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Neglect in the first few years of a child’s life can have many adverse consequences, and one of the largest studies on these effects occurred after the Romanian Revolution in 1989.

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Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/10/-sp-ceausescus-children
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17605526
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1fee/1fb4a70b6f1555e864da9cbc61040070ac1b.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12848433
https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Developmental-Social-Neuroscience-Michelle/dp/1606231170
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9599775
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14700466
https://graemembaird.com/2017/07/06/the-english-and-romanian-adoptee-study-empirical-evidence-on-the-impact-of-abuse-and-neglect/
https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/The-Science-of-Neglect-The-Persistent-Absence-of-Responsive-Care-Disrupts-the-Developing-Brain.pdf
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042812000808
http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2001-18325-010
http://psych.colorado.edu/~willcutt/pdfs/Colvert_2008.pdf
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Images:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicolae_Ceau%C8%99escu.jpg
It was the 1970s in Romania.

Secretary General Nicolae Ceaușescu was the communist leader in charge of the country and he wanted to grow the population, so he enacted a series of policies that outlawed both abortion and birth control. As you can probably imagine, this did not go very well.

The population did grow, but so did widespread poverty, and by the time Ceaușescu was overthrown in 1989, more than 100,000 children had been abandoned to institutionalized, state-run orphanages. Which maybe would have been okay if they’d been given proper care. But they weren’t.

When the regime fell, it became clear that the conditions in these orphanages were horrific. The children were extremely malnourished, had very little social interaction with adults, and minimal care from their nurses. Some had been tied to their beds.

They were effectively left to fend for themselves, in some cases almost from birth. Psychologists had already known that early life relationships and care were incredibly important for brain development. But what followed the release of these children is one of the clearest examples we’ve ever seen of what happens when someone is almost completely deprived of those things— as well as how they might be able to recover. [INTRO♪].

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t remember much from before about the age of three, but some pretty important stuff happens in those early years. Human infants are basically helpless, so obviously they depend on their caregivers for food and shelter. But babies also need social relationships to grow and learn.

And without that, the Romanian children in the institutions didn’t develop cognitive, emotional, and social skills the way they should have. After the regime fell, people began adopting these children into more stable families, mostly outside Romania. As they were integrated into their new families, psychology researchers began to study how they’d been affected by this early, extreme deprivation, and the factors that influenced their recovery.

One of the main avenues of research was the English and Romanian Adoptee Study, which followed 165 Romanian children adopted by families in the UK— 144 of whom had been in these institutions. For comparison, it also included 52 children adopted from within the UK. The study was longitudinal, meaning it followed the children over time to track their progress— in this case by using tests, observations, and in-depth interviews to measure things like their cognitive and social abilities.

Overall, after about 2 to 3 years in loving and supportive families, these children had gone a long way toward catching up to their typically-developing peers. But the degree of catch-up was related to how old they were when they were adopted. Babies who were adopted before they were about 6 months old showed the highest degree of recovery, probably because it was still relatively early in their brains’ development.

But older children were much more likely to show cognitive delays and difficulties forming healthy relationships with their adoptive parents— even if you take into account things like malnutrition and their overall health. Among other things, a lot of them also had problems with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity, and some were aggressive. These kids also tended to have a harder time understanding and regulating their emotions, and they weren’t as good at identifying emotions in other people’s facial expressions.

They’d gone without a consistent bond with a caregiver—or any bond at all, really— for so long that their social and emotional skills just hadn’t developed, in a way that wasn’t easy to reverse later in life. Even before studying the children adopted from Romanian institutions, we’d known that neglect in early childhood could cause all kinds of developmental delays. But you can’t really design an experiment to study that— you can’t subject kids to severe neglect on purpose.

So trying to understand these children after the fact gave researchers hard data on the effects of early neglect that they couldn’t have gotten otherwise. But the findings from the orphanage studies taught us something else about brain development, too: the restorative power of relationships and interventions, even in cases of severe deprivation. The human brain is incredibly malleable— and yes, it’s most flexible early in life, but you can rewire it later on, too.

At least to an extent. The road to recovery has been far from easy, but a lot of the children who were adopted from these orphanages have recovered more than some experts would have thought possible. There’s no denying that those first few years of life are incredibly important, and abuse and neglect do a ton of damage.

But with the right treatment and care later on, the damage isn’t necessarily permanent. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you’d like to learn more about how our experiences drive our thoughts and behaviors, you can go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe. [OUTRO♪].