Children of Neglect with Attachment and Time Perception Deficits: Strategies and Interventions

By Wilkerson, Dennis; Johnson, Gail et al. | Education, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Children of Neglect with Attachment and Time Perception Deficits: Strategies and Interventions


Wilkerson, Dennis, Johnson, Gail, Johnson, Richard, Education


Research has shown a link between child maltreatment and psychological problems with disorganized and/or insecure attachment (Pearce & Pezzot-Pearce, 1994). Issues of attachment, including abuse and neglect, have been recognized in a cluster of disorders that result in similar symptomotology.

Reactive Attachment Disorder, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children, disorganized attachment, and abuse and neglect that does not meet other criteria, can result in attachment and time perception deficits (Alston, 2000; American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Stafford, Zeanah, & Scheeringa, 2003; Zilberstein, 2006). Normal attachment between a child and caregiver develops from the quality of their interactions. Interactions described as sensitive, affectionate or delighting are viewed as positive while interactions described as over-involved, neglectful, or pressuring are seen as problematic for the development of the child (Britner, Marvin, & Pianta, 2005). Children with attachment disorders may have early relationships with caregivers that frequently are typified by physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Among some of the most difficult to reach, the number of children with attachment issues are increasing (Straus, 2005), but very little has been written to help staff meet the needs of these children (Racusin, Maerlender, Sengupat, Isquith, & Straus, 2005).

Three commonly sited theoretical explanations for the attachment problems come from Bowlby, Erickson and more recently neurobiologists. The earliest theoretical explanation for disorders of attachment came from Bowlby's Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1973). Ocasio and Knight (2003) believe attachment disorders can best be explained as a lack of basic trust in caregivers, as described by Erikson. A third theoretical explanation is based on neurobiological processes. Glaser (2000) cites a body of research demonstrating neurobiological differences in the brains of children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect. These children have demonstrated cognitive deficits, resulting in delayed executive functioning, including problems processing the world around them, and moving purposefully through the day. These functions are key to success in school, and in later life. Table 1 presents the executive function deficits often associated with attachment and time perception disorders.

Emotional Deficits

Whatever theoretical explanation is used, researchers and persons who work with children agree that abuse, neglect, pathogenic care and trauma have common results for children both emotionally and cognitively. Early childhood abuse or neglect can limit a child's normal developmental activities, resulting in significant emotional problems (Miller, 2003). These problems often manifest themselves as poor coping skills in the classroom. Children of neglect may feel very little control over events and attempt to exert control in the classroom. These control issues often create a barrier to effective learning and tend to hinder the development of the teacher-student relationship (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1992).

Cognitive Deficits

In addition to delays in self control, children who have experienced neglect frequently demonstrate problems with core cognitive, language and social functions (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000; Minnis, Marwick, & Arthur, 2006). Research studies of children with secure and insecure attachments show opposing capabilities and behaviors related to cognitive development (DeRuiter & Van Ijzendoorn, 1993). If a child senses a threat, the amygdala floods the brain with neurochemicals before the higher brain can respond (Perry, 1995). This flooding brings about a lengthy state of arousal causing the brain to remain on high alert for an extended period. Such extended arousal affects the ability of the cortex to develop normally, and to assimilate and understand complex information such as language and time perception. …

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