18, No. 1
Impact of Neglect on Brain Development and Attachment
Neglect is sometimes considered less severe than other forms of maltreatment. However, a study comparing developmental repercussions for four types of child maltreatment--neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychologically unavailable parents--concluded that neglected children suffer the worst consequences (Gaudin, 1993).
Why would neglect have such an impact? Two big reasons: brain development and attachment.
Neglect and Brain Development
The ongoing nature of chronic neglect significantly impacts the brain in infancy and early childhood. According to Perry (2002), neglect at this phase impedes formation of neurological pathways essential to communication in the brain. In particular, neglect has been shown to harm the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and memory (Perry, 2002; DeBellis, 2005). Extreme neglect can actually make children's brains smaller.
There are many outcomes related to this disruption in brain development, including lowered IQ, cognitive delays that impact learning, and difficulty with behavioral inhibitions (Wilkerson, 2009; Barkley, 1997).
Neglect and Attachment
That's just what we find: up to 85% of children in out-of-home placement have some disruption in attachment (Perry, 2002). Attachment difficulties caused by neglect affect every aspect of children's development, especially their ability to relate to others. Studies have repeatedly shown that children with disrupted attachment who have experienced neglect have problems coping and managing emotions, are more hopeless, and have a poor self-concept (Hildyard, 2002; Erickson & Egeland, 2002; Shipman, 2005).
According to Erickson and Egeland (2002):
Emotionally neglected children expect not to get what they need from others, and so they do not even try to solicit care and warmth. They expect not to be effective and successful in tasks, and so they do not try to succeed. Or perhaps, these children's dependence needs are so overwhelming that they are barely able to concern themselves with being motivated and task-oriented.
Given neglect's impact, we must address the gap between what we know and what we do. The phrase "neglect of neglect" has become a common saying regarding what has been referred to as "the absurd paradox" of our field: although neglect is the most common form of maltreatment with the most significant impacts, it is also the least understood and often the least addressed (McSherry, 2007). We need to focus more on understanding the complex factors that contribute to neglect and developing strategies for intervening as early as possible.