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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • The news (posted here) that 2 boys aged 11 and 10 have been convicted of sadistically attacking and torturing other young boys has lead the media to question why they did it. Most newspapers have focused on the neglect and abuse the boys suffered at the hands of their parents and particularly their violent father. As I wrote in my last blog post this early history of abuse and neglect often leads to damaged brain development. However, this explanation doesn’t go far enough. Despite many children being abused and neglected very few go on to sadistically torture other children- see paper here reviewing the evidence. Therefore there has to been an additional explanation for such unusual behaviour. The key lies in understanding the development of empathy and distinguishing this from theory of mind (ToM). ToM relates to understanding other peoples mental states. Empathy is the ability to understand other peoples emotional states and to respond with appropriate emotion -as Simon Baron Cohen describes – experiencing an emotion triggered by other peoples emotion. People without empathy as considered psychopaths. They understand what other people are thinking or feeling (ToM) but do not feel the emotion themselves. They may feel a discordant feeling such as pleasure in response to other peoples pain or distress. Can this develop in children? Empathy normally develops at a very young age (about 14 months) and in my opinion is driven by genes- see some recent research here on this. I think therefore that this must develop in early childhood. There is likely to be a genetic predisposition that is triggered or made worst by an abusive childhood. Remember that in this case the children shared in part their violent father’s genes. The parent’s genes and experience will in turn shape the environment that the children are brought up in, thus leading to a toxic feedback cycle. Whilst it is difficult to think of children being psychopaths I fear that this is possible, although rare. I have probably seen about 10 children in my carer (out of 1000′s) with this presentation. It is difficult to know what you do about it other than try and minimize the resultant risks (which hasn’t happened in this case) or perhaps to intervene very early – although I am not aware of research showing that you can change this. To read more about the development of empathy see chapter 14 Social Neuroscience by Simon Baron Cohen and Bhismadev Chakrabati in our book Child Neuropsychology: Concepts, Theory, and Practice
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  • Children’s welfare and development entered UK politics yesterday with David Cameron the Conservative leader talking about the warmth of parenting being more important than poverty in outcomes with poor children. Polly Tonybee in the Guardian wrote a stinging reply. This prompted me to think about my experience as a child psychologist with children from neglected backgrounds. For the past 13 years some of my work has involved assessing children in care, both residential and foster care. This has shown me how damaging early experience of abuse and neglect is for children, how it is reinforced and not addressed. It is a big problem. There are approximately 60000 children in care in the UK . The number of children with a child protection plan is increasing every year. The vast majority of children that I see in this context have cognitive, social and emotional difficulties. It is rare to see a good outcome. In the UK 12% of children in care get 5 GCSE passes compared to 59% in the general population. 23% of adult prison population were in care as children, 42% of prostitutes had been in care and 45% have mental health problems.

    In my experience there is often a common pathway. There is a history of concern about abuse and neglect dating from birth. Often the parents themselves had a history of abuse which they cope with by taking drugs and alcohol. They have no experience of good parenting themselves. Women often end up with partners who perpetuate abuse in the form of domestic violence. Many children are placed on and off the Child Protection Register during early childhood. Eventually (normally from age 8-13) they are placed in foster care. The children in residential care seem to have had several foster placements break down first. By the time they are placed in residential care it is too late to change the situation. By this stage children start to become involved in drugs, gangs, criminal behaviour, start underachieving educationally and in the case of young women engage in abusive relationships. Obviously this doesn’t happen to everyone but I would estimate it does in 70% of the cases I see. The cost to society is massive and the cycle of problems continues.

    What is also often missing in the debate is the effect on the brain of abuse and neglect. The first five years of life are crucial in terms of brain development. A recent study by Evans and Schamberg looked at the effect of childhood poverty and stress on working memory and explains the mechanism by which this happens. For a review of the literature on neglect and brain development in general see this paper by Danya Glaser. My own data and experience shows a large proportion of children in care with learning problems, neuro-developmental difficulties, self regulation problems and difficulties with social relationships. Waiting until a child is a teenager and then putting them in prison, giving them counseling or criticizing them doesn’t work. Their brains are already damaged. Trying to blame their parents or fine them doesn’t work either. Often they can’t cope in life due to their own history of abuse, drug addiction or neurodevelopmental problems.

    In my opinion the state has to intervene at an early age to break this cycle. There was recently an interesting article by Camilla Batmangheldjh in The Times about the need for good child protection to break the cycle of violence. There may be a need to remove children much earlier from the damaging home environment and place them in care rather than wait for the damage to occur, reinforce it with several short term placements and then put them in residential care in their teens. It would be better for children to return back to parents without the early damage. It may be that providing very high levels of one to one support in the home situation would help. Leaving it to the parents to change by themselves or expecting them to change through nagging,criticism or simple intervention won’t work. Ignoring the problem won’t work. The fundamental point is the need to intervene early to change the inevitable brain damage that occurs. These children are often forgotten. Few people look out for them and I wish this would change. In my opinion it is not just about blaming poverty or blaming parents but seeing the cycle of abuse and neglect that occurs through generations, seeing how this affects brain development and then trying to intervene to stop that cycle perpetuating. Is this possible? Despite yesterday’s debate I don’t see any political party in the UK addressing this properly yet.

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