I have a character who did not have much interaction with others during her childhood. Would this have any lasting effects on her?
CW: child abuse and extreme neglect are extensively discussed.
Being around other
people is CRITICAL for a child’s development.
Okay. So I’m going to talk about two levels of isolation here.
The first level is going to be the Romanian Orphanage level of neglect.
The backstory is a bit complicated, but the upshot is that Romania suddenly had a hell of a lot of unwanted children, most of which had to be raised in institutional orphanages. There were not enough caregivers for the amount of children they had to deal with.
So what ended up happening is that babies were left in their cribs, 24/7, and fed and changed on a strict schedule. The babies learned not to cry, because it didn’t make a caregiver come running any faster. They didn’t have toys; all they could do is stare at their hands or the ceiling.
That lack of stimulation was found to have pretty significantly negative effects as the kids grew up. These kids are often physically stunted – they’re not as big as they should be for their age. Their brains are often actually physically smaller. They have lower IQs. They struggle with language. They also have problems with attachment.
Things do start to get better if the character is put into a foster home quickly, but they may still have emotional and psychological problems (there are some links below for further research).
Now. The other level of isolation I’m going to talk about is, for lack of a better term, the horror stories. These are children who were raised in extreme isolation by severely abusive caretakers, if they had caretakers at all.
Most children who are completely isolated or severely deprived of interaction have not learned, or have extreme difficulties with, language.
They also have difficulty with basic motor skills. There’s something in our brain called “mirror neurons.” @scriptbrainscientist will be able to elaborate more, but basically it boils down to “Monkey see, monkey do.” We learn how to do things because we mimic the behaviors of people around us. If there’s no one around the character, they won’t know how to do things. The character won’t know how to put on clothes or tie their shoes. They won’t know how to use a fork or knife. They may not even know how to walk.
Even if the character does have some social interaction, if they are mostly isolated, the level of interaction they get isn’t enough to foster normal development.
Now. That’s not to say that the character won’t ever be able to develop language and learn those skills. This kind of thing is not seen often enough for psychologists to make that kind of a conclusion. But every report we’ve seen so far says that feral or isolated kids never reach the level of functioning of same-age peers.
The best-studied case of
a child being raised in isolation is that of a girl who was nicknamed “Genie.”
I’m putting the rest of this post under the jump because what was done to her is nothing short of horrific.