In chapter four of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Perry writes about a rare case of a four-year-old girl who is underweight. Laura, the four-year-old girl, cannot seem to gain any weight despite being provided a high-calorie diet. Laura has visited several specialists and has undergone several tests but doctors are unable to find the root cause to her sickness. A psychologist even thinks that the child might have infantile anorexia. Dr. Perry, a psychiatrist, is asked to look into this case. When Dr. Perry arrives to the girl’s hospital room, he quickly realizes that the problem might be between the mother and daughter because there is no interaction. Dr. Perry decides to interview the mom, Virginia, to learn more about her. It is during this interview that Dr. Perry realizes that Virginia is the reason for her daughter’s underweight problem. Virginia was a foster child so she moved around several foster homes and as a result was unable to attach to any of her caregivers. Since Virginia did not experience affection growing up, she did not know how to show affection to her daughter. This affected Laura’s development; her body could not release the hormones needed for growth. In order to help this family, Dr. Perry had another mother and child move in with Virginia and Laura. The idea was for Virginia to see and learn how to show affection to her daughter by hugging, kissing, and rocking. Laura eventually gained weight because now she was receiving the physical nurture that allowed her brain to release the hormones for growth.
According to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Laura who is four years old should be in the early school age stage. At this stage, developmental tasks should be gender identification, early moral development, self-theory, and peer play (Newman & Newman, 2011). Children will begin to identify with their gender, they will identify with girls or boys based on how they look, what they like, and what they have learned from adults. Children will also develop morality, they will learn how one ‘should’ behave. Furthermore, self-theory develops as children begin to think about themselves, what they like, who they are in this world, and what their future might be like for them (Newman & Newman, 2011). Lastly, children begin to interact with other peers from school and develop interpersonal skills. Therefore, at this stage the psychosocial crisis is initiative versus guilt (Newman & Newman, 2011). Children begin to take initiative by coming up with new games and trying to lead others. If supported they may start to feel secure about their decisions so they start taking initiative. However, if adults or peers punish them or disagree with their decision then it will bring guilt. The central process is identification, as stated before, they begin to identify who they are in this world. The radius of significant relationships are parents, close relatives, siblings, and peers. If there is a positive resolution to the psychosocial crisis then the prime adaptive ego quality is purpose. However, if it was ineffective, then the core pathology is inhibition. Unfortunately, Laura is not at this stage, she is still at the infancy stage because attachment, communication, and emotions are not developed.
In Laura’s case, we can see how policies affect families, their behavior and development. Virginia did not have her parents from the start, she was a foster child growing up. In the past, a welfare policy only allowed children to stay with foster parents up to six months. Every six months children had to be moved to different homes and, due to this, children could not develop an attachment with their caregivers. As Dr. Perry mentions, a child needs consistent caregivers for a healthy development. Unfortunately, Virginia did not have this consistency since she had to move every six months. At age five, she finally found a caring family who was willing to adopt her. However, once again she was ripped away from those she started to care for and love. The state did not terminate the parental rights of her biological parents so she could not be adopted. When she turned 18 years old, the state was no longer responsible and did not allow her foster parents to keep in touch. This lack of attachment and affection forced Virginia to seek out love which resulted in her pregnancy. All on her own, she took care of her daughter but did not know to show affection through physical contact because she did not experience it herself. Consequently, Laura had problems growing because of the lack of affection. The barrier in this case is that Virginia does not know how to develop attachment through physical contact. Virginia did not have the maternal instincts and the support from any friends or family members.
Attachment, brain development, arousal continuum, and relationships interrupted Laura’s normal development. Attachment is developed when an adult is present and interacts with the baby consistently (Newman & Newman, 2011). Laura’s mom, Virginia, unfortunately did not know how to express her love through physical contact. Physical nurture is crucial for children’s growth (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). Since there was a lack of physical nurture, Laura did not have the stimulation for her body to release the hormones needed for growth. In other words, children get pleasure from receiving love which releases hormones that allows them to grow (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). The brain needs stimulation in order to develop, but, since Laura did not receive this stimulation then certain areas of her brain could not completely develop. Furthermore, when a child is under threat or stress it will cause a shift in the arousal continuum (Newman & Newman, 2011). Meaning that during stress, emotions and behavior will escalate. These physical and mental changes help us prepare ourselves when under stress. The child responds to the threat by either fighting back or running away. If parents help their children cope with stress then children can control themselves when under stress. However, in Laura’s case, no attachment was developed meaning the mother could not help her child cope with stress properly affecting her development. Lastly, the fact that Virginia could not build attachments lead her to also not build relationships. Not only could she not build relationships but from the start she did not have anyone that was with her consistently to support her. Relationships are crucial for development because they serve as a support system, role models, and even resources (Newman & Newman, 2011). Newman and Newman (2011) state that relationships impact both emotional and cognitive development. Virginia did not have someone by her side to show her how to take care of her baby and how to show affection.
In sum, Dr. Perry notes the importance of responding to children trauma early. If children are not allowed to develop this can have a negative impact in their future. Dr. Perry gives the example of children learning to speak a new language. When a child is not exposed early to the new language, he or she might not be able to speak it fluently. The child can learn the new language later on but will now speak with an accent. Children who experience trauma need to seek help right away and receive the right intervention to help them develop fully before it is too late. If Virginia was not taught the importance of showing affection to Laura then Laura would continue having physical and emotional problems.
Newman, B.M. & Newman, P.R. (2011). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist's notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.