The Most Serious Threat to a Child's Healthy Development is the Absence of Responsiveness from a Parent

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I've seen this picture floating around on the internet. The left brain is that of a three-year-old who experienced normal cognitive growth in the first three years of life. The one on the left is of a child who experienced extreme neglect in the first years of life. It is amazing that we can now see how important the interaction between a child and caregiver is to cognitive development. I know when I saw this imagine I thought, "Aw. That poor child who experienced neglect, to no fault of his own, is clearly starting life behind the other child who experienced normal cognitive growth. I'm so glad my child hasn't suffered from neglect." But, according to Paul Tough's book Helping Children Succeed, this is where we as parents have to be very careful because "neglect doesn't mean abuse in the traditional sense, but the mere absence of responsiveness from a parent or caregiver."

According to Tough, there exists a whole spectrum of environmental factors that fall short of the traditional definition of trauma but still have an adverse effect on brain development. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that one of the most serious threats to a child's healthy development is the absence of responsiveness from a parent. When children are neglected, especially in infancy, their nervous systems experience it as a threat to their well-being, and researchers have found that neglect can do MORE long-term harm to a child than physical abuse. 

I know I spent a lot of time surfing the internet, or listening to podcasts when my baby was up during the middle of the night. And, now that she's two, there are definitely times that I am on my phone or have to get something done when she's around, preventing me from giving her 100% of my attention. It's impossible to provide that to your child when you're required to do other adult things, like respond to a work Email, or make dinner or, God forbid, enjoy a 5-minute conversation with your friend or spouse. It is never my intention to guilt anyone for how much or how little time they can set aside to fully engage with their child, but to simply share what the research says about the importance of each and every interaction you do get to provide..


The brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, 95% in the first five. But, according to Dana Suskind in Thirty Million Words, "the brain doesn't just grow in positive ways on its own."  "The way parents shape the development of a child happens through the sharing of energy and information," according to Daniel Siegel of the Mindsight Institute. "When you drive energy through a relationship, in how you communicate, you're actually driving energy through the senses of a child. Those streams of energy are going through the nervous system, and as the child is having those experiences, neuronal firing is happening, making connections in the brain, wiring the architecture of the brain." Interactions between young children and their caregivers quite literally build the architecture for the child's brain. Building a sturdy foundation in the earliest years provides a solid base for mental function, life-long learning and overall health. 

The good news is that what a child needs to develop optimally is free, and available to all caregivers immediately. The more challenging news, is that optimal cognitive development is completely dependent on the caregiver providing a warm, loving language-rich home environment full of plenty positive serve-and-return interactions. In fact, Suskind states that every single word spoken to a child builds the architecture of their brain. Serve-and-return interactions, including eye contact, touch, singing and conversation, are said to be the bricks that lay a strong foundation for all other healthy development. Research shows that without a sturdy foundation, to support future development, children are at risk for a life-time of health problems, developmental issues and even addiction. 

I feel so fortunate to be living in a time where such incredible insights are being discovered through research. Just a decade ago, we had no little idea what was happening in the brain based on our environment. Now, we have research-based practices that show us exactly how we can ensure our children are receiving what they need for optimal development. And, the best part, to me, is that it doesn't require some fancy program, or expensive technology; it simply requires parents to lovingly engage with their children.

To learn research-bsaed strategies to intentionally and mindfully engage with your children, sign up for Calma's Mindful Parenting Workshop, or contact me for more information