Abandonment and Neglect: How They Adversely Impact the Brain

Below is a collection of unintended consequences that frequently show up in the wake of abandonment and neglect. Each one of the topic headings below is a hyperlink that will take you to the relevant research. The good news is that once we understand the implications, we can begin the work of creative restoration …

Lack of Modeling

When a parent abandons the family one of the main things that goes missing is the energy that person expended to operate inside and outside the home. They can no longer serve us as models – good or bad – for how to make sense of our nescient, unfolding nature. They also take with them any creative capacity, earning potential and/or the promise of a safe and manageable future. Two parents increase the odds of feeling cared-for and protected by competent adults. Anxiety and uncertainty often rule daily life when one checks out. And as this brain study reveals, anxiety and uncertainty literally unravel our brain’s neural network.

Diminished Novel Life Experience

The hippocampus in each of our brain’s temporal lobes is constantly appraising our environment for novelty. When it finds it, feel-good hormones get triggered. But when only one parent is left to do all the heavy lifting necessary for sustaining a household, novel experiences often are required to take a back seat to the urgency of meeting basic survival needs. Novelty, so critical for growing new brain cells and expanding existing neural networks, ends up getting literally lost in the shuffle.

Impaired Thinking Ability

Molly's scarf unraveledThe brain is a network formed in much the same way a knitted or crocheted scarf is. It works best when strong connections can easily move energy and information about. When there are tears in the fabric (the neural network), it can’t readily perform its proper function. Thinking ability is one of the functions that a brain with holes (lacunae) in it begins to have difficulty with, often without us ever realizing it, or ever knowing what to do about it!

Increased Stress and Poverty

When one of the parents leaves the family, we’re 4 times more likely to be poor, in contrast to families with both parents in the home. With poverty comes all kinds of additional stressors that lead to things like the inability to manage Executive Functions (see below), weak connections to friends and family and a serious lack of social skills.

Little Reliable Guidance

The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience identifies that the more positive, kind, competent, caring people we have around us, the better our life will be overall. Losing a parent removes a significant source of the reliable guidance upon which the Golden Rule rests. And the older we get, the increasingly difficult time we have finding such people to help us.

Reduced Resilience

Resilience is the ability to adapt and overcome risk and adversity, such as being raised in a one-parent family.

Being resilient doesn’t mean living a life free from stress and pain. Resilience means we’re able to work through the difficult emotions and effects of stress and painful events. But without the parental resources in the home to help with that, many of us never learn how.

Resilience can develop as we get older and gain better thinking and self-awareness and more knowledge. It can also come from supportive relationships with parents, peers and others, as well as cultural beliefs and traditions that help us cope with the inevitable bumps in life. Fortunately, resilience can be learned and developed across the lifespan. And that’s a good thing.

Compromised Executive Functioning

Here is a list of the so-called Executive Functions:

  • Planning and Prioritizing
  • Time Management
  • Organization of thinking and environment
  • Working Memory
  • Metacognition
  • Response Inhibition
  • Easy Self-Regulation of Emotions
  • Task Initiating
  • Flexibility of Thinking or Behavior
  • Goal-Directed Persistence
  • Sustaining Attention
  • Disengaging Attention
  • The Ability to Regulate Information Processing Speed

How many of these abilities do you struggle with?

Degraded Impulse Control

Impulse Control can be defined as the inability to resist an impulsive act or behavior that may be harmful to yourself or other people, places or things. Impulsive acts are mostly not premeditated or considered in advance. They are usually acts which a person has little or no control over. There are six area where poor impulse control mostly shows up Trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Pathological Gambling, Kleptomania, Pyromania, and Not Otherwise Specified. Not Otherwise Specified covers all kinds of difficulties where we struggle to exert consistent self-control. Think eating, drinking, sex, exercising, over-talking – anything that runs the risk of becoming addictive or beyond our ability to easily control.

Increased Vulnerability to Drugs or Alcohol Abuse

drugs_by_outofworkNationally, drugs and alcohol abuse costs the country over half a trillion dollars annually. And that’s not even taking into account what we know it does to the brain – significantly reduces the brain’s ability to regulate and readily process energy and information – or what it does to future, unborn generations.

There’s one primary reason we use drugs or alcohol (and that includes tobacco) – in order to feel better. What we mostly want to feel better about is how stress hormones, constantly flooding the brain and body, make us feel. The unfortunate thing is drugs, tobacco and alcohol work, and they work quite well … in the short run. It’s the unintended consequences of the long run that turn out to be the much greater problem.

No Positive Answer to The Big Brain Question

The brain living in those of us who have been abandoned and neglected in life, by the very nature of abandonment and neglect, fails to have this fundamental question answered positively. We often spend much of the remainder of our days unconsciously looking to recover and reclaim what has been lost to us. Usually, without us ever realizing it, much of our drive and life’s motivation is to find people who might finally have the strength of heart, ways and means to answer The Big Brain Question – “Are you there for me?” – unfailingly in the affirmative.

Because this early wound is so deep and so global, our compulsion to try to heal it turns out to be so profound that we will often unconsciously devise rigorous tests for the people around us, to see if they can stand the pressure and come out the other side still by our side. More than a few good relationships have crashed and burned in the aftermath of these kinds of challenges. To be successful in skillfully passing such tests, researcher Andrew Boyd points out … we have to commit ourselves to the wrong person, but not just any wrong person. They must be the right wrong person. Turns out the right wrong person is not so easy to find for those of us with complex early abandonment and neglect histories.

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