Changes in Brain in Adoptive Children May Make Strangers, Friends

A disturbing new study has found that the brains of children, whose bonds with their moms early in the their lives were disrupted, show changes because of it.  And this is important for adoptive parents to know.

According to, "Children who experience profound neglect have been found to be more prone to a behavior known as 'indiscriminate friendliness,' characterized by an inappropriate willingness to approach adults, including strangers."

The studies were done on children in orphanages or other institutions before they were adopted.  The research found that these children "show(ed) similar responses to their adoptive mother and to strangers in a brain structure called the amygdala."  Thhis part of the brain is associated with emotion.

But the good news is, for children never raised in an institutional setting before adoption, the amygdala is far more active in response to the adoptive mother, reports.

"The early relationship between children and their parents or primary caregivers has implications for their social interaction later in life, and we believe the amygdala is involved in this process," the Web site quotes Aviva Olsavsky, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and the study's first author. "Our findings suggest that even for children who have formed attachments to their adoptive parents, this early period of deprivation has led to changes in the brain that were likely adaptations and that may persist over time."

But it's not friendliness so much as a "lack of reticence" to strangers, the Web site notes.

"This can be a very frightening behavior for parents," quotes Nim Tottenham, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA and the study's senior author. "The stranger anxiety or wariness that young children typically show is a sign that they understand their parents are very special people who are their source of security. That early emotional attachment serves as a bedrock for many of the developmental processes that follow."

Research showed that, while the adoptive children (not institutionalized) exhibited higher amygdala signals for pictures of their mothers relative to pictures of strangers, "the previously institutionalized youths showed amygdala responses to strangers that were similar to those they showed toward their adoptive mothers," relates.

Does this mean parents shouldn't adopt?  Of course not.  It's just that the brains of these children had to possibly adapt, in their earlier years, to not having maternal connections, and it's a signal that adoptive parents of children who have been in an orphanage or other institution may need more help in recognizing  people they can safely trust.


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