NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

July 10, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This is an excellent paper that’s well worth a read. It’s a 2012 working paper by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. Its title is “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.” It’s a powerful statement about the effects of parental neglect on very young children. The authors say that serious neglect of newborns, infants and toddlers is every bit as harmful as physical or sexual abuse and possibly more so.

Now, I want to be clear. What the paper refers to as neglect isn’t always what child welfare agencies refer to as neglect. Unfortunately, the paper isn’t as clear as I’d have liked about the differences. The authors insufficiently (in my opinion) stress the differences between neglect that requires no intervention from outside the family, neglect that can be remedied by, say, parenting classes or a visit to a counsellor and neglect that truly threatens the child’s current and future well-being and requires the replacement of the parent by a more competent caregiver.

In short, I’m concerned that the paper could be used to justify overzealous child protective caseworkers’ interventions in parental care of kids.

That said, the paper is an excellent one.

Beginning immediately after birth, a strong foun­dation for human well-being requires responsive environments and supportive relationships to build sturdy brain circuits, facilitate emerging capabilities, and strengthen the roots of physical and mental health.1,2,3 Through mutually rewarding, “serve and return” interactions with the adults who care for them (see sidebar below), young children are both initiators and respondents in this ongoing process. These reciprocal and dynamic interactions are essential for healthy development and literally shape the architecture of the developing brain.4,5

That process of “serve and return” is necessary for establishing the neural structures of normal functioning. Absent that process, children can exhibit serious cognitive, behavioral, mental and emotional difficulties, many of which can last a lifetime.

Extensive biological and developmen­tal research over the past 30 years has gener­ated substantial evidence that young children who experience severe neglect—defined broadly as the ongoing disruption or significant absence of caregiver responsiveness—bear the burdens of a range of adverse consequences. Indeed, de­privation or neglect can cause more harm to a young child’s development than overt physical abuse, including subsequent cognitive delays, impairments in executive functioning, and disruptions of the body’s stress response.9,10,11

When chronic deprivation leads to persistent activation of stress response systems in a young child, it can actually disrupt and weaken devel­oping brain architecture. Over time, the wear and tear of this excessive stress response and the chemicals it releases can lead to academic struggles, difficulties in social adjustment, men­tal health problems, and even chronic physical disease…

[U]nderstanding the fundamental con­nection between early deprivation and subse­quent impairment lies in the realization that healthy development can be threatened not only by bad things that may happen to children (e.g., as a result of physical or sexual abuse), but also by the absence of sufficient amounts of essential experiences that are required for their positive well-being.

Of course, not all child neglect is alike. The authors divide up the range of neglectful behavior into four categories, the first of which – “Occasional Inattention” - requires no intervention. The second – “Chronic Under-stimulation” – can benefit from educational intervention to teach the parent the necessity of the type of “serve and return” interaction that’s part of children’s healthy early life.  

But the third and fourth categories – “Severe Neglect in a Family Context” and “Severe Neglect in an Institutional Setting” – are extremely serious and require immediate intervention and possibly a change in the child’s caregiver.

The ongoing disruption or significant absence of the kind of basic, serve and return interaction necessary for healthy child development can produce serious physiological disruptions that lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and health. This magnitude of neglect may also be associ­ated with the failure to provide for a child’s ba­sic nutritional, medical, and educational needs. Children who experience this level of depriva­tion typically have no stable, adult source of re­liable care and protection, and therefore meet the criteria for public intervention under the jurisdiction of the child welfare system. In the most severe cases (e.g., a baby or toddler who is typically left alone and ignored for many hours at a time), a child’s very survival is threatened and immediate intervention is mandatory.

Obviously, this information about child neglect has implications for custody cases. And, just as obviously, it argues powerfully for shared parenting time. I’ve said many times that one of the strongest arguments in favor of equal parenting is the simple fact that, when one parent is saddled with all the parenting time for weeks without letup, that parent likely has neither the time nor the energy to do a good job. One of the examples of neglectful parenting given by the authors of the paper is the child who’s left in front of the television for hours on end. That child obviously is deprived of the “serve and return” parental interaction that’s so important. And yet single parents often rely for long periods on the boob tube to keep the child occupied. Shorter periods of parenting time broken up by the other parent can save the child too much detrimental TV time.

I’ll do more on this paper tomorrow.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

#childabuse, #childneglect, #sharedparenting

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