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The Impact Of Trauma And Neglect

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Early experiences of trauma or abuse - whether in utero or after birth - can interfere with development of the subcortical and limbic areas of the brain, resulting in extreme anxiety, depression, and/or the inability to form healthy attachments to others. Adverse experiences throughout childhood can also impair cognitive abilities, resulting in processing and problem-solving styles that predispose an individual to respond with aggression or violence to stressful or frustrating situations. Researchers have shown, by observing children and their primary caregivers over time, that whether children form secure attachments hinges on the quality of care they receive; children who are abused or neglected are unlikely to be securely attached to their caregivers. The same researchers have observed, moreover, that both quality of care and security of attachment affect children's later capacity for empathy, emotional regulation, and behavioral control.

But trauma or abuse are hardly the only conditions that can lead to developmental delays or impairments; as many researchers have shown, emotional neglect, social deprivation, and a chronic lack of appropriate stimulation are among the other factors that may jeopardize early development. Based on an expanded knowledge of early brain development, researchers are creating a "road map" for development - marking the key emotional milestones that children must pass at particular junctures on their way to healthy and mature development. Here again, the notion of "prime times" is important. As the brain develops in the first years of life, there are periods when children can meet a new developmental challenge most easily and efficiently. Bruce Perry of Baylor University asserts that when key experiences are minimal or absent, the result may be an inability to modulate impulsivity, immature emotional and behavioral functioning, and (in combination with other developmental experiences) a predisposition to violence.

Indeed, Perry argues that a great deal of violence in the United States today may be connected to a lack of appropriate attachments early in life. Perry suggests that violence is an outgrowth of a "malignant combination of experiences" - emotional and cognitive neglect and traumatic stress. The combined effect of neglect and trauma can lead to a dramatic impairment of the brain's capacity for modulation and regulation. When these conditions persist, the neurophysiology of the brainstem and midbrain tends to become overdeveloped. These are the areas of the brain that allow only for immediate responses related to biological survival - responses that are primitive and "hard-wired," and not very susceptible to external influence. Perry observes that overdevelopment of these areas is associated with anxiety, impulsivity, poor affect regulation, and hyperactivity. At the same time, cortical functions (such as problem-solving) and limbic functions (such as empathy) become underdeveloped.

The long-term research of Sroufe and his colleagues confirm the link between poor attachment and violence. The children in their study whose primary caregivers were emotionally unavailable in the early years of life did indeed exhibit (according to independent assessment) more aggression and conduct problems in childhood and adolescence. Sroufe notes that across all cultures in which attachment has been studied, "anxious-avoidant attachment," which results from persistent unresponsiveness on the part of the primary caregiver, can indeed make a child more prone to violence.

Stanley Greenspan of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences observes that children vary in their response to neglect and trauma, based on individual differences and the organization of their particular central nervous systems. Children who are underreactive to sensations and have low muscle tone tend to respond by becoming more self-absorbed, withdrawn, passive and depressed. In contrast, children who crave sensory input and are very active are more likely to become more aggressive under these circumstances. Intense empathy and nurturing relationships along with limit-setting and practice with regulating behavior can help even the children who tend to crave sensory input become compassionate, thoughtful, and empathetic.

Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development, Copyright 1997, Families and Work Institute

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