NCFY Reads: 'The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook'

Photograph of a sad looking young boy.

“The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook”
by Bruce D. Perry
and Maia Szalavitz

A child psychiatrist shares his experiences with memorable young clients to explain how childhood trauma can impact brain development. Written with the help of a science and health journalist, this book compellingly shows how abuse and neglect can impact a child’s physical, emotional and social growth.

When Bruce D. Perry became a child psychiatrist in the 1980s, the field paid little attention to how psychological trauma shaped the brain. Many scientists and helping professionals of the era believed that children could simply bounce back from years of abuse and neglect.

In “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook,” Perry chronicles his work with severely traumatized children and the lessons he learned from them about trauma’s lasting effects. His evolution as a psychologist in some ways mirrors the youth work field’s progression, over the past two or three decades, toward a trauma-informed model of care. Combining human drama and clear-eyed science writing, Perry gives readers a sense of just how important it is to understand the needs of traumatized children and youth, and to choose interventions that promote healing where their minds and bodies need it most.

Making the Brain-Body Connection

Each chapter in “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” tells the story of a child whose brain has been ‘rewired’ by his or her traumatic experiences. A seven-year-old girl accused of lewd sexual behavior, for example, doesn’t know how to interact with male classmates after years of sexual abuse. A violent teenager accused of murder can’t relate to people around him because his mother ignored him daily for hours on end.

Aided by collaborator Maia Szalavitz, a science and health journalist, Perry weaves into his stories fascinating facts about brain science and how a child’s brain grows. The key to healthy physical, social and emotional development, he writes, is for children to get the right types of experiences at the right stages of childhood. He writes:

The fact that the brain develops sequentially—and also so rapidly in the first years of life—explains why extremely young children are at such great risk of suffering lasting effects of trauma: their brains are still developing. The same miraculous plasticity that allows young brains to quickly learn love and language, unfortunately, also makes them highly susceptible to negative experiences as well.

In other words, when normal experiences are replaced by stressful events, like the violence and neglect Perry’s clients experienced, the brain can put itself on high alert. Parts of the brain stop growing and, in effect, become frozen in time. Young people whose brains have undergone this type of stunting may act differently than other children and teens, bursting out suddenly, having trouble controlling their actions or finding it hard to concentrate.

One of the book’s key takeaways, and one of extreme interest to youth workers, is that the brain can be reshaped by services that stimulate the specific areas of the brain that have broken down. Perry writes of a young girl who, after being left for dead in a home invasion, reenacts her mother’s murder during therapy. Disturbing as they are, her reenactments satisfy her brain’s need to process the event in small, manageable doses, Perry contends. Similarly, a young boy raised in a cage surrounded by dogs takes music and speech therapy classes to learn basic communication skills most children pick up at home.

Perry doesn’t minimize the strength and patience it takes for young people and their care providers to roll back the effects of years of abuse. But he does offer hope that healing can happen.

9-5 pm Eastern