Maltreatment is a threat to child health and well-being and negatively influences all aspects of development, including language. Less seems to be known about the consequences that maltreatment has on social pragmatic communication. A systematic review of the literature was performed to summarize existing empirical research on complex trauma (the impact of maltreatment, including abuse and neglect, in the caregiving system) on social pragmatic communication of children and youth. The goal of this review article was to review the empirical evidence of the association between maltreatment and social pragmatic communication profiles of children.


Research articles published between 1974, when the first comprehensive law of child protection was enacted, and 2020 were reviewed. Seven electronic databases were used to conduct the search for literature using several combined concepts related to social pragmatic communication and maltreatment. The inclusion criteria were that articles addressed any form of maltreatment, included participants aged 18 years or younger, and primarily focused on the impact of maltreatment on social pragmatic communication and that their method and findings were based on an experimental study. Studies were excluded if they were written in a language other than English, focused on adults, did not include the social pragmatic communication and maltreatment concepts, were a systematic review or meta-analysis, or were a theoretical rather than experimental study. A modified version of the Primary Research Appraisal Tool was used to determine key characteristics of each article.


Thirty-eight articles met inclusion criteria for this study. Findings of these studies provide evidence that maltreatment has an impact on social pragmatic communication including social cognition, perspective taking, and belief attribution; executive functions including working memory; and pragmatic language including narrative discourse and the use of varied communicative functions.


The major findings have implications for knowledge and skills of speech-language and hearing professionals working with children and adolescents and for the type of assessment and intervention processes used to assess social pragmatic communication. Suggestions for future studies are provided.

The asterisks denote the articles that served as data for this study.


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