A number of sad things can happen to a child who’s been institutionalized. While the term “institutionalized” mostly refers to children who have been taken in as orphans, it’s actually surprisingly appropriate as a way to describe children who go to boarding schools as well. At any rate, while you can’t extrapolate these realities to everyone who goes through institutions, it’s common for institutionalized children to exhibit certain negative traits as a result of their time there.

First of all, there’s a difference between children institutionalized for a short period of time versus those who are there for a long time. Under short-term care, children seemed to exhibit stress in physical, personal, social, and environmental factors. Significantly, these children used rational-emotive coping strategies to overcome the stress of the experience, but it’s very different for children who are there long-term. They use avoidance coping, which has longer-term negative effects.

Most of the time, you won’t see a significantly different level of social skills in institutionalized children compared to other children, but you will see that they lack intellectual stimulation due to their environment. On top of the necessity of avoidance coping, these children are deprived of the stimulation that helps them to be mature and functioning adults later on in life. Even worse, these children are at a greater risk of psychopathology.

It gets even worse for institutionalized children who are also disabled in some way. They tend to have more issues related to fantasy, conduct impairment, external locus of control, and more. You can imagine that the institutions raising these children don’t have the resources or the personalized attention that these kids desperately need. It’s a tragic situation that there’s even a term like the “orphan brain” to describe the particular issues inherent in institutionalized children.

Fortunately, there are some solutions that can help, but they really center around the quality of the institutions for these kids. A child-friendly, supportive environment in these institutions will go a long way in improving a child’s problem-solving skills, reducing both the frequency and intensity of a child’s anger, and helping them to develop stronger interpersonal relationships.

There is hope for these children if we can put more of a focus on providing an atmosphere that closely mimics the life of a child raised by loving parents or guardians. Nothing is more important than providing meaningful relationships in child-care institutions for the kids.

Source: Naidu, P. J. (July, 2012). Neutralizing Institutionalization. In Journal of Social Work.

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