The Alaska Center for Resource Families Web Based Course

Neglect : The Hole In the Middle



LESSON TWO: The Impact of Neglect on Children, P.2


  Course Home Page Lesson 1 Lesson 2 Lesson 3






How does Neglect Impact the Brain?


Pregnancy and the first three years of life are the most active periods of brain development in our lives. The following paragraphs are taken from the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a pioneer in the work of brain development in children and the impact of maltreatment and trauma.

Huge portions of the human brain are devoted to social functions and communication including establishing and maintaining eye contact, reading faces, judgments and more. When a baby is born, his brain houses over one hundred billion neurons that will chart paths and make connections based on the social experiences they encounter. By the age of two and a half, approximately 85 percent of the baby's neurological growth is complete, meaning the foundation of their brain's capacity is in place. By age three, the child's brain is 90 percent of its completed adult size.

In a remarkable cycle of stimulus and response, the budding brain builds itself using chemical signals generated by vision, smell, touch, hearing and taste to activate and organize the neural cells that make up its tissue and determine the brain's capacity to process, retain and respond to information.

Think of it in terms of nutrition. If a baby is not fed consistent, predictable messages of love and communication, then those areas of the brain shut down and the child's capacity to function later in life is compromised.

- Dr. Bruce Perry

The brain is born with billions of neurons, but it is the experience of social interaction and communication that wires the brain to either its full potential or a compromised state. Neglect means that the brain may not be being "fed" enough to help it grow its best.


How Does Neglect and Trauma Impact the Brain?

Dr. Bruce Perry has researched how the brain develops in response to trauma. To understand his results, let's review how a healthy brain develops.

Think of the brain as a upside down pyramid. At the bottom and developing first is the BRAINSTEM which monitors basic responses such as breathing and heartbeat. The next to develop is the MIDBRAIN which focuses on survival functions such as safety and responses to threats. Farther up this upside down pyramid is the LIMBIC system which controls feelings and emotions. The largest and the part of the brain last to develop are the CORTICAL functions which include our frontal lobes and parts of the brain that control executive functions such as reasoning, planning, anticipating, and predicting. The executive functions develop most rapidly during adolescences and early adulthood. Below is what a healthy, well-balanced brain should look like from bottom to top.


Normal development results in a healthy brain that is proportioned about 2 to 1. That means the combined Cortical and Limbic systems should be about twice as big as the combined Midbrain and Brainstem systems. This proportion of brain development allows the Limbic and Cortical functions (higher reasoning skills) to modulate and control and balance the Brainstem and Midbrain functions (reactive and reflexive functions). When we try to teach children think before you act, we are asking them to use one part of their brain to help them assess and control what another part of the brain wants to do out of instinct.

What Dr. Perry found in his research is that when young children experience severe trauma, the Brainstem/Midbrain portion of the brain seems to overdevelop, meaning children will have overdeveloped safety and stress responses and act more impulsively, even though the Thinking/Feeling part of the brain (the Cortical/Limbic systems) may be normally sized.

When children experienced neglect, they often did not develop the Thinking/Feeling parts of the brain resulting in an underdevelopment of the higher reasoning parts of the brain. The worst combination of maltreatment was when children experienced both neglect and trauma. That resulted in overdevelopment of the Brainstem/Midbrain functions ( resulting in anxiety, impulsivity, poor affect regulation, motor hyperactivity) and underdevelopment of Limbic/Cortical functions (which affected empathy and problem solving skills). The result looks like this.



Neglect during infancy, including nutritional deficits during pregnancy, can impact a child’s development of brain capacity and size. When neglect is combined with trauma, a child’s brain develops in a survival style to help him stay safe. This may result in a child being initially “wired” for survival—being impulsive, anxious, acting from instinct instead of reason, and not able to understand or identify his feelings easily.

Foster and adoptive parents need to know that children bring their developed survival skills into the home because they have been wired that way. It will take a strong experience of safety and nurturing for children to again begin the process of growing. Love alone is not enough. Safety, a good structured environment, and knowledgeable parenting is also necessary.


ACRF Home Page Privacy Policy E-Mail Instructor

Copyright 2007 Alaska Center for Resource Families. All Rights Reserved.