Can early childhood environmental factors help predict child maltreatment?


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Content type
Short article

June 2017


Daryl Higgins

Our research looked at the likelihood, or “risk,” of a young person reporting in early adulthood that as a child they were subjected to abusive or neglectful behaviours from parents or other adults.

The Australian Temperament Project provided a unique opportunity to look at data collected from mothers about their child and the environment in which they were growing up. We were able to compare this with data from the children in their early twenties, when we asked them about their recollections of abusive and neglectful behaviours.

We found that young adults’ reports of experiencing abusive and neglectful behaviours during childhood was predicted by the following “risk factors”: economic and social disadvantage, poor parental mental health and substance use.

Remember that the presence of a risk factor in a child’s familial environment does not mean that maltreatment is automatically occurring – it just means that, statistically, there is a greater chance they will experience abuse or neglect (see Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect for a more detailed discussion).

Due to the breadth of data, we were able to examine multiple risk factors at the same time. Importantly, we found that many risk factors that were significant predictors on their own, were no longer significant when combined – suggesting that many of the negative environmental characteristics were occurring simultaneously, and overlapped in their predictive function for child maltreatment. This suggests both the interrelatedness of risk factors, and the need for prevention and early intervention strategies to address interrelated risks holistically.

Moving schools frequently, parental separation/divorce, parental mental illness and substance use, and demographic characteristics of young maternal age and parental immigrant status were all significant independent correlates of child maltreatment. These indicators of vulnerability highlight the social groups in Australia most susceptible to child maltreatment.

There was a general consistency across the risk factors for each of the types of maltreatment we examined – physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and witnessing of domestic violence – suggesting it is likely that the underlying causes that link vulnerability to these forms of maltreatment are consistent across the different harm types.

From a prevention perspective, the most effective ways to reduce the exposure of children and young people to harmful family environments or risk of abuse from caregivers/adults include addressing risk factors of maltreatment at a population level, and providing services and supports that are non-stigmatising, which the majority of families can access through their local networks and existing supports. The overwhelming demands on statutory child protection services, and the complications of intersecting systems for responding to young children at risk in the context of family law disputes, increases the need for addressing these primary drivers of maltreatment across the population, before the problems become intractable or harder to remediate.

These conclusions are similar to those drawn from another analysis of a large-scale population survey: the Growing Up In Australia - Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, which indicated that it is possible to identify negative family environments at a population level, which could be the subject of public health interventions.

Further reading and resources


Doidge, J. C., Higgins, D., Delfabbro, P., & Segal, L. (2017). Risk factors for child maltreatment in an Australian population-based birth cohort. Child Abuse & Neglect, 64, 47-60. DOI: 

The feature image is by Annie Spratt, CC0 1.0.