One of the major questions of human development is how early experience impacts the course of development years later. Children adopted from institutional care experience varying levels of deprivation in their early life followed by qualitatively better care in an adoptive home, providing a unique opportunity to study the lasting effects of early deprivation and its timing. The effects of age at adoption from institutional care are discussed for multiple domains of social and behavioral development within the context of several prominent developmental hypotheses about the effects of early deprivation (cumulative effects, experience-expectant developmental programming, and experience-adaptive developmental programming). Age at adoption effects are detected in a majority of studies, particularly when children experienced global deprivation and were assessed in adolescence. For most outcomes, institutionalization beyond a certain age is associated with a step-like increase in risk for lasting social and behavioral problems, with the step occurring at an earlier age for children who experienced more severe levels of deprivation. Findings are discussed in terms of their concordance and discordance with our current hypotheses, and speculative explanations for the findings are offered.
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These meta-analyses utilized an internationally adopted sample that was not exclusively institution-reared, but most studies included a majority of institution-reared children.
An additional meta-analysis (van den Dries et al. 2009) did not report whether participants were institution-reared, but will still be included in this review because the majority of component studies focused on institution-reared children.
Over half of the Chinese sample experienced an average of 8.4 months of foster care, so it is possible that this Chinese sample was less deprived than otherwise might be expected.
A strict understanding of sensitive periods suggests that sensitive periods lie at the level of circuits, not complex behaviors like those described here (Zeanah et al. 2011). While this discussion considers only complex behaviors, it is understood that multiple circuit-level sensitive periods underlie these behaviors.
Reactive attachment disorder
Disinhibited social behavior
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This research was supported by NICHD grants HD39017 and HD050212 to Robert B. McCall and Christina J. Groark. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NICHD or NIH. The author is grateful to Robert B. McCall, Celia Brownell, Susan B. Campbell, Daniel S. Shaw, and Junlei Li for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
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Julian, M.M. Age at Adoption from Institutional Care as a Window into the Lasting Effects of Early Experiences. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 16, 101–145 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0130-6