Thoughts About Neglect and Early Care

Sara Daniel

Recently a group of our staff in our Trauma Informed Care Learning Collaborative had a very interesting conversation that I continue to think about. We were talking about the impact of neglect on the children in our care. The general consensus was that we really know a lot about abuse and how to help children who have been subjected to significant adverse events. With them, we can point to the abuse and say, “This was a bad thing that happened.”

However, we wondered how we could have an even greater impact by equally helping children in our care with what did not happen. How many windows of opportunity for social and emotional development that opened up in infancy and early childhood were left waiting to be filled with experiences of interaction with loving, nurturing adults that never came or were inconsistent? Are those deficits perhaps even harder to overcome once that optimal window of time closes? How does this impact a child’s internal template of what human beings will be like in the world?

In an article by Dr. Bruce Perry, “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children,” he talks about this early period as critical to shaping the capacity to form intimate and emotionally healthy relationships. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University has produced an excellent video also explaining “The Science of Neglect.”

Our group discussed how challenging it was for a system of care to respond to social and emotional neglect if it does not have the immediate and outward signs that perhaps abuse, or failure to meet more basic needs might have, but which has potentially devastating lifelong consequences.

We concluded that perhaps we have an obligation to do whatever we can to focus attention on early care: To help parents we work with understand the importance of holding an infant, gazing in the baby’s eyes, singing, rocking, etc. To recognize that many parents who have not had these positive experiences themselves may not have the “instinct” that triggers this type of interaction with a child. To carry on the work of our Independent Living Services, which recently held a series of PIWI groups (Parents Interacting With Infants) focusing on teaching young parents they serve about bonding with their infants and recognizing and responding to their infants’ cues.

I look forward to continuing this discussion with my colleagues and would love to hear comments or suggestions from those reading this blog about how we can continue to make a difference in this area.


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