Stress sensitization among severely neglected children and protection by social enrichment

Mark Wade, Charles H. Zeanah, Nathan A. Fox, Florin Tibu, Laura E. Ciolan, Charles A. Nelson - Nature Communications


Childhood adversity may sensitize certain individuals to later stress which triggers or amplifies psychopathology. The current study uses data from a longitudinal randomized controlled trial to examine whether severe early neglect among children reared in institutions increases vulnerability to the effects of later stressful life events on externalizing problems in adolescence, and whether social enrichment in the form of high-quality foster care buffers this risk. Children abandoned to Romanian institutions were randomly assigned to a foster care intervention or care-as-usual during early childhood. A sample of never-institutionalized children served as a comparison group. Here we report that, among those with prolonged institutional rearing, more stressful life events in preadolescence predicted higher externalizing problems in adolescence. This effect was not observed for never-institutionalized children or those in foster care, thus providing experimental evidence that positive caregiving experiences protect against the stress-sensitizing effects of childhood neglect on externalizing problems in adolescence.

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