June 12, 2017 by Ned Holstein, MD, MS, Chair of the Board, National Parents Organization

I’m going to let the working paper on the effects on children of parental neglect speak for itself. Mostly. Recall from yesterday’s post that the type of neglect the researchers are writing about isn’t the garden variety “eighth-grader comes home from school and spends three hours without parents present” “neglect.” The neglect that truly harms kids is severe lack of interaction with parents. Much of their data come from children in institutional settings, often orphanages abroad in which the children get little attention at all and almost none from a single individual to whom they could look as a parent figure. And there’s essentially none of the vital “serve and return” type of interaction that’s proven to be necessary to children’s healthy mental/emotional/psychological functioning.

That said, here are some of the salient information on what that sort of severe neglect can do to kids.

There is extensive evidence that severe neglect in institutional settings is associated with ab­normalities in the structure and functioning of the developing brain. Children who experi­ence extreme levels of social neglect early in life show diminished electrical activity in the brain, as measured through electroencepha­lography (EEG). Institutionally reared children also show differences in the neural reactions that occur as an individual is processing in­formation, such as looking at faces to identify different emotions.16,17 These findings indicate impairments in the way the brain interprets such input and are consistent with behavioral observations that neglected children struggle to correctly recognize different emotions in others. Children who experience severe neglect in institutional settings also exhibit decreased brain metabolism and poorer con­nections among different areas of the brain that are important for integrating complex information, including cognitive, social, and emotional competencies.

Significant neglect or deprivation in the early childhood years influences the development of a variety of brain regions that are impor­tant for thinking, learning, focusing attention, controlling emotions, and managing stress. One particularly sensitive area is the prefrontal cor­tex (PFC), which serves as the brain’s “air traffic control system” by supporting the development of a wide range of executive functions, such as planning, monitoring, working memory, prob­lem-solving, and behavioral self-regulation…

Chronic neglect can alter the development of biological stress response systems in a way that compromises children’s ability to cope with ad­versity…. For exam­ple, years after adoption, children who experi­enced extreme neglect in institutional settings show abnormal patterns of adrenaline activity in their heart rhythms, which can indicate in­creased biological “wear and tear” that leads to greater risk for anxiety, depression, and cardio­vascular problems later in life…

Children who have experienced serious de­privation are at risk for abnormal physical development and impairment of the immune system. Severe neglect is associated with sig­nificantly delayed growth in head circumfer­ence (which is directly related to brain growth) during infancy and into the toddler years. More extreme conditions of deprivation, such as those experienced in institutional settings that “warehouse” young children, are associ­ated with even more pervasive growth prob­lems, including smaller body size, as well as impairments in gross motor skills and coor­dination.45,46,47 Profound deprivation has also been found to compromise physical health, as children who are raised in institutional settings have more infections and are at greater risk of premature death than children who live in supportive homes…

Severe neglect in both family and institutional settings are associated with greater risk for emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal rela­tionship difficulties later in life. Children reared in families who experience chronic neglect show higher rates of insecure or disorganized attachment behaviors with their primary care­givers, and these relationship difficulties ex­tend to interactions with others as they grow older… This deficiency in social skills and peer relationships often persists throughout the school-age years13,56,58,59,60 and can extend into adolescence.61…

Children who have been severely neglected also have higher rates of emotional and behav­ioral problems in comparison to non-neglected children, even when compared to those who have been physically or sexually abused.49 Infants and toddlers exposed to severe neglect within a family context, or to the profound deprivation of an institutional setting, show increased negative emotions, poorer impulse control, and reduced enthusiasm, confidence, and assertiveness when completing problem-solving tasks…

Children who have experienced severe neglect are more likely to have cognitive problems, academic delays, deficits in executive function skills, and difficulties with attention regula­tion. Extreme deprivation in institutional set­tings has been associated with particularly se­vere cognitive impairments74,75,76 and academic delays,77 with documented effects persisting into adolescence.78 Infants who experience significant neglect in family environments demonstrate poorer performance on later mea­sures of cognition and language development than young children who have experienced oth­er forms of maltreatment…

Severe neglect can have particularly devas­tating effects on the development of executive function skills, which are critical to the abil­ity to operate effectively and independently throughout life…

The impact of severe neglect can be manifested in different ways across different periods of de­velopment. At younger ages, maltreated children show impairments in their ability to discrimi­nate different emotions, yet these difficulties are not observed at older ages.11,35,91 Conversely, antisocial behavior may be more salient among adults or older adolescents with early childhood histories of neglect.

The upshot being that serious neglect, even in family settings can be devastating to kids lifelong. Those children and the adults they become are at great risk for truly debilitating social, cognitive, emotional and psychological deficits. Single parents are more likely to neglect their kids for reasons that should be obvious. Some of that may be the sort of severe neglect the authors describe, to wit:

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.

This all of course is a good argument for keeping two parents involved in children’s lives. It’s a good argument against single-parent child raising, a good argument for marriage and against the current policy employed by family courts of marginalizing fathers in the lives of their kids.

More on this tomorrow.

 

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