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Posted by Emily Yang

Humans are built with a natural longing for interaction. A couple shares about their individual days at work, a teenage girl cries about a breakup as her friend comforts her, and a group of men share about their recent shots in a golf game. In the same way, children are in dire need of response from the moment they are born. But what happens when this need is not met? What occurs in the brain when expression is met with empty stares and immobile response? Although it is easy to overlook the problem of neglect, it is important to be aware of the gravity of children who are not receiving sufficient attention, because the foundation of healthy societies is built upon the proper development of interaction between children and caregivers. In  recent research from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, psychologists study the cause and effects of this issue.

The problem of severe neglect is associated with abnormalities in the structure and functioning of the developing brain. This can start as early as infancy. During the first stages of childhood, there is a refining of the brain’s neural circuits that are being formed. While in this stage of life, the process of “serve and return” is essential. This is the concept that children naturally interact through facial expressions, cooing, and gestures, then the caretaker responds with similar expressions and gestures. If a caretaker fails to respond, the formation of the child’s brain may be interrupted, which can cause future damage in learning, conduct, and health.

Even more disheartening is the growing population of children inhabiting institutional settings. These often crowded children’s homes foster a sort of “assembly-line” system of caretaking. Children are looked after by shifts of caregivers, never being able to establish reliable connections, and only participating in minimal serve and return interaction. Even though they may be receiving sufficient basic living needs (such as food, shelter, and health care), they are robbed of the basic psychosocial communication that encourages healthy brain stimulation.

In tests of electrical activity in the brain, children from institutional homes, along with those with histories of neglect, show a lack of ability to react properly to stimulation, such as recognizing different facial emotions. Not only is the area of the brain that identifies emotion stunted, but the prefrontal cortex, which regulates roles such as planning, observation, problem solving, and behavior, has been noted to function on a lower level than those without a history of neglect.

Furthermore, the systems in a person that assist in handling stress and anxiety may be severely damaged as well. For example, in a typical healthy child, the stress hormone, cortisol, shows high levels of activation in the morning, acting as a boost for the body to function during the day. As night approaches, it gradually decreases. But in neglected or institutionalized children, this hormone displays low levels in the morning and continues a flat pattern throughout the day. In the long run, this lack of cortisol regulation has been seen to permanently damage the construction of the brain, causing hearth rhythm inconsistencies, depression, and anxiety.

So how can this problem be alleviated? Ultimately, a nurturing family system where relational connection can happen is imperative. Every child’s recovery depends upon the severity of the negligence and timing of rescue. The immediate shift of moving a child from a negligent home to an encouraging one is important, but the process of healing requires long-term and consistent relational support. Even after being removed from an unhealthy situation, a child is still prone to lack of recovery if they are not surrounded by relationships where they can build attachment.

The Orphan Care Initiative seeks to help every child remain in family, reunite with family or regain a family of their own, by equipping the local church to act as a key support. In Rwanda, we are mobilizing churches to get children out of orphanages and into families, as the country works towards the goal of zero children living in orphanages.

Read some of the incredible stories of how  children in Rwanda are leaving the orphanages for families of their own. Learn how you can sponsor a family in Rwanda to have the extra boost needed to adopt a child out of the orphanage  here.



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