Early life experiences have disproportionate importance in organizing the mature brain. Experiences that could be tolerated by a 12-year-old child can literally destroy an infant (e.g., being untouched for 2 weeks).”

– Bruce Perry (1997, p. 131)

This is one of the most active times in a child’s life. A baby’s brain weighs about 400 grams at birth. By 24 months, it has grown to 1,000 grams. (Johnson, 2001) To put that growth in perspective, the average adult brain is around 1,400 grams. From birth to age two, a child’s brain has more neurons than it will ever have, yet it’s only about one-fourth the size of an adult brain. (Jensen, 2006) These neurons must be pruned away and wired, and this is done according to the baby’s experiences. During the first three years, a child’s brain is busy organizing itself according to its environment, and so chronic or prolonged abuse during these ages can have a much more serious impact on a child’s development than it would at other ages in their life.

Babies emerge from the womb as little sponges, studiously studying their environment. (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 2000) Within days or even hours of birth, they may begin mimicking certain facial expressions of their parents. By around six-months of age, most infants are able to distinguish between the different sounds in their environment. (Aslin & Hunt, 2001) They can discern the voices of their different caregivers and other people in their life, such as siblings or other children, and can recognize hostile versus friendly sounds.

For children this age, attachment is a child’s number one concern. Early healthy emotional attachment, especially during the first 24 months, helps develop the social and emotional skills fundamental for life. (Siegel, 1999) The amount of loving attention they receive has an impact on stress levels, behavioral problems and the ability to cope later on. The loss of a caretaker or parent during middle infancy and throughout the toddler years can be particularly traumatic; since this is a time when the child is struggling with issues of object permanency themselves. (Roiphe & Galenson, 1981) Anything that harms attachment is extremely devastating to the child.

Even infants as young as 6-months are able to distinguish between helpful and hurtful intentions. Researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center presented babies, ages 6 to 10 months, with two googly-eyed toys. With one toy, they put on a show to have it help another over a mountain. The other toy they showed pushing his friend backwards over it. The babies were then given the choice of which googly-eyed toy they wanted to play with. Nearly all of the babies chose the ‘nice’ toy over the naughty one. (Borenstein, 11-22-07)

Infants are able to discriminate between most sounds in their environment by 6 months of age. (Aslin & Hunt, 2001) This means they will have a heightened sensitivity towards conflict or other angry tones when caregivers argue or fight. They will also notice any abrupt changes to their environment or the absence of stable figures.

Within the first 9 months babies can tell the difference between expressions of happiness and those of sadness or anger, and can even match a happy-looking face with a happy tone of voice. If you turn on a sound track playing either a happy or sad voice, they’ll look longer at the face that matches the emotional expression they hear, indicating they make an association between the two. (Nelson, 1987; Walker-Andrews, 1997)

A sense of fair and just treatment also develops early. Studies show that even 15-month-olds are capable of deciphering unequal distributions of food and drink, and that this sense of fairness (or perceived lack thereof) is connected to their own willingness to share. (Groeger, 2012) Those who were subjected to more equitable treatment were most likely to respond in kind, whereas those treated unfairly tended to repay this injustice by being stingy toward other. Therefore abuse and neglect at early ages is likely to permanently alter a child’s tendency toward prosocial behavior.

Empathy develops in children before guilt. Children as young as two-years of age are able to show some sympathy toward a hurt or upset child. (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1984) Studies show that children around this age are able to recognize emotional states in others and respond in a caring way. (Denham, 1986; Iannotti, 1985) And while researchers have pegged the age of two to be around the time for empathy to really emerge, that’s not to say it’s impossible for children even younger to show such emotions. One study that involved blindfolding one-year-olds showed that they were able to assume perspectives based on their own experiences and project that onto others, indicating that empathy is already developing when children are babies. (Bower, 2008B)

Language & Emotional Vulnerabilities In Young Children

Children this age are either pre-verbal or their language is developing, which means several things for maltreatment. For starters, pre-verbal children can’t voice their distress when someone is hurting them. They can cry, but not explain. There are numerous cases in which one parent has been clueless about the source of their baby’s chronic crying; only to find out they have suffered several broken bones due to another caregiver’s abuse . . . abuse that they knew nothing about. Emergent speakers can’t formulate their experiences or emotions as well, so they can’t quite express how they feel to the level I’m sure they’d like to. Young children are also completely dependent on adults. They are at the mercy of their caregivers in every respect. Obviously, this makes them helpless against abuse.

The younger a child is, the less capable they are of moderating negative emotions. (Perry, 1997) This makes them more vulnerable to maltreatment, especially if there is not stable caregiver in their environment that they can turn to for comfort. On the plus side, younger children are protected from negative social beliefs, which are often the primary cause of emotional harm when it comes to certain forms of maltreatment.

Earlier we talked about windows of opportunity, and here’s an important one. At about one-year of age the number of synapses (electrical charges) in the language areas of the brain reach their maximum. This is around the same time most kids begin to utter their first words and take an interest in spoken language. (Huttenlocher, 2002) That’s not to say that age one is when talking to your baby becomes important – from inside the womb they can hear sounds and from birth they absorb the tones of language from those around them. The more they are talked to, the sooner they are likely to talk and the more enriched their language areas will be. It’s just that around age one a flurry of activity in the language areas is set to occur. Neglect or sensory/interaction deprivation during this age, if severe enough, tends to cause lasting impairments in a child’s language capacity.

A child’s sense of self is also developing during this age. If you place a large red mark on a baby’s forehead and then sit them in front of a mirror, a baby younger than 18 months will tend to reach at the mark on the image in the mirror. Those older than 18 months will typically see the mark and reach for their own forehead, recognizing that the forehead in the mirror and the mark that’s on it belongs to them.

Here’s another fun experiment to gauge a child’s social-emotional development. Set out two different snacks at a table, such as crackers, apple slices, or other items. Invite the child to select the snack they want, and take note of which one they prefer. Then it’s your turn… sample each snack, while showing animated disgust for the child’s choice and a strong preference for the opposite choice. Then place the child’s hand between the two snack choices and say “can you give me one?” Children younger than 18 months will usually give you the snack that they prefer; while older kids will offer the snack that you showed preference for. They’ve learned to recognize differences between their own likes/dislikes and the preferences of others. It’s a key first step in a child’s social life.

Overall, younger children are more vulnerable to physical maltreatment and ongoing abuse. Their small size and delicate bodies make any sort of physical abuse more likely to result in serious physical injuries. Their complete dependency on adults makes them more vulnerable as well. Their young age and exploding brain development means chronic abuse or neglect will have a much more profound impact. On the plus side, their young age can also be a blessing. They’re unlikely to remember isolated adverse events and certainly haven’t had time to develop the added social significance that can contribute a large part of the damage when it comes to child abuse.

Children younger than 4-years -of age, do not have deliberate strategies for remembering things. (Istomina, 1975) This makes children this age more resilient against isolated incidents of abuse. No memory = no social or psychological harm, provided the incident doesn’t happen repeatedly enough to build implicit memory. Unless something is repetitive or causes a lasting physical injury, it shouldn’t cause any lasting harm.