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Do Neglected Children Suffer More Brain Damage than Abuse Victims?

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.


What Neglect Does to the Brain

Pretty much everyone knows that if you abuse a child they’re probably not going to grow up being well adjusted but few people know that simple neglect can be just as damaging if not more so at times. Even more alarming is that there are many parents out there who are unaware what constitutes as neglect. Sure, there are a lot of clear-cut ideas of neglect that most people will agree, like leaving your baby in a soiled diaper for a few days or refusing to feed it regularly, but what of the more subtle forms?

The human brain is a delicate and intensely complicated thing. When a baby is born its brain is very underdeveloped. It’ll basically be born only knowing how to do a few essential things like breathing and crying. From here the baby will learn everything else at an astounding pace. It’ll learn more now than it will at any other point in its life, and there’s a reason for this. We’re set up to develop this rapidly in the first two or three years of our life. Our brains are absolutely loaded with the neurons needed for learning and memory at this time but then after it becomes unnecessary to learn so much so fast a lot of these neural pathways will separate. Less neurons will be available for new information and by now our brains are pretty hardwired.

What could a baby possibly be learning? Well babies learn a lot. They learn to recognize faces, voices, colors, shapes, words. They learn what food is and what’s just something shiny lying on the floor. They learn tactile sensations, smells, and sounds but most importantly they learn their place in the world. In a healthy environment a baby will learn to recognize its caregivers and naturally begin to trust them to keep them safe and tend to their needs. They’ll learn what it is to be loved. Babies in neglectful environments however will cry, and if they get no responses enough times they will learn the opposite. They’ll be distrustful of the stability of their caregivers. They will start to learn how to fend for themselves and worse yet they will start to live in a state of constant fight or flight. They can depend on no one and attachment to anyone will become exceedingly difficult.

Babies who are not cuddled will not learn how to form stable bonds with other human beings. Babies left to cry will learn that they can’t count on anyone and that the world is a scary miserable place. Babies who are not talked to will not learn the sounds necessary for speech. The rate of mental retardation in these children is much higher than in children who live in a proper positive environment. Not only is mental retardation a problem so too can be physical retardation with the child literally not growing as much as it should. This isn’t always due to malnutrition, although that certainly doesn’t help when it is the case. These kids are fearful much more often than regular children and their brains get pickled in adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. Being constantly stressed out will lead to the burning of more calories and a lack of appetite. In these cases the brain will often become physically malformed. The links between the left and right hemispheres may be cut to a minimal number, the brain itself may be smaller than other children of the same age, there could be far less neural pathways available for learning than is normal or healthy.

Most of these children will grow up but they’ll be at a severe disadvantage. Many will have ADD, hyper-attention, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory and learning difficulties, dependency, depression, and have a tendency to become cutters or have other self-inflicted injuries. These kids often seek the attention and love they crave as a human being by engaging in risky and often sexual behaviors as teenagers; sometimes repeating the cycle when they themselves become parents. They often find it hard to maintain healthy stable human relationships, are often quick to emotional outbursts, and may have difficultly showing emotion or having empathy for others. Some may even display disassociate behaviors, meaning they basically shut down in a stressful situation and go into a state described as self-hypnosis so they can pretend reality isn’t going on around them. In severe cases this can be the onset of multiple personality disorder.

All and all these children as adolescents and adults are far more likely to have lowered IQ, retardation, emotional issues, high risk behaviors, anti social behaviors, and addictions to drugs and alcohol. They’re also more likely to do poorly at school and join gangs.

A Romanian orphan in the early 1990s, surrounded by other orphans. "Babies who don't get attention when they cry learn to stop crying."

A Romanian orphan in the early 1990s, surrounded by other orphans. "Babies who don't get attention when they cry learn to stop crying."

Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer.

Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer.

"Genie" the feral child walking.

"Genie" the feral child walking.

Real Cases of Neglect and Their Outcomes

In the 1990’s a prime opportunity for study arose when many parents from the US adopted the neglected children in Romanian orphanages. These babies were some of the victims of the governmental instability of the time. They were often left in their cribs to cry, sometimes tied down so they wouldn’t escape. With no washing facilities in these orphanages many were covered in their own feces and were malnourished to boot. It was a bad situation. Adoptive parents flocked to these orphanages to get them out and scientists flocked to these children for research data.

