The Psychological Difficulties of Orphans

A new study reveals the beneficial effects of fostering in contrast to orphanages

A study conducted on abandoned children shows that growing up in an orphanage inhibits both early mental and physical development. The study also showed that foster care can undo these negative effects to a certain degree, especially in case of girls.

The team tested 136 abandoned Romanian children placed in institutional care as part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Of the originally institutionalized children, 69 were randomly selected and placed in foster care. However, as the orphanage couldn't find foster parents in Bucharest for the remaining 67, they remained in the orphanage.

The researchers tested the verbal skills and intelligence, the emotional and behavioral problems, and the physical characteristics of children of various ages. They have found significant differences between boys and girls.

IQ tests conducted on children between 4 and 5 years old revealed a difference between girls in foster care and those in an orphanage but showed no difference in case of boys. Girls in foster care scored an average of 82, while those who remained at the orphanage scored only 70. On the other hand, boys scored an average of 60 regardless of whether they were fostered.

The average IQ score in the general population is around 100. The below average score is probably due to the fact that intelligence is significantly influenced by what the child experiences in early life. "Many children raised in institutions are characterized by a variety of risk factors known to be associated with risk of psychiatric disorders," says Charles Zeanah of Tulane University in New Orleans. "That includes impoverished families of origin, limited prenatal care, prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs, as well as social and material deprivation after birth."

However, the scientists don't understand exactly what causes this difference between girls and boys. Why do girls respond better to foster care, in terms of cognitive development? Is this difference caused by what happens in institutionalized care or do foster parents tend to treat boys and girls differently, for example being more talkative with girls and thus boosting their verbal skills?

"The girls placed in foster care do much better in terms of their IQ scores compared with boys," said Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland. "It's a very interesting finding. One wouldn't expect it [the sex difference] at all," said Seth Pollak, a developmental psychopathologist at the University of Wisconsin.

One possible answer was given by Zeanah. He studied emotional and behavioral disorders among fostered and institutionalized children and found that boys were more affected by behavioral disorders (such as hyperactivity and aggression) while girls were more likely to suffer from emotional disorders (such as anxiety and depression). In the same time, his team found that there was no difference between children in foster care or institutional care in case of the frequency of behavioral disorders, but on the other hand foster care tended to help in case of emotional problems.

"Girls are much more responsive to placement in foster care and have their [psychiatric] symptoms ameliorated more than boys," Zeanah notes.

The scientists discovered that psychiatric disorders were 3.5 times more common among institutionalized children than among children in normal family care.

Finally, Dana Johnson from the University of Minnesota and her colleagues studied the physical development of children in orphanages. They have found that their development was delayed - the children had noticeably lower levels of natural growth hormones. They have also discovered that in case of girls puberty was delayed, on average, by 2 years, while in case of boys it was delayed by a year and a half.

This extensive study shows that growing up in an orphanage can substantially stall early cognitive and physical development. Although foster care may reverse this to some degree there usually are permanent effects of being abandoned. The study may also give some clues of how to improve the institutionalized care.

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