The Australian Institute of Family Studies recently released their annual Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics for the year 2015-2016, and it makes for sobering reading. Since 1990, the AIHW has compiled annual national figures for child protection activity, and the news is not good. The number of reports of child abuse has risen year on year, and so too has the number of children in out-of-home care across Australia. This could possibly be that as people become more aware of child protection issues they are reporting more and helping to remove kids from bad situations, but it means that the foster care system continues to be stretched, and the demand for more foster carers to meet this need expands.

Providing foster care is not for everybody. Children who come into care do so because it is not safe for them to live with their family of origin. They are often traumatised, and their removal and placement with strangers can have a further traumatising effect. These experiences can have long-term implications for development and behaviour. Science Journal News reports that suffering abuse impairs a child’s ability to learn, and that in turn can cause them to misbehave, especially as teenagers  The study discussed found that the relationship between physical abuse and the disruptive or aggressive behaviours that often stay with abused children well into the later stages of adolescence has a developmental basis. It has been known for a long time that there is a link between behavioural issues in adolescents and various types of adversity in early life, but the connection isn’t always straightforward, or even clear.

The process by which an individual subconsciously links stimuli and experiences together is called associative learning and this partly explains how people react to various real-world situations in general. Associative learning is a learning principle that states that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be mentally linked to one another. This seems to be impaired in children who have suffered abuse, perhaps due to the unpredictable nature of their early experience of life. Individuals exposed to early life adversity made decisions early in the learning process as if rewards were less consistent and occurred more at random.

Participants who had been exposed to early childhood abuse were less able to learn which stimuli were likely to result in reward than their peers were

A poor sense of associative learning influences a child’s behaviour patterns negatively during fast-changing or complex situations, so the study sought to explore these processes. Through playing computer games with various types of feedback they showed that participants who had been exposed to early childhood abuse were less able to learn which stimuli were likely to result in reward than their peers were. This was the case even after they had received feedback repeatedly. Abused children were on average less skilled at differentiating which behaviours would lead to the best results for them personally. Mistreated children were also more pessimistic about the possibility of positive outcomes when compared to the group who hadn’t been abused.

This type of learning difficulty and even general pessimism is something that foster carers often have to deal with. Knowing why these behaviours persist can perhaps go some way to helping foster carers sympathise and have patience with the children and young people in their care.