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Child maltreatment in the family context is a prevalent and pervasive phenomenon in many modern societies. The global perpetration of child abuse and neglect stands in stark contrast to its almost universal condemnation as exemplified in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. Much work has been devoted to the task of prevention, yet a grand synthesis of the literature is missing. Focusing on two core elements of prevention, that is, antecedents for maltreatment and the effectiveness of (preventative) interventions, we performed an umbrella review of meta‐analyses published between January 1, 2014, and December 17, 2018. Meta‐analyses were systematically collected, assessed, and integrated following a uniform approach to allow their comparison across domains. From this analysis of thousands of studies including almost 1.5 million participants, the following risk factors were derived: parental experience of maltreatment in his or her own childhood (d = .47), low socioeconomic status of the family (d = .34), dependent and aggressive parental personality (d = .45), intimate partner violence (d = .41), and higher baseline autonomic nervous system activity (d = .24). The effect size for autonomic stress reactivity was not significant (d = −.10). The umbrella review of interventions to prevent or reduce child maltreatment showed modest intervention effectiveness (d = .23 for interventions targeting child abuse potential or families with self‐reported maltreatment and d = .27 for officially reported child maltreatment cases). Despite numerous studies on child maltreatment, some large gaps in our knowledge of antecedents exist. Neurobiological antecedents should receive more research investment. Differential susceptibility theory may shed more light on questions aimed at breaking the intergenerational transmission of maltreatment and on the modest (preventive) intervention effects. In combination with family‐based interaction‐focused interventions, large‐scale socioeconomic experiments such as cash transfer trials and experiments with vouchers to move to a lower‐poverty area might be tested to prevent or reduce child maltreatment. Prevalence, antecedents, and preventive interventions of prenatal maltreatment deserve continuing scientific, clinical, and policy attention.

More information Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry



Publication Date



Studentship: Barry Coughlan