Even brief separations can impair the brain development of a young child or infant.
When children are separated from their parents, what happens to the brain of the child? Even very brief separations are stressful to infants and young children.
In the first few minutes our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and impels us to try to cope with this separation by calling for the parent, crying, getting upset, signaling that we need the parent back to be our source of security and safety and regulation.
Then comes a flood of stress homones like cortisol, which can trigger fight or flight. But prolonged exposure can be harmful.
It begins to damage brain cells. Hippocampal cells will die, that’s our memory center. The electrical activity in the brain is being reduced by these more prolonged separations.
The other thing that’s affected in the brain is the amygdala. It’s the fight or flight center. So when you’ve got this really overactive amygdala, the ability to be able to evaluate risk, make good decisions is compromised. Not only does it affect the architecture of the brain but long term it affects health and early death.
One key to healthy brain development is “attachment,” building a strong bond with a reliable, consistent caregiver.
It’s the foundation on which we build our exploration and our autonomy and our curiosity and the cognitive skills with which we’re going to negotiate the world. It’s a very fundamental system to protect and it’s foundational to many of the child’s developmental achievements.
Time is very important when you’re dealing with very young children because you begin to see this deterioration fairly quickly. The idea that you’re going to hold a young child away from the parent for a week or two weeks or three weeks is an enormity of time for a young child. They just know that the parent is absent and that can be equivalent to the parent basically being dead or having abandoned them.
Kids who don’t form a strong, lasting bond with an adult by age two are more likely to have a disrupted attachment system.
One of the things we see in children reared in institutions in the first two years of life is that the attachment system goes badly awry.
Ultimately that relationship with the caregiver predicts the kind of interpersonal relationships that the child will have as they get older.
A dependable caregiver is important for building trust. An undependable caregiver can make trusting others hard. Once a separation happens, reuniting child and parent ASAP is very important if we want to prevent later very problematic outcomes for these kids. The younger the child, the more urgent it is.
Recovery is certainly possible. But I think the prognosis for most of these children is they’re not going to be okay.
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