The latest findings of the long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), involving children in Romanian orphanages, tells a cautionary tale about the psychiatric and social risks of long-term deprivation and separation from parents. (SCIENCE-DAILY)
BEIP has shown that children reared in very stark institutional settings, with severe social deprivation and neglect, are at risk for cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But BEIP has also shown that placing children with quality foster families can mitigate some of these effects, if it’s done early.
The latest BEIP study, published by JAMA Psychiatry, asked what happens to the mental health of institutionalized children as they transition to adolescence. Outcomes at ages 8, 12 and 16 suggest diverging trajectories between children who remained in institutions versus those randomly chosen for placement.
Researchers led by Mark Wade, PhD, and Charles Nelson, PhD, of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, studied 220 children of whom 119 had spent at least some time in institutions. Their surveys revealed that children who were placed early in quality foster care, compared with those who remained in institutions, had less psychopathology, and in particular, fewer externalizing behaviors such as rule-breaking, excessive arguing with authority figures, stealing or assaulting peers. Differences began to emerge at 12 years and became significant at 16 years.
While conditions at Romanian orphanages aren’t the same as those in U.S. immigration detention systems, the researchers think the findings underscore the importance of keeping families together. “Our results add to a growing literature on what might happen to a child’s long-term psychological development when they experience separation from a primary caregiver early in development,” says Wade.
Although this picture is very complex, we now know that many children who experience early neglect are at risk for an array of mental health problems later on. The good news is that if they are placed in high-quality homes with good caregiving, this risk is reduced. Yet they still tend to have more difficulties than their peers who never experienced this form of deprivation. So what we really need is policies and social programs to prevent separation from primary caregivers in the first place.
Causes of child negligence
Poverty: if the parents do not have enough money to pay the bills, the sad truth is that children are not always the priority that they need to be. Even if families are extremely poor, there should always be enough assistance that children should never be neglected as long as their care is made a priority.
Serious marital/relationship problems: Children often witness or experience the fallout of their parent’s relationship issues. A messy breakup or divorce can be very time consuming and emotionally draining. This can lead to parents neglecting their children while they look after their own issues. It can affect not just the child’s physical wellbeing but their psychological health too. Their sleep patterns can be adversely affected and their schooling can be affected also, perhaps because they are worrying about what is happening at home. On a practical level there may be new partners on the scene, or the breadwinner has departed causing financial turmoil.
Lack of support from the extended family: The absence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, can mean that a child’s parent(s) has no back-up. With no one to “baby-sit” or child mind whilst they go shopping, or to work, or to provide support and guidance, parents can sometimes see no alternative but to leave their children to fend for themselves. The beneficial role of family in helping to look after children is immeasurable and, consequentially, its absence is a major factor in neglect cases. The other side of the coin is that some extended families maybe so dysfunctional with a history of child neglect that its members are incapable of providing support. Extended family members may reinforce poor parenting practices.
A lack of knowledge and skills in bringing up children: A parent may themselves be the victim of parental neglect. It will be no surprise to find that they are already on the back foot when it comes to looking after and raising a child themselves. The neglect their experienced may mean they have missed large parts of their education and so have been deprived of other useful sources of knowledge. They may have missed the opportunity to acquire skills that an education would have equipped them with.
Loneliness and social isolation: The inability to seek support and advice from family and friends inevitably impacts on a parent’s ability to care for their child. The psychological impact of isolation can be profound when faced with the responsibility of raising a child alone, and possibly in difficult circumstances. The impact on the parent could be such to put the child at risk of neglect as a direct consequence.
Unemployment: The lack of a stable, regular, and well-paying job inevitably impacts on a parent’s ability to provide a positive environment to raise children. Low income is associated with poor diet, inadequate housing, and poor health. When a parent loses their job, the loss of self-worth and ability to provide for the family causes a massive psychological impact on a parent that cannot be underestimated. This in turn can impact on the parent’s capability to look after their child, and so in itself is a risk factor.
Inadequate housing: Having inadequate housing is not conducive to good health, either for the parents or the children. Badly insulated and poorly constructed and maintained properties are often expensive to heat, and to keep clean and dry. They do not provide the conditions for children to thrive. Inadequate houses are often located in areas with histories of anti-social behaviour and crime, and are associated with poverty and the other causes of neglect.
Mental or physical ill health including alcohol and substance misuse: One or both parents may have been in prison, dealing drugs or other criminal activities. Neglectful parents often have underlying anger directed at authority figures, and may try to threaten or intimidate doctors and social workers. The parents may have great trouble forming and maintaining relationship with children.