Understanding the effects of trauma

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A unique study at the University has concluded that experiencing profound disruption and neglect in early childhood can have a lasting impact into early adulthood.

Academics at Southampton, in collaboration with colleagues at Kings College London, followed the mental health of a group of children adopted from Romanian institutions to UK families, in the 1990s.

The English and Romanian Adoptees study has been published in The Lancet and is the first large-scale work to follow children who had been subjected to severe deprivation and then track how their mental health has been affected.

The study analyses 165 children who spent time in Romanian institutions where they were subjected to extremely poor hygiene, insufficient food, little care and no social or cognitive stimulation, and who were adopted by UK families between the ages of two weeks and 43 months.

Comparing against 52 children adopted within the UK, the study has followed them throughout their childhood using questionnaires, IQ tests and interviews to analyse social, emotional and cognitive outcomes at ages six, 11 and 15.

The latest part of the study, led by Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke while he was at the University of Southampton (Dr Jana Kreppner, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychopathology, is now the Southampton academic lead), followed the adoptees up to the ages of 22 to 25 years old.

The study found that those who had lived in Romanian institutions for more than six months had higher rates of social problems including autistic features, difficulties engaging with others, inattention and over-activity, which persisted from childhood into adulthood. They were also three to four times more likely to experience emotional problems as adults, and had lower educational attainment and employment rates than the other UK and Romanian adoptees. This all despite living in strong and supportive families for over 20 years.

Edmund, who is now at King’s College London, said:

Being exposed to very severe conditions in childhood can be associated with lasting and deep-seated social, emotional and cognitive problems, which are complex and vary over time.

The study is being seen as particularly timely given the current issue of mass migration where children are suffering trauma as a result of exposure to war, terrorism, displacement or violence.

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