Childhood Maltreatment Can Last a Lifetime

by Cameron Thomas, Kenyon ’17

As one would expect, poor treatment of a child can have serious effects in the future for the child’s development. Poor treatment includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. It also includes emotional and physical neglect. Of the many possible consequences of maltreatment, effects on personality can be the most detrimental and apparent. Severe personality disorders as adults could be a result, but there are many people who do not develop such extreme personality shifts. Rather they experience subtler, less pathological effects on personality, which is what this study sought to examine.

A team of experts in the field of personality psychology led by Michael P. Hengartner, PhD, assessed childhood trauma and its effect on the Big Five Personality Traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). They took a sample of approximately 1170 participants from Switzerland that is representative of a general population-based community. To assess these different variables, they used scales as a form of operationalization. The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire is a 28-item self-survey that asks the participant about traumatic events that could have taken place before the age of 17. The items are scored on a five-point Likert scale that ranged from “never true” to “very often true.” From these items an expert can determine their level of emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and physical neglect. The Big Five Personality Traits were assessed using the Big Five Inventory short form, which consists of 15 items scored on a seven-point Likert scale, ranging from “don’t agree at all” to “completely agree.” Openness assesses creativity and inventiveness. Conscientiousness assesses diligence and carefulness. Extraversion measures being sociable and outgoing. Agreeableness includes being sympathetic and warm. Finally, Neuroticism assesses fear and anxiety.

Now that all of the technical details are explained, it’s time to discuss the findings of this important and relevant study. From the results, it appears that increases in neuroticism seem to be the most associated with any childhood trauma, with emotional abuse and emotional neglect having the greatest association. Emotional abuse also has a significant relationship with increased openness and decreased agreeableness. Emotional neglect has significant associations with decreased extraversion and decreased agreeableness. Physical abuse and neglect and sexual abuse all had significant effects on neuroticism, but very small associations with the other personality traits.

Emotional abuse can come in many forms such as bullying, verbal aggression, or dominance in a relationship. Emotional neglect mostly refers to a parent-child relationship, where the parent does not provide the emotional support that is necessary. These results demonstrate that during childhood, a person is in a delicate state. Doing an action that could be traumatizing or taking away something that could be beneficial for emotional well-being could completely change a child’s development.

In today’s world, physical abuse is taken extremely serious. There have been huge stories in the past year about pop stars or professional athletes committing domestic or child abuse, with massive penalties and repercussions for these actions. This is a step in the right direction, but according to the results of this study, emotions play a larger role than the physical aspect. A child’s brain is still growing and developing. It is being molded by what the child sees, hears, and experiences. You can think of it like a new tub of Play-Doh. If you take the Play-Doh and start ripping it up and throwing it around, you can create a mess. If you neglect to do anything with the Play-Doh, it will never be shaped into something beautiful.

Although these children may mature into adults with personalities that fall on the range of “normal” personality functioning, they still have significantly different levels of each trait. Having very high levels of neuroticism can make every day life more difficult and frustrating. It can make someone more reactive to stress and less emotionally stable. This makes complete sense because if you are emotionally abusing someone, such as a parent constantly making fun of their child, they will eventually give into it and let the stress consume them. They could live in constant fear and anxiety that someone will make fun of them or point out their insecurities. This will develop as they mature and change their personality as an adult.


Hengartner, M. (2015). Association between childhood maltreatment and normal adult personality traits: Exploration of an understudied field. Journal of Personality Disorders, 29(1), 1-14.

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