Life Lessons

Absent parenting: Harm lingers for years

The human brain takes about 25 years to fully mature, but it’s the first few years of life that are developmentally critical. According to new research, a traumatic upbringing or a separation from a parent can be very harmful.

Jody Castro and her 5-year-old granddaughter, Scarlett, spend a lot of time together, just as she did with her own daughter.

"One of the things that I realized as a grandparent, when you’re raising your children, you’re also teaching them how to raise your grandchildren,” Castro said.

But what happens when parents are absent, or children are separated from them? Separation from a parent or caregiver is one of the biggest threats to early development and that includes the separation of migrant families, according to research.

"If they’re not getting the cognitive attention that they need, regardless of whether the parent is there or not, that is still going to have a negative effect on the brain and behavioral development," said Johanna Bick, director of the Laboratory of Early Experience and Development at the University of Houston.

Bick said the trauma experienced by children who have been separated can manifest itself in later life as adults who have trouble expressing emotions, difficulty relating to others or anxiety. She said caregivers should realize the impact neglect or separation can have on the brain, teach their children coping skills for stress and always pay close attention to their kids’ signals.

It’s that back and forth between caregiver and child that can help kids develop the skills they need later in life.

Bick, who helps run the Child Development Lab at the University of Houston adds that parental interaction often helps the child develop the internal regulation that they need to succeed in life, when they are all grown up.

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