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Effect of Neglect on Orphan Attachment and Danger Risk

Attachment patterns play a huge role in the lives of orphans, many of whom lack parental relationships. Not only does life in an institution hold implications on a child’s general wellbeing, but is often the catalyst for barriers presented in their safety and relationships during adulthood.


Attachment theory, as the name suggests, is a thesis elucidating the behavior of individuals within their relationships, based most notably on long-term relationships. While also applicable to romantic partners, attachment theory at its core pertains to one’s bond with their parentsー a bond rooted in trust.


The value placed on the connection of a newborn baby with its mother is widely recognized, and justifiably so. This connection, however, goes far beyond any momental physical touch. The presence, or absence, of this bond is largely responsible for the attachment style the child will develop. When there is a lack of this connection, the result is most often an insecure attachment type.


Insecure attachment can root from a variety of childhood traumas, but the most prevalent is neglect. What this means for the child is that mental setbacks are more likely to provide a barrier between them and potential emotional relationships. They may be emotionally reserved, or even aggressive to some degree towards their loved ones. However insecurity manifests, this child is likely to struggle in either making or maintaining stable, healthy relationships.


D.W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and direct contributor to the development of attachment theory, also stated that, “without someone specifically oriented to his needs, the infant cannot find a working relation to external reality.” Winnicott highlights that when an infant lacks that single person committed to their relationship, be it mother or father, the infant will be less capable of developing their “integrated personality.”


Fully fulfilling an infant's emotional dependency allows for their personal character to develop down the line, and for a smoother transition into independence. When the alternate is true, the individual will have a harder time shaking off dependent tendencies. Through many relationships they may seek a figure to rely on, to try to counter the insecurity dating back to their initial neglect.


Most prevalent in the setting of an institution specifically, are both the quality and quantity of individual child care. Considering the more structured nature of an institution, even the most nurturing social worker cannot fill the shoes of a parental figure exactly; both environment and genetic relationship hinder this.


The shortcomings of orphanhood even carry beyond the actions of the workers within the walls and have serious implications on the later lives of children. These include both aforementioned barriers on their future relationships, and immediate potential danger.


With a particular respect to the ethics of experimentation, scientists sought out and discovered an environment where deprivation of babies occurs naturally- Romanian orphanages. While in other parts of the world, treatment of orphans is an arguable middle ground, post- communist Romania does not match up with any modern standard. They have, and will likely continue to have, one of the most extreme modern day examples of early emotional deficiency. As unfortunate as this may be, this environment did serve a crucial role in further research regarding neglect and behavioral tendencies.


When first stepping foot into a Romanian orphanage, University professor Nathan Fox was immediately unsettled at the sound of silence; not a single baby was crying because they knew no one would attend to them. These infants were left to their own devices, and learned the definition of independence prematurely.


From neglect of this magnitude comes a series of mental issues: poor impulse control, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, stealing and self-punishment, poor intellectual functioning and low academic achievement, just to name a few. All impact child behavior, and bleed into the treatment of the other party in relationships the individual will form throughout their lifetime.


In a study conducted by Megan Gunnar, PhD, 65 Romanian toddlers were observed after being adopted from institutions. Despite the formation of a seemingly strong attachment coming relatively quickly to 90% of the children, this attachment was described as unusual compared to a broader population. It was confusing, contradictory even. While sometimes the children would seek solace in their new caregiver, other times they would resist any and all comfort.


When the newly adopted children were not expressing this “contradictory” attachment style, they were plagued by over-friendliness. While on the surface there is no apparent issue with overly friendly children, this characteristic is actually linked to an attachment disorder referred to as Indiscriminate Friendliness (IF), and is unique to those who have experienced neglect.

This disorder was most clearly expressed in the portion of the brain called the amygdala. When previously institutionalized children were shown pictures of both their mothers and strangers, their amygdalae confirmed an abnormality in friendliness towards the strangers. Researchers identified a reduced ability for differentiation; a crucial contributor to the children’s blind trust.


Although further implications of IF are an overwhelmingly grey area, scientists believe it negatively impacts a child’s safety, as well as their relationships with both caregivers and peers. Their early neglect clouds their insight into the intentions of strangers, in turn giving them a false expectation of friendliness from others.


While there is no clear association between orphanhood and one particular attachment style, there are certain patterns regarding general insecure attachment and increased risk of danger that previous research has uncovered. When childhood neglect is left unaddressed in individuals, originating from an institution or not, serious effects can carry into adulthood.


Whether impacted yourself or reading out of sheer curiosity, it is important to note the many resources that help individuals overcome the hardship of childhood neglect. Where time can’t necessarily heal, therapy and self soothing practices pick up the slack.

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