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Byline: Elsa C. Arnett Knight Ridder Newspapers

From all appearances, Anna, 14, led an ordinary if not privileged life. Her parents loved her and did all they could to ensure that she lived in a safe neighborhood, attended top schools, ate well and had the hippest clothes and rock CDs.

But just a few weeks ago, Anna ran away from home. She was never beaten or molested. Instead, her father and mother may have committed a less visible form of abuse that child psychologists believe might be even more dangerous.

Anna says they didn't find the time to get to know her friends, they didn't ask what her day was like at school and they didn't try to understand how disappointed she was when she did poorly on a science test.

Hurtling between their jobs and other commitments, ``her parents were so terribly focused on their own activities, it made her feel like she wasn't worth an awful lot,'' said psychologist N.G. Berrill, director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science in Brooklyn, who treated the patient he refers to as Anna.

To Anna's well-intentioned parents, the idea that they may have neglected her came as a shock. But psychologists say emotional neglect is a hidden danger in modern American life. And researchers are discovering that neglect severely damages intellectual and social development.

The good news is that researchers believe a few minutes of thoughtful attention every day may be enough to give children the security and confidence they need to become healthy adults.

Without such interaction, neglected children become withdrawn, anti-social and insecure, and have difficulty making friends and maintaining relationships. Even more alarming, they tend to do significantly worse at school - from elementary through high school - than children who were physically or sexually abused.

This warning comes at a time when strains on family life that can lead to neglect are on the rise.

Growing numbers of mothers with children under 6 are working - more than three out of five in 1997, compared with fewer than one in five in 1960. Parents are facing longer commutes and more hours away from home. And more single moms and dads are struggling to raise kids on their own.

Serious damage

When parents can't find the time to hug, make eye contact with, encourage, talk to and develop relationships with their children, researchers say, the damage can be enormous, affecting everything from brain development to future relations with spouses or children.

``If you asked me to take a 6-month-old and choose between breaking every bone in its body or emotionally ignoring it for two months, I'd say the baby would be better off if you broke every bone in its body,'' said Dr. Bruce Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

``Bone tissue is different from brain tissue. Bones can heal. But if an infant misses out on two months of crucial brain stimulation, you will have a forever disorganized brain,'' he added.

Parents may have a hard time accepting that failing to listen to their children after school or read them a bedtime story might somehow be worse than breaking their bones.

But researchers say neglect is a subtle danger that can cause a lifetime of damage.

Unlike physical abuse, where a child can see its scars and other adults, such as teachers or relatives, can notice them too and try to help, the scars from emotional neglect are buried deep in a child's mind.

``Emotional neglect is insidious,'' said Dr. Richard Rutkin, a clinical psychologist in New York City. ``You end up disliking yourself and becoming angry at other people.''

Psychologists are as sympathetic to parents as they are to the children.

``Every parent is trying to do the best he or she can. They've got jobs, finances and sometimes depression or substance abuse problems to worry about,'' said Los Angeles psychologist and author Lucy Papillon. ``Parents who are emotionally neglectful are often overwhelmed with life generally.''

A child's need

But they hope to make more parents aware of their children's urgent need for attention. Parents, they say, must understand that the ability to love, trust and develop lasting relationships does not come instinctively. Along with such basic skills as walking, speaking and writing, people have to learn emotional skills. If certain experiences are absent, the brain grows with a deficit.

Alarmed by the dangers, a number of federal agencies are beginning a long-term research effort this spring to assess the causes and consequences of childhood neglect in more detail. As much as $16 million is expected to be spent on 11 to 15 research projects to be completed within the next five years.

The National Institutes of Health is coordinating the work, with the Department of Justice, the Education Department and other federal sponsors contributing.

Nobody knows exactly how many children are emotionally neglected. Experts suspect the vast majority of cases are simply not reported, and national abuse statistics are not organized in ways that make it easy to even guess at the scope of the problem.

Statistics that do exist indicate that more than half of the 3 million children who come to the attention of child protective services each year have been neglected in a wide variety of ways. About an additional quarter are physically abused and nearly 15 percent are sexually abused, according to statistics collected in 1997 by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

While few parents go to the extreme of completely shutting out their children, some child psychologists who have studied the problem estimate that as many as one in three children live in homes where they are not given adequate emotional nurturing.

Emotional neglect can develop when well-intentioned parents become so overwhelmed and preoccupied they end up cutting corners when it comes to spending time with their children, researchers say.

Not enough time

A 1998 University of Michigan study of 2,394 families across the nation found that fewer than half of parents said they found time for an adequate number of everyday activities with their children, activities like looking at books, working on homework, talking about the family, playing games, folding laundry or preparing food.

Even when they manage to set aside a few free moments, many parents are so weary they don't have the energy to interact with their kids constructively.

Lack of time or energy isn't the only problem. Parents who stay home all day with their children but are depressed, or who try to juggle tasks while their kids languish in front of the television, can also emotionally neglect their kids.

So can parents who think they are doing what is best for their kids by enrolling them in a full schedule of educational and athletic activities instead of giving them ordinary playtime with mom and dad.

The solutions, psychologists say, don't require money or even that much time. Parents simply need to seize on all the little moments in a day when a smile, a hug or a few kind words can make the difference between isolation and affection.

It may mean taking a few minutes - putting down the telephone, a book or the remote control - to listen to what a child has to say and give a thoughtful response. Or it may mean that the time spent walking or driving a child to school is used to ask about the child's day, not absorbed in thoughts about chores that must be accomplished.

If there really isn't a moment to spare, it may mean explaining to the child why this isn't a good time and assuring him you'll get to it later, instead of groaning impatiently.

``We all need to learn how to become parents,'' said psychologist Martha Edwards. ``And we need to realize that the time we spend with our kids now will come back to us with many, many returns.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 21, 1999

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