Research review: Childhood maltreatment and executive functioning during adolescence

Kirke-Smith, Mimi; Henry, Lucy and Messer, David (2012). Research review: Childhood maltreatment and executive functioning during adolescence. Adolescent Psychiatry, 2(3) pp. 211–220.



Research over the past decade indicates that adolescents who have experienced childhood maltreatment have more emotional and behavioural disturbances and less socially desirable or adaptive behaviours than typically developing adolescents. These difficulties are consistent with weaknesses in executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning (EF), which involves higher order thinking and reasoning skills, is considered to be critically important for complex human behaviour. Adolescence is a period of marked neurodevelopmental change, particularly in the regions of the brain that deals with EF. During this period youngsters are in the process of acquiring higher-order, abstract cognitive skills as well as coping with the normal pressures of teenage life. EF skills may therefore be critical at this time and may explain the cognitive and behavioural difficulties that maltreated adolescents’ experience.

However, despite evidence to suggest that the overwhelming stress of childhood maltreatment leads to adverse effects on brain development, research into maltreatment and EF is still limited, particularly using adolescent samples. After a brief introduction to childhood maltreatment, an overview of recent findings will be provided, with first a consideration of the general effects of maltreatment on cognitive achievements and behavioural regulation, followed by an examination of the role of developmental period, severity and type of abuse. Theories about EF will then be outlined, concluding with a consideration of the effects of maltreatment specifically on EF.

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