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

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].

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Childhood adversity and adult health problems, a costly link

At times of severe cuts to services it is worth pointing out that, if not treated, early experiences of maltreatment, abuse and neglect can cause terrible problems later on, problems that have a huge cost to society. It is increasingly common knowledge that adverse early experiences, like abuse, neglect and exposure to violence, can play havoc with people’s mental health and affect them right into adulthood. For example a massive recent study from the University of Liverpool  [1] analysed findings going back some 30 years, looking at 27,000 research papers and found conclusive evidence that early childhood trauma hugely increases the risks of these children growing into adults who will suffer from schizophrenia. The risk was at least 3 times greater for those abused, but the worse the trauma the more the likelihood, in some cases extreme trauma increasing the likelihood by up to 50 times. Another recently published study [2] described how early child maltreatment, whether sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect,  badly effects peoples’ later romantic relationships, leading people to feel less fulfilled in relationships, and much of the effect was mediated via serious self-criticism, as well as post-traumatic stress symptoms.

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