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The Effect of Parental Neglect on Emotional, Language and Brain Development

In the 1950s and 60s, at the University of Wisconsin, baby rhesus monkeys were kept in small barren cages where different groups were socially isolated for the first three, six, and twelve months of their lives. During these times, the baby monkeys had no contact with their mothers or any other monkey. These experiments, lead by Harry Harlow, were conducted over a number of years in order to discover the effects of such isolation on later development.

The findings, as related by Dworetzky in his book Introduction to Child Development, generally demonstrated that three months of isolation produced few long-term deficits, but that six months or more of isolation caused severe developmental disturbances. The monkeys in the latter category began to bite themselves. They held onto themselves and rocked back and forthh. Their emotions became bizarre, they made strange facial grimaces and sometimes lashed out in rage or fear. Some of the monkeys isolated for a full year became so withdrawn that they seemed to be little more than “semi-animated vegetables.”

In these “monkey labs,” researchers investigated other important factors that related to the effects of early isolation and stimulus deprivation. They discovered that the timing of the isolation was as important as its duration. Monkeys isolated later in life were not as severely affected as those whose isolation began at birth. They also discovered that the females seemed to be less affected by early isolation than males and that another species of monkey, the pigtail monkey, was not as severely affected by early isolation as was the rhesus.

The major concern of the researchers was not necessarily to discover the effects of early experiences on the later development of monkeys, but to generalize their monkey data to human beings.

Harry Harlow conducting his experiments 

As sad as Harlow’s monkey experiments were, at the time, poorly researched “child development theory” was advising parents to not to kiss, hug, cuddle or give their children any attention aside from feeding, bathing, and disciplining them. Children of these generations were often raised in cold sterile homes, and many had detachment disorders. Harlow couldn’t experiment on human infants, but he showed parents and pediatricians the damage they were doing to their children and the entire generation by these cold, inhumane parenting methods. In the end, the monkey experiments changed much of child development theory to relay the truth: children need more than just food but also love, touch, and cuddling. It saved millions of children from bleak, sterile, loveless childhoods and saved those people’s children from parents who were incapable of love or attachment..

Learning from feral children

Although it is unethical to attempt isolation studies with humans, the questions remain: What are the effects of being reared in a deprived setting, without love or companionship? Would the effects of such deprivation be reversible? Or would the damage be permanent?

Perhaps we can learn from feral children: children who have grown up with minimal human contact, or even none at all. Besides children being raised in the “natural state” provided by the wild, there are also many cases of children who were raised or kept in extreme isolation.

One such child was Genie, who was found in California in 1970. She was thirteen when she came to the attention of authorities. From the age of twenty months, she had been kept in a small room in her parents’ house. She had never been out of the room; she was kept naked and restrained to a kind of potty-chair by a harness her father had designed. She could move only her hands and feet. The psychotic father, who hated children, forbade her almost blind mother to speak to the child. He had put another child, born earlier, in the garage to avoid hearing her cry, and she died there of pneumonia at two months of age. Genie was fed only milk and baby food during her thirteen years.

When the girl was found, she weighed only 59 pounds. She could not straighten her arms or legs. She did not know how to chew. She could not control her bladder or bowels. She could not recognize words or speak at all. According to the mother’s report — the father killed himself soon after Genie was discovered — Genie appeared to have been a normal baby.

Over the next six years, Genie had plenty of interactions with the world, as well as training and testing by psychologists. She gained some language comprehension and learned to speak at about the level of a two- or three-year-old: “want milk,” “two hand.” She learned to use tools, draw, and connect cause-and-effect in some situations. And she could get from one place to another — to the candy counter in the supermarket, for example — proving that she could construct mental maps of space. Her IQ score on nonverbal tests was a low-normal 74 in 1977. But her language did not develop further, and she made types of language errors that even normal two-year-olds never make.

Learning from brain imaging

Nowadays, brain imaging technologies allow researchers to look inside the brain to see the effects of injuries, diseases, drugs, chemicals — and parental neglect. The two scans on the right both belong to three-year-olds, so why is one so much bigger? Because one was loved by its parents and the other neglected.

The chilling images reveal that the left brain, which belongs to a normal three-year-old, is significantly larger and contains fewer spots and dark “fuzzy” areas than the right brain, which belongs to that of a three-year-old who has suffered extreme neglect.

Neurologists say that the latest images provide more evidence that the way children are treated in their early years is important not only for the child’s emotional development, but also in determining the size of their brains. Experts say that the sizeable difference in the two brains is primarily caused by the difference in the way each child was treated by their mothers. While at first glance, the images might indicate that the child with the right brain might have suffered a serious accident or illness, neurologists said that the truth is that the child with the shrunken brain was neglected and abused by its mother, and the child with the larger and more fully developed brain was raised in a loving, supportive home and was looked after by its mother.

According to researchers, the image of the brain scan on the right shows that the child lacks some of the most fundamental areas that are present in the image of the brain scan on the left. They say that the child on the left with the larger brain will be more intelligent and will be more likely to develop the social ability to empathize with others compared to the child on the right.

On the other hand, the child with the smaller brain on the right will be more likely to become addicted to drugs, be involved in violent crimes, be unemployed, and be dependent on government benefits in the future. Furthermore, the child with the shrunken brain is significantly more likely to develop mental and other serious health-related problems.

Professor Allan Schore from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said that in the first two years, babies rely on a strong bond with their mothers for healthy brain development. “The development of cerebral circuits depends on it,” he said, adding that because 80 percent of brain cells grow in the first two years of life, problems in that development can affect people for the rest of their lives.

Researchers say the process of childhood neglect is a vicious cycle because the parents of neglected children were also neglected by their parents and do not have a fully developed brain. However, past research has shown that the cycle can be broken if there is early intervention and families are supported.

“Early intervention” has been tried in parts of the US for more than 15 years. It consists in ensuring that mothers identified as “at risk” of neglecting their babies are given regular visits (at least once every week) by a nurse who instructs them on how to care for the newborn child. Data from the city of Elmira in New York State, where such programs have been in place longest, show that children whose mothers had received those visits did much better than children from a comparable background whose mothers were not part of the program: they had, for instance, 50 percent fewer arrests, 80 percent fewer convictions, and a significantly lower rate of drug abuse.