Children may manifest moderate to severe levels of cognitive, physical and emotional stagnation when not shown adequate attention and affection by a caring and nurturing caregiver. The plight of Romania’s orphans, brought to light with the fall of communism and the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, dramatically illustrated the effects severe emotional neglect may have on a child’s development. Such deprivation, it turns out, has profound implications for a child’s brain development, physical growth and long-term mental health.
Researchers, including Charles Nelson of Harvard Medical School, noted in their findings the tendency of some Romanian orphans to cling to any adult who showed them a modicum of affection. Nelson told National Public Radio, NPR, in 2006 that the children would reach out for any adult to pick them up. Orphanage workers warned researchers not to pick up one particular child because “the last time that happened, they picked her up and when they put her down she just threw herself on the ground and kept hitting her head, which is probably a way for her to deal with being rejected,” Nelson said. Children who lack proper affection may consequently form indiscriminate bonds with any adult and be unable to properly process refusals of affection.
Brain development in children is directly linked to the level of affection they receive. In a 2007 paper, Nelson notes that brain development after birth is shaped by an interaction of genes and experience. Factors in our environment and experience that can directly affect brain development include access to a caregiver, adequate nutrition, sensory stimulation and linguistic input, he writes.
Developing proper levels of attachment with a trustworthy caregiver is essential to the present and future mental health of a child. Attachment refers to the level of connection established between a child and his or her caregiver during the first years of life. Children who lack secure attachment often do not develop the skills needed to build healthy relationships. They may have difficulty connecting with others, lack trust and self-worth, be afraid of initiating relationships, display anger and be controlling. Children with attachment disorders may feel isolated and insecure.
Children receiving inadequate affection may manifest stunted physical growth despite receiving adequate nutrition. Some Romanian orphans, according to the 2006 NPR report, appeared to the reporter to be 6 years old when in fact they were 15 to 20. Nelson explained that this condition was not due to a lack of nutrition; instead, their bodies had not produced sufficient growth hormone. Researchers theorized that in stressful environments, such as institutions in which children receive minimal affection and interaction, the body conserves energy for brain development. Though this is an extreme example, the lack of physical development in many of the Romanian orphans demonstrated to researchers a direct link between the amount of affection and stimulation a child receives and his physical growth.
Caregivers may display affection to a child knowing that doing so will greatly enhance their physical, cognitive and emotional development. Caregivers can display affection by touching appropriately, performing acts of remembrance, creating gifts, singing, reading and including a child as helper in a project.