Grey matters: leading US neurologist Dr Bruce Perry above, in Melbourne last week, says healthy brain development is dependent on children being raised in nurturing environments.Photo: Ken Irwin
NURTURING cuddles early in life not only give toddlers a sense of security and of being loved — regular hugs help their brains to physically develop properly, giving them the best start in life.
However, children who suffer extreme neglect — who rarely feel the warm embrace of a parent or carer, are ignored, never stimulated and not cared for adequately — show signs of stunted brain growth, potentially leading to a lifetime of difficult relationships, behavioural problems and lower educational outcomes.
World-renowned US neurologist Dr Bruce Perry, in Melbourne last week to speak at two conferences, said the brains of children who were exposed to extreme neglect and repeated trauma, such as domestic violence, did not develop the normal building blocks, or neural connections, that helped them form properly.
As a result, these children developed a brain impairment that workers in child protection, care and the law needed to be aware of, he said.
But Dr Perry, senior fellow at the US Child Trauma Academy, said the thought patterns and behaviours of neglected children were not the same as those of traumatised children — despite the mental health field's one-size-fits-all approach. "They will take all these kids who are struggling and they will try to intervene using a well-intended but overly simplistic approach. Our current approach to these kids with complicated histories is quite immature," he said.
Dr Perry, who has advised on children's needs after virtually every major horrific event in recent US history, spoke to MPs and other delegates at the World Psychiatric Association conference, and to family and child protection workers and carers at Berry Street Victoria's Children in Trauma, Trauma in Children forum.
The forum was shown CT scans of the developing brains of healthy three-year-old children, with average-sized heads, and then images of the brains of three-year-olds who had suffered "total global neglect". The neglected children's brain were significantly smaller with abnormal brain structures.
The cortex in neglected children's brains remains underdeveloped, making it hard for them to regulate their behaviour, and the parts of the brain associated with forming and maintaining relationships are also abnormal. Dr Perry said their care needed to replicate a normal infant's upbringing.
"A two-year-old who has been severely neglected would need to be held more … it would be completely appropriate to baby them … these kids like to be rocked and sometimes you have to build their capacity to tolerate touch."
The brains of children who have suffered repeated trauma produce high levels of stress-related chemicals, causing them to be impulsive, inattentive, highly anxious and to develop sleeping problems.
But programs such as Berry Street's intensive Take Two program — run with other health providers — which helps parents and carers repair damage done in early childhood, were a great initiative, he said.
Berry Street Victoria's chief executive officer Sandie de Wolf said Dr Perry's comments highlighted the need to support new mothers.
National figures released last week showed 10% to 16% of substantiated cases of child abuse involved babies under 12 months.
"All children deserve a good childhood … If we want healthy adults, we must ensure that … parents get the support they need," Ms de Wolf said.
By Deborah Gough
Source: The Age