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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6 Responses to Understanding the Neglected Brain

  1. Mary says:

    You could have put my daughter’s name in place of Cristina’s and the story would have been the same. Adopted from a Romanian orphanage at over 2 yrs, she rocked violently, she never cried (she got over that!), she ate anything we put in front of her (voraciously). She struggled to make and maintain healthy relationships, but instead of not trusting anyone, she attached to and trusted everyone. She struggled in school and in other areas of her life, but she has always been a fighter and a survivor. That is the story of our kids. Adoptive Parents-to-be, whether foreign adoption or foster adoption domestically, educate yourselves and know that it takes more than just love and time.

  2. Anne says:

    Or my daughter’s name in front of Cristina’s. Very soon after she got home to us at 2 years, she had her hand closed in a heavy metal fire door at preschool. Nobody noticed until she passed out, because she never cried. I knew right then that in her first two short years, the absence of stable caring would affect her deeply and forever. She’s 16 now, has had dyslexia and ADD, and suffered and struggled quietly through school while we tried to support her. When she was 14, she finally broke, and has been hospitalized 3 times for severe anxiety and depression. She is sweet and loving but so sad; she takes a few cautious steps forward to bond and 3 steps back. I pray that once she gets through puberty, she will be more stable emotionally and be able to work through some of this. I pray to see her smile and laugh again. But for right now, I pray that when I get home from work she will still be alive. And that one day she will smile and laugh.

  3. Kathryn Dinkelacker says:

    I was adopted from Romania as well which what inspired me to write this article. I am not surprised that these are the effects on your children. But there is hope, I suffered the same things but with the right therapy and treatment, you can overcome or learn to cope with these effects.

  4. I.g says:

    That was mearly an example just to show there is hope. I was actually born in Romania and very familiar with those hurdles and hoops those kids go through.

  5. Kathryn Dinkelacker says:

    I am glad that this article I wrote has been helpful. Every article I write somehow ties into my personal life and reflections of what I have been through. I share my stories to give hope to others.

  6. Sallie Sterling says:

    Hello Kathryn,
    I have been trying to find both you and your mother all summer. I finally got on FB and this is so exciting. I found you and to see you working in this field is amazing. In case you don’t know who this is, I am Stefan’s Mom. When you were small you were convinced that he was your brother. We made the trip back from Romania with you and our newly adopted Stefan in 1991. Where is SaintA? They are blessed to have you.

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