The good things that do not happen to children can be worse than the bad things that do

by Aug 6, 2012Neglect0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
Yet another new study by a group of experienced researchers has shown just how devastating are the effects of early neglect on children’s development [1]. In this study children who had been reared in institutions where care had been minimal had their brains scanned and compared to a control group of  more average children, and also to children also reared earlier in the same institutions but who were randomly allocated to live in foster care. It was found that those reared in institutions had significantly diminished grey matter volumes in the cortex of the brain compared to those children who were never institutionalized, but also that the same low levels of grey matter were seen in those who had later been placed in foster care after institutional rearing. However interestingly those who were subsequently placed in foster care had greater levels of white matter, which was not the case for those who remained in institutions. In other words, some catch-up was possible, as seen in increased levels of white matter but not grey matter in the cortex. As Sheridan, the lead author, said, “We found that white matter, which forms the ‘information superhighway’ of the brain, shows some evidence of ‘catch-up .These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function.” In this study, children were randomly allocated to either remain in institutional care or be placed in foster care, which discounted a factor I often wonder about when working with families where a child has been adopted from abroad, the question being how come they chose that particular child and do some children have more hope and potential which elicits a wish to care for them? In this study it is clear that the differences in brain function is entirely down to early environmental conditions. This is one of several studies that have shown clearly how poor quality early institutional care can have devastating effects [2].

Such research again brings to the surface an issue many of us have been grappling with for years. Many children out there are suffering from experiences of severe neglect. They get very little emotional input from parents or carers and their development is often severely delayed. However too often they do not get the help they need. This is frequently because social workers struggle much more with proving such emotional neglect. If there are broken bones or bruises then we often see extremely swift measures taken, such as removing a child from a family, and even in cases of severe physical neglect, such as children who have poor hygiene, dreadful teeth, dirty clothes or living in squalor, such children often are brought to the attention of services and the authorities reasonably quickly. However emotional neglect is so much harder to detect and prove and so often slips under the radar, yet we know its effect can be far more devastating that even overt abuse. The person who has particularly brought this to our attention is Lane Strathearn [3] who has brought a lot of this research together, and recently has focussed on how severely neglected children can have very low levels of both dopamine, the hormone implicated in getting us interested in and drawn to things and people, and oxytocin, so essential for good, open, bonded human relationships.

One of the issues about children who are neglected is that they often somehow slip out of our minds, they do not attract attention in the way many acting out and aggressive children do who have been traumatised. These neglected kids are often quiet and stay in the background and elicit very little reaction from those around them, which is another reason why so many of them do not get the help they need. For this reason we can often have feelings we are somewhat ashamed of in relation to them such as being bored in their company, not warming to them, even not liking them [4]. This makes sense given what we know about the effects of such early experiences on people’s expectations of relationships and what this then elicits in others around them. Yet the tragedy is that such children then often have much worse prognoses, do worse socially, cognitively and in many other areas of life than even actively maltreated children, yet somehow this terrible effect goes unnoticed.

[1]        M. A. Sheridan, N. A. Fox, C. H. Zeanah, K. A. McLaughlin, and C. A. Nelson, ‘Variation in neural development as a result of exposure to institutionalization early in childhood’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012.

[2]        M. Dozier, C. H. Zeanah, A. R. Wallin, and C. Shauffer, ‘Institutional Care for Young Children: Review of Literature and Policy Implications’, Social Issues and Policy Review, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1–25, 2012.

[3]        L. Strathearn, ‘Maternal Neglect: Oxytocin, Dopamine and the Neurobiology of Attachment’, Journal of Neuroendocrinology, vol. 23, no. 11, pp. 1054–1065, Oct. 2011.

[4]        G. Music, ‘Neglecting neglect: some thoughts about children who have lacked good input, and are “undrawn”and “unenjoyed”’, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 142–156, 2009.

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