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    Emotional Neglect on Early Development

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    It is well known now in the world of childhood development that adverse childhood experiences have an immense impact on a child’s overall well being. According to the CDC, Child Neglect is defined as an “act of omission.” This act of omission means a caregiver has “failed to provide for a child, the basic physical, emotional, and educational needs, or protect the child from harm or potential harm.” ( CDC). Many studies conclude that sole effects of emotional neglect are hard to define due to many factors. For instance, statistics show that emotional neglect more often than not overlaps with emotional abuse and other forms of neglect, like “physical, supervisory, educational or psychological.” (Maquire & Naughton _) In addition, even though all forms of neglect and abuse have harmful effects on a child’s development, emotional neglect may have longer lasting effects in comparison due to delayed intervention from lack of visible signs of injury. For the purposes of this paper, I define emotional neglect as a “failure to give children an emotional environment that allows adequate psychological, cognitive, and physical development to achieve competent adulthood” (Reese 200_).

    An infant’s emotional development begins with the primary caregiver’s well-being and ability to positively attune to its bids for attention and care. Since the infant is helpless, they are dependent on their primary caregiver in meeting their needs, including comfort when in distress. Emotional experience in infants starts early. By the age of 3 months the infant has become attuned to the emotional expression of adults and has already shaped neural systems to align with emotional schemas of their environment. (book pg 151). There are many factors that may aid in creating emotional neglect as a consequence. For example, if the primary caregiver has experienced their own maltreatment as a child, or any other adverse life experiences, this maltreatment becomes perpetuated as a parent when attuning to their infant. According to Maguire & Naughton (200), those with childhood ACEs are predisposed to a biased pattern of processing social information, such as demonstrating a propensity to a retaliatory aggressive response even to minor provocations.” This aggressive response is also perpetuated to their infant’s bids for attention and care, as well as prone to exacerbation by increased stress.

    Additionally, if the infant is exposed to alcohol, nicotine, drugs, stress and/or violence in the intrauterine environment, they will incur both short-term and long-term affects on the development of their brain and nervous system. For instance, (macguire and naughton) claim that “stress experienced by pregnant mothers, combined with dietary deficiencies, [show] significant reduction in gray and white matter volumes with relatively enlarged amygdala volume” as well as increased amygdala activity. Neglected children showed this abnormal brain development, as well as “atypical development of the hypothalamus-pituitary-axis (HPA), which controls release of stress hormones.” (Magquire & Naughton). This atypical development of the HPA axis reflects either a reduced release of stress hormones or overactive release stress hormones in the child’s nervous system. Research has also found that low level of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are found in neglected children. These hormones work to provide the child with loving feelings and “promote affiliation in groups.”

    Furthermore, those infants who grow up in poverty or social isolation also have higher higher chances of experiencing neglect. This is not to say that all who grow up in poverty experience neglect, but since most parents lack financial resources and basic needs, this is where their focus is on, rather than on the emotional needs of their child. In addition, those who grow up in poverty, do not develop language

    Furthermore, research shows a variety of genetic variants that may modify or exacerbate harmful effects of neglect. According to Maguire & Sabine) children may be genetically predisposed to be at risk for expression of genes that relate to conduct disorders. For instance, those children who have the MAO-A gene, and are neglected, “are nine times more likely to engage in violent or antisocial behavior than those with the same gene who were not neglected.” In addition, those who are born with the 5HT short allele of serotonin are more likely to also develop long lasting harmful affects following neglect. Finally, if the infant experiences neglect early in infancy, this may modify their DNA activity, therefore again perpetuating intergenerational neglect when they become parents.

    Nevertheless, humans are biologically predisposed to create attachments as an evolutionary survival mechanism. (book 151). This occurs when a caregiver is attuned to the infant, acting in a nurturing and responsive way, therefore creating an attachment that then creates a bond necessary for the infant’s survival. The infant will then respond in an organized manner, learning that the caregiver is a safe and stable organism to attend to its bids for attention, care, and comfort in distress. If the primary caregiver is positively attuned to the infant, many of the expressions of genetic variants stated above are then prevented. However, when a primary caregiver is psychologically unavailable, they react in an unresponsive way to the infant. The unresponsiveness from the caregiver is now the main source of distress and so the infant has no organized manner in which to get their needs met. As the child develops, this attachment strategy will play out in all relationships into adulthood. For instance, a child with a disorganized attachment may have unhealthy assumptions about the “value, reliability and safety of relationships.” (symposium)

    Reese suggests that children who experience emotional neglect are not provided with the necessary conditions in which to function independently, use relationships, adapt, and ultimately parent. They do not develop healthy stress regulation, a sense of identity, effective communication, and will create unhealthy preconceptions regarding the safety of relationships and the world around them. Without these foundations for development, many will not hit developmental milestones, and since developmental tasks build on previous milestones, they will continue to fail when challenged by normal developmental tasks throughout infancy, early childhood and adolescence. Research shows that neglected children do not develop cognitively, social-emotionally and behaviorally normal as compared to other non-maltreated children

    For example, in Infancy, the ability to learn how to regulate stress and affect is entirely dependent on the primary caregiver. If the primary caregiver does not mirror stress regulation by comforting the infant when in distress, most of the time, then the neural circuitry in the infant’s brain for emotional safety and self-regulation is either never or poorly developed. This effect is demonstrated in neglected infants who display an apathetic and passive response when approached by adults. This negative attunement also creates a disorganized attachment with adults, as stated earlier above. Disorganized attachment reflects a general mistrust from the infant brought about by the unresponsiveness or instability of a primary caregiver. This mistrust in infancy shapes a negative mental representation of themselves as well as others. They perceive that they are unworthy of love, people are unavailable and rejecting and in general they are not safe in the world. This mistrust is demonstrated in emotionally neglected infants through avoidance of others and minimal interaction in play with peers. Infants also show negative behavioral effects like “inconsolable crying, excessive tantrums, passivity and withdrawal, gaze avoidance, feeding and digestion problems, as well as altered sleep patterns.” (safeguard). Additionally, emotionally neglected infants begin to demonstrate abnormal cognitive development showing impairment in the executive functioning part of the pre-frontal cortex, which is in charge of learning and memory. This leads to poor impulse control, less flexibility and creative problem solving, as well as delayed language and speech. Furthermore, infants show poor muscle tone, motor control, fail to develop basic motor skills and experience delay in the development of gross and fine motor skills.

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    Emotional Neglect on Early Development. (2021, Oct 29). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/emotional-neglect-on-early-development-173835/

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