NSPCC - how neglect can affect a child’s brain

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The NSPCC’s Local Campaigns Manager Emma Motherwell looks at how long-term neglect can affect a child’s mental and emotional health, as well as how they form relationships in adult life.

Last week, I talked about how neglect can damage a child’s physical health. But this week, I want to take a closer look at the scars that we can’t see so well, and how a parent or carer’s neglectful behavior can have a lasting emotional and mental effect on a child.

In the worst cases, the long-term impact of sustained neglect can cause deep-rooted and lifelong psychological harm for a child. This is because the first years of a child's life have a big impact on how their brain develops.

All children need stimulation and nurture for healthy development. Their early experiences shape their thought processes and brain development– which is why neglect can be so damaging.

Just as positive experiences fuel healthy brain development, children’s experiences of maltreatment can negatively affect emotional and behavioral patterns. Because the brain adapts to its environment, it will adapt to a negative environment just as readily as it will adapt to a positive one.

Young children thrive when they form strong attachments to their carer, but If a child has a poor relationship, attachment or little interaction with a parent then it can change how their speech and emotions develop.

Crucially, children who don’t get the love and care they need from their parents may find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships with other people later in life, including their own children.

If children live in a chaotic environment one in which their parent or carers respond with abuse or neglect, they may develop anxiety and be may become hyperalert for danger. Their ability to respond to nurturing and kindness may also be impaired.

Because neglect can alter the way a child’s brain works, neglected children are also more likely to experience mental health problems. Their experiences can lead to an increased risk of depression in later life as well as dissociative disorders and memory impairments. Changes to the brain caused by

neglect have also been linked to panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

The effects of maltreatment can continue to influence brain development and activity into adolescence and adulthood. Most teens act impulsively at times, but for teens who have been neglected, this impulsive behaviour may be even more apparent. Often, these young people have developed brains that focus on survival, at the expense of the more advanced thinking, increased impulsive behaviour, as well as difficulties with tasks that require higher-level thinking and feeling.

These teens may show delays in school and in social skills as well. They may be more drawn to taking risks, and they may have more opportunities to experiment with drugs and crime if they live in environments that put them at increased risk for these behaviours.

Swift intervention to stop neglect is vital to reduce harm to a child and help them to form positive attachments with others in adulthood, as well as reducing the likelihood they will develop mental health issues during their lives.

It’s so important that communities are alert to the signs of neglect, so that we can all prevent this kind of emotional and mental damage from happening.

If you’re concerned about a child, get in touch with the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 800 500, and for more information visit www.nspcc.org.uk/what-you-can-do/get-advice-and-support.