I want to understand how my adopted children’s early life experience of neglect has affected them and continues to affect them. I confess I am a bit of a science geek and I have trawled through academic papers to see if science can help me cope the lasting effects of neglect on my adopted children’s lives.
The lasting effects of neglect
One paper that did catch my eye was published by The American Psychological Association in 2014. Authored by Kirsten Weir, it compares the experiences of the effect of neglect of children growing up in Romanian orphanages, children adopted from overseas and children in the US, living in foster care.
The Bucharest project
Launched in 2000 and led by Nathan Fox PhD (University of Maryland), Charles Nelson PhD (Harvard University), and Charles Zeanah (Tulane University) this project looked at 136 children who had lived in Romanian orphanages since birth.
The children studied had been born into neglect and suffered many problems including – delays in cognitive function, delayed motor and language development, and emotional behavioural issues.
But those children who were moved into foster care showed significant improvements but they were behind children who had never experienced institutionalised care.
Children who made the biggest gains were children moved from institutionalised care by the age of two.
The International Adoption Project
This project was started in 1999 and is an extensive study of overseas adoption in America. It was led by Megan Gunnar, PhD, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
Dr Gunnar found that children who had previously been in institutions had difficulty with executive functions (the mental skills that help us plan, organise our time, remember and prioritise). Many children struggled to regulate their emotions. Often, they suffered from high anxiety.
- Another common behaviour observed in children who had previously been in institutions was over-friendliness. Greeting strangers or people little-known to them as long lost friends. This is thought to be a coping mechanism from socially starved lives.
- Cortisol disruption was another observation. Cortisol peaks after morning and drops during the day. Children who had suffered from neglect showed a more ‘blunted’ cortisol pattern during the day.
The US experience
Philip Fisher PhD has been working with American children who have experienced neglect. He is a psychologist and research scientist at the University of Oregan working with children in foster care.
He suspected that behavioural and emotional difficulties of children in the American foster system could be attributed to neglect.
But after sharing his data with other researchers including Megan Gunnar, Fisher realised that children in foster care had similar traits to children who had experienced institutionalised care.
- Cortisol levels were low in the morning and remained low throughout the day. Fisher discovered that this disruption was down to early neglect, “This blunted daily pattern with low morning cortisol seemed to be a hallmark of neglect.”
- Disrupted cortisol levels are linked to a number of psychological disorders such as anxiety, mood disorders, behavior problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
- But the good news is that cortisol patterns can change. Children who have previously suffered from neglect, but are living with foster carers who can respond to the child(ren’s)needs; these children have been seen to develop more normal cortisol levels over time.
- But children living with foster carers who were stressed too, these children did not make the same recovery.
My adoption experience and the lasting effects of neglect
My children have been living with us for five years now and I do believe they are still living with the effects of neglect.
But they are lucky, they had an excellent foster carer and now have stability with us and along the way we have had support from our brilliant network of family, friends, and professionals.
Can’t relax, because I don’t know how to relax
The early days were tough, and we lived through what must have been days, weeks, months, even longer, of cortisol disruption.
One of the lasting effects of neglect is that my children can never really truly relax. They don’t really understand what it is to completely switch off, be in the zen zone, it’s like that early life neglect has entered their DNA.
As a result, they are highly attuned to stress, they are like tightly wound springs ready to boing.
The slightest change of our circumstances, holidays, unknown routines, a day that has not been fully planned, to much excitement, too much noise can send them a state of anxiety.
The charm offensive
I have also noticed the over-friendliness, the charm offensive. With just a flash of the ‘winning smile’, adults can be completely beguiled. I guess this is a coping mechanism from a ‘socially starved life’.
This is a well known and documented coping mechanism, as noted in the brilliant book by Caroline Archer, First Steps in Parenting the Child Who Hurts: “There are some children who smile all the time. They smile at anyone, anywhere, and when they smile at you, they smile through you. Often a child like this has to smile like this at all costs to survive.”
Parents need to manage their stress too
Adopting our two children is truly the best thing in my life, but at the same time, it can be and it is simultaneously draining, exhausting and unrelenting.
Adopters need to take care of themselves too. We need to manage our stress so we can manage our kids’ stress. Stress begets stress and before we know it we’re sinking into our own whirlpool of anxiety.
My big takeaway from this paper is that I need to manage my stress levels.
So mums, dads, carers, whether your kids are adopted or not, do whatever it takes to manage your stress. Take a day out from parenting, book that massage, catch a film, go for a run, take that yoga class, have that glass of wine. Science says we should!
Photcredit, Franco courtesy of Flickr