wreaks havoc on a child's developing psyche and emotional health. Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development explains that early childhood is a time of burgeoning confidence in personal identity, social competence and conscience development. Abuse derails these important psychosocial milestones.
Child abuse is varied and can include physical, emotional, verbal and sexual manifestations. Neglect also can be a form of abuse. Many psychological, emotional and physical problems can stem from abuse in childhood. Children can experience anxiety, depression, fear, inappropriate emotional reactions, behavioral problems, low self-worth, distorted self-concept, physical ailments such as broken bones, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Some children show signs of regression while others try to act more mature. Abuse affects cognitive and emotional development, creating chaos in a child's life and future.
Erikson's Third Stage of Development
Erikson describes the period of early childhood as a time of "vigorous unfolding," according to author Laura E. Berk. Early childhood allows children's personalities to grow and bloom. Children are developing social skills, confidence in their self-image and a moral conscience during the critical ages of 2 to 6. According to Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development, children in early childhood must resolve the conflict of initiative versus guilt. Children who gain initiative are filled with purpose. They are learning new tasks and finding competence in social arenas. Children who positively resolve this conflict learn cooperation with other children and develop early awareness of conscience development. They begin to internalize concepts of right and wrong. Children who are not able to develop initiative resolve Erikson's third stage of development through guilt.
Inability to Resolve Previous Stages of Development
Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development is foundational. The resolution of each stage builds to prepare children to resolve the next stage. Abused children may not be prepared to tackle the conflict of initiative versus guilt because they have insufficiently resolved previous stages. The first stage, which should be resolved in infancy, is basic trust versus mistrust. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect from early years may not have ever learned trust. Toddlers then must resolve autonomy versus shame and doubt. This conflict also is difficult to resolve for an abused child because of the overwhelming shame that often accompanies abuse. Without the foundation of the previous two stages, abused children struggle through the third stage of psychosocial development.
Guilt as an Effect of Abuse
A child experiencing abuse may not effectively resolve the conflict of initiative versus guilt because of the global nature of child abuse. Abuse affects so much of children's lives that they may be unable to choose self-confident initiatives. Guilt becomes a pervasive feeling in abused children's lives. They take on the shame and guilt that rightfully belong to their abusers. That guilt overshadows the other areas of development that should occur in early childhood.