Understanding the Neglected Brain

Cristina spent three years in a foreign orphanage. She had minimal food and clothes. The orphanages were so crowded that each child barely got enough attention. Cristina would cry, but nobody would come to her crib to comfort her. Soon she learned that if she cried and nobody came, the best thing would be to not cry, and to comfort herself.

Cristina would rock herself as a source of comfort. She was not the only one. Many of the children in these orphanages were doing the same thing. Finally, when Cristina was adopted and came to America at 3 years old, it was hard for her to adjust. She was not used to getting all of this love and attention from her new family.

Cristina grew up, but she had challenges. It was hard for her to form relationships. She didn’t trust anybody and could only rely on herself. She did not want to attach to someone only to feel abandoned later on. She had friends, but it was always hard for her to form friendships and fit in with others. She felt alone, but she was OK with that.

Kathryn Dinkelacker
Kathryn Dinkelacker

Many studies have shown that the first three years of a child’s life are the most important years of development. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally known expert on childhood behavior and trauma, if a baby is not fed consistent, predictable messages of love and communication, the child’s capacity to function later in life – as it was with Christina — is affected.

At birth, the brain contains billions of neurons, but social interaction and communication wire it to either its full potential or a compromised state. With neglect and trauma, the brain is not be being “fed” enough to help it develop properly. Brain scans have shown that a severely neglected child’s brain is significantly smaller than that of a child who was loved and cared for from birth.

Children who have been neglected or experienced trauma often display anxiety, impulsivity, hyperactivity, difficulty experiencing empathy and impaired problem-solving skills. They also often go into survival mode. We see all of these things in some of our foster care children.

It takes a strong experience of safety and nurturing, a good, structured environment, and knowledgeable parenting to help such a child grow and heal. Therefore, it is very important for foster or adoptive parents to become educated on this matter, otherwise they might see a child’s behavior as a bad, when in reality, the child’s actions are the result of past experiences.

The more knowledge our caregivers have, the easier it is on them and the child, and this understanding can help weave the child into functioning society. Here at SaintA, we provide many trauma informed services to children and caregivers, but I wish our understanding and practices were more widespread. If so, things might be a little easier in foster care systems everywhere, and placement stability might be higher. Children would not be bounced from home to home if more caregivers truly understood how trauma affects behavior and emotional stability.

I ask myself, in our roles as case managers, what more can we do to help teach caregivers? Or help children be able to learn to trust adults, and bond with people? We just need to always spend that extra time, take that extra step.

We will not be in the lives of a child in the foster care system forever; however, we can make a difference in the time we are there. It all starts with us. It all starts with understanding and educating what is not talked about as much as it should be. SaintA can make a difference, not only to these families, but also to the community.


Interested in learning more about trauma informed care? Attend a community training session.

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