Poor, Abused Children Exhibit Higher Levels of Aggression

Children of low socio-economic status (SES) and those who have experienced abuse tend to exhibit higher levels of cortisol and fewer social behaviors, according to a new study. Researchers at Leiden University, the University of Minnesota, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the Mt. Hope Family Center, collaborated on a study to determine the lasting effects of this dynamic in these children. “Several studies have shown that individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment show dysregulated cortisol levels,” said the team. “More specifically, low morning cortisol levels have been found in children who have been maltreated (including children who have lived in orphanages under deprived circumstances).”

In order to test their theory, the team collected morning and evening saliva samples from 125 children as they participated in a week long summer camp for under-privileged urban children. Nearly all of the children were from families who were on public assistance and more than half had experienced some form of abuse. The camp was held for two consecutive summers, which gave the team the opportunity to gauge the long-term effects of maltreatment. Counselors rated the behavior of the children at the conclusion of each camp week.

The results revealed a direct link between maltreatment, cortisol production and social behavior. “If children had been maltreated, then they showed higher levels of disruptive/ aggressive behavior,” said the researchers. “In turn, children with high levels of disruptive/aggressive behavior were more at risk for showing low levels of AM cortisol 1 year later.” They added that this link was present for other behavior as well. “For withdrawn behavior, we also found that maltreatment was significantly related to higher levels of withdrawn behavior at Time 1 and that Time 1 withdrawn behavior was significantly related to PM cortisol.” They concluded, “In the long run, children with altered HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) axis functioning (possibly because of a lack of social skills in peer interactions) may be at risk for future psychiatric problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, or antisocial behavior).”

Alink, L. R. A., Cicchetti, D., Kim, J., & Rogosch, F. A. (2011, August 8). Longitudinal Associations Among Child Maltreatment, Social Functioning, and Cortisol Regulation. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024892

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Townes


    August 24th, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    Abused children are set up for failure from the very beginning. They are rarely given the tools that they need to succeed in tis world, and then we are going to blame them for not being able to make it? That is crazy. The very best time that life has to offer to them has been taken away via a violent and disruptive childhood. If I had gone through all of that as a kid I would think that I would have a terrible time as an adult too.

  • Pearl


    August 24th, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    Children that have been subjected to abuse tend to reflect back the behavior in later years..This is both seen and is proven by various studies..It’s not only important to prevent child abuse because it is abuse but also because it is going to morph into various other thongs later in the life of that child.

  • clarence


    August 25th, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    being exposed to violence or things like that would surely mess up a child’s mind.that is the reason why we have ratings for movies,why we don’t shout or hurl abuses in the presence of a child and other things.no parent would want to expose his child to such things.

  • L N

    L N

    August 26th, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    Putting someone down or abusing someone more and more is only gonna make them more resilient and could well make a monster out of a child!

  • Sandra Carswell

    Sandra Carswell

    August 29th, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    Is that or could that heightened cortisol level be one of the “signs” I keep hearing about when a kid is too violent for his own good or ultimately brings a weapon to school?

    What a tragedy it would be if this could be a way of testing those children to spot them ahead of time and we didn’t do it!

  • Sonny Ballard

    Sonny Ballard

    August 29th, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    Too true, abuse increases your stress levels to breaking point very quickly especially if you’re very young. Unresolved stress has the habit of making any of us, adults and children, aggressive and out of control from time to time. It can also make us distance ourselves from the pack. I withdraw more than I act out when I’m depressed and anxious.

  • Bart Falconer

    Bart Falconer

    August 31st, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    This may be an anomaly, but I realized one day that the more affluent students at my old school were also the most aggressive. It’s like they thought themselves untouchable because Daddy was a big shot. Many of the poorer students may not have had money, but they had manners and were nicer to be around.

    It would be interesting to see this same study carried out at a summer camp for rich kids to see what their cortisol levels were like, and ascertain the effects of being raised rich on a child’s levels too.

  • Shaun Kerrigan

    Shaun Kerrigan

    September 3rd, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    I’ve always said that the most violent and disruptive kids in schools are the ones with problematic parents and from a broken home, with abusers, absent parents and so on.

    This reinforces what I have been saying for the past twenty years. That home environment affects their physical makeup as that research demonstrates, so why not mentally too?

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