Depending on the age of adoption these children were given a chance at recovery but few made full recoveries. On average they were 40 points below the normal IQ level of other children their age. Many had severe behavioral and emotional disorders and extremely stunted growth. Even children who grew normally in every other regard tended to keep a very small skull and brain size throughout their lives.

One case of neglect in the United States I find sort of interesting is that of Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer. Unlike most serial killers his childhood was not littered with abuse, but you could argue it had it’s fair share of neglect. In his teen years he lived alone in a house because both his parents believed he was with the other one. He seemed to express genuine remorse for his actions and gave a chilling reason for why he’d killed and eaten the people he did. He wanted the perfect complacent companion, the only stable human relationship he could have probably formed. He ate them in an attempt to keep at least a part of them with him forever. He also showed dissociative behaviors, claiming to have no control or memory of the murders, like someone else was doing them. Coincidence?

I remember once when I was at my grandmother’s house I found a newspaper clipping from the 1950’s that she had kept simply because it was so shocking. It detailed a story about a thirteen year old boy who had been found wandering the streets in the soiled dress of his younger sister. He had escaped from a secret room in the house where he was kept for his entire life in secret. Even his mother’s husband professed he had no idea she was hiding a bastard son in the house. He had extremely limited vocabulary and probably hadn’t seen the sun since infancy. I always wondered what happened to him but I suspect it was nothing good. In cases of severe neglect like these the term “feral children” can be applied. In the old days this meant a child raised by animals but today it means a child raised with little to no interaction with humans.

“Genie” is one of the worst recorded cases of feral children in the United States. She lived with her blind mother, brother, and domineering father who forbid the rest of the family to talk to her. She spent the first thirteen years of her life strapped to a potty chair in a dark room of the house. She could only speak 20 words. She spent the next four years living with psychologists who studied her and taught her more words and positive behaviors like how to dress herself. However her improvement didn’t last. After applying for and being denied permanent foster status with this new family she was returned back to her mother who found living with this disabled child was too much for her. From there she skipped through six more foster homes, some of which physically abused her and she returned to being fearful and mute. She’s now thought to reside in an adult care facility somewhere in California. Her foster parents were forbidden from ever speaking to her again due to controversy over their scientific involvement with her. She should be in her fifties today.

Studies have shown adults who were neglected as children have much higher rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking, violence towards others, and poor job performance. It seems neglect is a near sure way to create dependent socially awkward individuals with a whole bunch of problems. It's a startling lesson and sadly a hard thing to intervene with when the child is too young to talk and tell the world what is going on. Perhaps with a little education some of these children can be better taken care of but for now I guess we'll all just have to coo at the next baby that passes us by. After all babies connect 700 synapses a second. Imagine learning 700 things in a second. They're absolutely amazing in their ability to do this.

If you found this article interesting you may also like these other articles by Theophanes:

Feral Children - Raised by Animals and Wilderness

Around the World in Search of Different Forms of "Family"

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Louise Elcross from Preston on June 21, 2016:

Thank you for this. I was rejected and abused by my parents and have struggled in life. I went from abusive situation to another til I learnt that I am worthy of better. I wrote 'Living with alcoholism in the family'' by L. Elcross which is my journey in understanding who I am. After reading this I understand myself better and will be updating my book. Thanks again. X

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on May 20, 2014:

Genie was a girl, though I had mentioned a boy I found in a newspaper clipping previous to describing her case. Different child, different story. Sadly there's more than one incidence of such neglect (I wrote an article on Feral Children that's somewhere on here that goes through some of the more shocking ones.)

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! It's always nice to know there's someone out there. :)

Suzie from Carson City on May 20, 2014:

I'm confused. Yes, I found this hub fascinating and informative...however, you initially refer to"Genie" as a BOY...and then proceed to speak of HER and SHE......which gender was this child?

Very interesting..........UP+++

Naomi Starlight from Illinois on April 30, 2012:

That was heartbreaking and very well written. I like the part where you talked about Dahmer because he's very interesting. Social neglect is terrible.

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