conscious parentingNewsThe Science of Neglect

10 March 2021

Beginning shortly after birth, the typical “serve and return” interactions that occur between young children and the adults who care for them actually affect the formation of neural connections and the circuitry of the developing brain.

Extensive biological and developmental research shows significant neglect—the ongoing disruption or significant absence of caregiver responsiveness—can cause more lasting 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. This 6-minute video provides an overview of The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain, a Working Paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

1. The absence of responsive relationships poses a threat to child wellbeing.
Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Sensing threat activates biological stress response systems, and excessive activation of those systems can have a toxic effect on developing brain circuitry.
2. Chronic neglect is associated with a wider range of damage than active abuse, but it receives less attention in policy and practice.
Science tells us that young children who experience significantly limited caregiver responsiveness may sustain a range of adverse physical and mental health consequences that actually produce more widespread developmental impairments than overt physical abuse.
3. Studies on children in a variety of settings show conclusively that severe deprivation or neglect
– disrupts the ways in which children’s brains develop and process information, thereby increasing the risk for attentional, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disorders.
– alters the development of biological stress-response systems, leading to greater risk for anxiety, depression, cardiovascular problems, and other chronic health impairments later in life.
– is associated with significant risk for emotional and interpersonal difficulties, including high levels of negativity, poor impulse control, and personality disorders, as well as low levels of enthusiasm, confidence, and assertiveness.
– is associated with significant risk for learning difficulties and poor school achievement, including deficits in executive function and attention regulation, low IQ scores, poor reading skills, and low rates of high school graduation.
4. The negative consequences of deprivation and neglect can be reversed or reduced through appropriate and timely interventions.
However, merely removing a young child from an insufficiently responsive environment does not guarantee positive outcomes. Children who experience severe deprivation typically need therapeutic intervention and highly supportive care to mitigate the adverse effects and facilitate recovery.
5. Implications for Policy and Programs.
Science tells us that repeated and persistent periods of prolonged unresponsiveness from primary caregivers can produce toxic stress, which disrupts brain architecture and stress response systems that, in turn, can lead to long-term problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

(Source: Center of Developing Child – Harvard University)

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