Types of Child Maltreatment have Different Impacts on how Children Learn Social Behavior
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Rewarding good behavior, punishing bad behavior, and redirecting a child to help show him or her how to act or behave across situations are tried and true reinforcement strategies that parents use every day. What Boys Town has known for years is that while these strategies work for most children, not everyone benefits as much as others – especially children who have suffered from abuse or neglect.
A new study from the
Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research in Children, looked specifically at reward and punishment processing, known as reinforcement processing, in children with a history of abuse or neglect. What they found was neglect, not abuse, was associated with reduced brain responses to the receipt of reward. Findings from this study demonstrate the neurodevelopmental impact of childhood maltreatment, particularly neglect, has on a child's ability to learn from reinforcement as well as the impact it has on developing serious behavioral problems.
“It is important to understand how maltreatment affects different types of core processes necessary for socialization. That can help inform and bolster how we intervene," stated
Karina Blair, Ph.D., research scientist at Boys Town.
Many children who come to
Boys Town have a history or abuse or neglect. The incidence of exposure to early life stressors in childhood is extremely high with 1 in 8 children in the United States experiencing some form of maltreatment by 18 years of age. Child neglect is identified as the failure of a parent or caregiver to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision that a child needs to remain healthy and safe from harm.
Previous studies have typically grouped together these two early life stressors. This new research from Boys Town separated the two to better understand the developmental impact of each specific childhood stressor so that better and more effective interventions can be created to help every child.
This research provides a baseline to why traditional reinforcement learning may not be as effective for children who have experienced neglect. Boys Town can then move forward in developing and studying new intervention methods, as well as enhancing current methods, to continue to help more children who struggle with the lasting impacts of neglect. These findings are important not only to the youth care work at Boys Town, but for all who work with children who have experienced neglect.
“To quote Father Flanagan, he said, 'There is no such thing as a bad boy, only bad environment, bad modeling and bad teaching.' Boys Town continues to work every day to uncover ways to help every child reach a positive and successful future, no matter what the child experienced in his or her past," said Dr. Blair.
Read the entire study here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2021.101051
The study was conducted at Boys Town. Participants included 142 adolescents ages 14-18 with varying levels of past abuse or neglect. The participants received an fMRI scan while performing a learning task that would engage the area of the brain that responds when stimulated to engage in a reward or avoid a punishment. Researchers found the level of neglect was negatively associated with responses to reward and punishment. They also found that the level of neglect was associated with the level of behavioral problems, meaning higher levels of neglect corelated with higher incidence for conduct and aggression difficulties.