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Childhood Emotional Neglect Is Harmful to the Brain

Children need protection from adults who hurt them with words or silence.

Key points

  • Research confirms that emotional neglect and verbal abuse do significant damage to the brains and bodies of infants and children.
  • Neglecting and ignoring children can be just as harmful to them as physically abusive behaviors.
  • The law takes harm to the body more seriously than harm to the brain, but advancements in neuroscience suggest harm to the brain is as serious.

Thirty years ago, researchers had an opportunity to find out if neglect was harmful to children’s brains and bodies. They discovered that ignoring children was devastating. They learned that ignoring babies and children eroded their brains. The hundreds of infants who were orphaned in Romania due to an abusive dictator had shelter and food, but they were deprived of love and interaction. Scientists learned that neglect did significant, long-lasting harm to infants and children’s brains.

The law tends to privilege harm to the body. Even with extensive scientific research that documents the ways in which non-physical bullying and abuse harm the brain, the law remains firmly entrenched in keeping the body safe while mostly ignoring the brain. There are definitely advances in the sophisticated world of law and neuroscience, but in terms of how the general public thinks and behaves, little has changed.

Because the law privileges the body, most in society follow suit. If an adult in a position of trust and authority punches a child, it is seen as more serious than a racial or homophobic slur. If the adult breaks a child’s bone, it’s seen as criminal. If the adult harms the child’s brain by acting as if the child is not worth his or her time, this is not categorized as criminal.

The broken bone would get expert intervention, be assessed on X-ray, and usually cause a compassionate response. In contrast, the “broken” brain would not be assessed on a brain scan, and may not cause an informed or compassionate response. In fact, the child might be faulted for not performing well, to explain or justify why the adult is verbally abusive or acting as if the child is unworthy.

A broken bone, set properly, heals in six weeks, but a brain, harmed by verbal or psychological abuse, may not heal properly or even be recognized as injured.

If a child is raped, it’s treated as a serious criminal act by the law. If a child is groomed by an adult in a position of trust and power, it’s not treated as being nearly as serious. Rape is a violation of the child’s body, whereas grooming is a violation of the child’s brain. Yet both are devastating and can have a long-term, significant impact on the brain.

While the child’s body would be medically assessed if raped, it is very unlikely that an expert would assess the child’s brain if groomed. However, as well-documented in research, children who have been betrayed and manipulated by an adult seeking to exploit them in some way have brains that become confused. They struggle to know who to trust. They no longer have faith in their capacity to understand reality. Their brain fails to accurately predict and choose accurate “emotion-concepts."

Imagine a child's brain that has an adult in a position of trust and authority grooming him or her.

Is the adult someone to fear or trust, someone who is healthy or sick, an individual who protects or exploits, a guide or a pedophile? The brain cannot predict. It cannot answer the question because the adult is presenting as two selves simultaneously: one respected in the community and empowered over children and another who lures or abuses children behind closed doors. These manipulated brains “can’t answer the question,” which Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research documents as being deadly for the brain.

Children need vigilant protection from adults who are imposters, who act as though they are caring for the child when in fact they seek to abuse the child. Children need vigilant protection from adults who hurt their brains with words or silence. The more children are educated to be aware and watchful of manipulative adults, the better. If this is not taught in schools, adults need to step up to the plate. Children struggle to have healthy brains when adults verbally abuse them, manipulate them, lure them, and exploit them, even in ways that do not touch the body.

A brain that loses its grip on reality is a brain that can slip into various forms of mental illness including a depressive, suicidal swamp.

Lawmakers, teachers, and parents need to be aware of the serious harm that comes from any form of emotional neglect and psychological abuse. Even if not yet reflected in the law, they need to know that just because the body is not targeted, the brain is vulnerable to harm. Of course, this is why cyberbullying is so destructive.

Babies and children’s brains are vulnerable during development. They are hungry for learning. They are not seeking screens; they’re seeking adult interaction. They are primed by evolution to study and learn from adult faces, expressions, voices, and gestures. Children can’t learn language from canned programs, only from adults. The human brain privileges social connection over food and shelter.

While the Romanian babies were fed and housed, their brains failed to flourish and thrive when deprived of engaged, empathic, caring adults.

Every chance adults have to connect with babies, children, and youth, they need to capitalize on it. Children struggle to learn from adults who are looking at their phones or other screens. When a child asks a question, be ready with a thoughtful response. When a child shares something, give this moment of connection full respect and attention.

The ignored child does not flourish from a brain perspective. The emotionally neglected child fails to have a healthy, high-performing brain. Children and youth need to learn how to develop positive, trusting, connected relationships with adults and peers, and this learning hinges on adults who give them positive, healthy attention. One of the healthiest ways for children to develop and fulfill their potential is with engaged, attentive, empathic, informed adults.

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