Child neglect is a form of child abuse and is a deficit in meeting a child’s basic needs. This includes the failure to provide adequate health care, supervision, clothing, nutrition, housing as well as their physical, emotional, social, educational and safety needs.

Society generally believes there are necessary behaviors a caregiver must provide in order for a child to develop physically, socially, and emotionally. Causes of neglect may result from several parenting problems including mental disorders, substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, and poverty.

Child neglect depends on how a child and society perceives the parents’ behavior.

It is not how parents believe they are behaving towards their child. Parental failure to provide for a child, when options are available, is different from failure to provide when options are not available.

Poverty and lack of resources are often contributing factors and can prevent parents from meeting their children’s needs when they otherwise would. The circumstances and intentionality must be examined before defining behavior as neglectful.

Child neglect is the most frequent form of child abuse, with children born to young mothers at substantial risk for neglect. In 2008, the U.S. state and local Child Protective Services (CPS) received 3.3 million reports of children being abused or neglected.

Seventy-one percent of the children were classified as victims of child neglect (“Child Abuse & Neglect”). Maltreated children were about five times more likely to have a first emergency department presentation for suicide-related behavior, compared to their peers, in both boys and girls.

Children permanently removed from their parental home because of substantiated child abuse, are also at an increased risk of a first presentation to the emergency department for suicide-related behavior. Neglected children are at risk of developing lifelong social, emotional and health problems, particularly if neglected before the age of two years.

What Is Child Neglect?

Neglect is difficult to define since there are no clear, cross-cultural standards for desirable or minimally adequate child-rearing practices. Research shows that neglect often coexists with other forms of abuse and adversity.

While neglect generally refers to the absence of parental care and the chronic failure to meet children’s basic needs, defining those needs has not been straightforward. In “Working Together”, theDepartment for Education and Skills (United Kingdom)defined neglect in 2006 as:

…the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment); protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger; ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Child neglect (also called psychological abuse) is commonly defined as a failure by a child’s caregiver to meet a child’s physical, emotional, educational, or medical needs.

Forms of child neglect include:

  • allowing the child to witness violence or severe abuse between parents or adult,
  • ignoring, insulting, or threatening the child with violence,
  • not providing the child with a safe environment and adult emotional support,
  • showing a reckless disregard for the child’s well-being.


The definition of child neglect is broad. There are no specific guidelines that determine when a child is being neglected; therefore, it is up to state government agencies and professional groups to determine what is considered neglect.

In general, child neglect is considered the failure of parents or caregivers to meet the needs that are necessary for the mental, physical, and emotional development of a child.

Child neglect is one of the most common forms of child maltreatment, and it continues to be a serious problem for many children. Child neglect tremendously affects thephysical development,mental development, andemotional developmentof a child causing long term consequences, such as poor academic achievement,depression (mood), and personality disorders.

These consequences also impact society, since it is more likely that children who suffered from child neglect will havedrug abuseproblems and educational failure when they grow up.

What Are the Types of Child Neglect?

There are various types of child neglect.

Image Credits: TaylorMal [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Types of neglect:

  • Physical neglect refers to the failure to provide a child with basic necessities of life such as food and clothing.
  • Medical neglect is a failure of caregivers to meet a child’s basic health care needs. Example: not brushing teeth on a daily basis, bathing a child and or taking children to doctor visits when needed.
  • Emotional neglect is failing to provide emotional support such as emotional security and encouragement.
  • Educational/developmental neglect is the failure to provide a child with experiences for necessary growth and development, such as not sending a child to school or giving him or her an education. (Barnett et al., p. 90)
  • Depending on the laws and child protection policies in one’s area, leaving a young child unsupervised may be considered neglect, especially if doing so places the child in danger.

Child neglect can also be described by degrees of severity:

  • Mild neglect is the least likely to be perceived as neglect by the child but raises the possibility of harm in ways that need intervention by the community. An example might be a parent who does not use a proper car safety seat.
  • Moderate neglect occurs when some harm to the child has occurred. An example might be a child repeatedly dressed inappropriately for the weather (e.g. shorts in winter). In cases of moderate harm, governmental agencies might be called in to assist parents.
  • Severe neglect occurs over time and results in significant harm to the child. An example might be a child with asthma being denied treatment.


Children may be left at home alone, which can result in negative consequences. Being left at home alone can leave young people feeling scared, vulnerable and not knowing when their parents are going to return. The frequency and duration of being left at home alone may range from every evening to several days or even weeks at a time.

Also, young children may not be provided with a suitable amount of decent food to eat, which is another form of neglect. Children have reported being provided with moldy food, or not having any food in the house, or they were given an insufficient amount of food.

What Are the Causes of Child Neglect?

The causes of child neglect are complex and can be attributed to three different levels: an intrapersonal, an inter-personal/family, and a social/economic level. Although the causes of neglect are varied, studies suggest that, amongst other things, parental mental health problems, substance use, domestic violence, unemployment, and poverty are factors which increase the likelihood of neglect.

Children that result from unintended pregnancies are more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect. They are also more likely to live in poverty. Neglectful families often experience a variety or a combination of adverse factors.


At the intrapersonal level, the discussion around neglectful parents’ characteristics often focuses on mothers, reflecting traditional notions of women as primary caregivers for children. “Neglectful attributes” have included an inability to plan, lack of confidence about the future, difficulty with managing money, emotional immaturity, lack of knowledge of children’s needs, a large number of children, being a teenage mother, high levels of stress and poor socioeconomic circumstances.

Mental health problems, particularly depression, have been linked with a parent’s inability to meet a child’s needs. Likewise, substance misuse is believed to play a crucial role in undermining a parent’s ability to cope with parental responsibilities.

While the literature largely focuses on mothers, the role of fathers in neglect, as well as the impact of their absence, remains largely unexplored. There is still little known about whether mothers and fathers neglect differently and how this affects children. Similarly, not much is known about whether girls and boys experience neglect differently.


At the inter-personal/family level, a significant number of neglectful families are headed by a lone mother or have a transient male. Unstable and abusive relationships have also been mentioned as increasing the risk of child neglect.

The impact of living with domestic violence on children frequently includes either direct violence or forced witnessing of abuse, which is potentially very damaging to children. While the UK Department of Health connects children’s exposure to domestic violence to parents’ failure to protect them from emotional harm, the notion of “failure to protect” has been challenged as it focuses primarily on the responsibility of the abused parent, usually the mother, who is often herself at significant risk.

A recent reform to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004) has introduced a new offense of causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult, thus reinforcing the notion of “failure to protect“. Research on domestic violence, however, has consistently shown that supporting the non-abusive parent is good child protection.

There is some indication of the cyclical and inter-generational nature of neglect. A study on childhood abuse and the mother’s later ability to be sensitive to a child’s emotions showed that mothers with a self-reported history of physical abuse had higher indications of insensitivity and lack of attunement to infants’ emotional cues than mothers with no history of abuse.

Although the literature suggests that neglectful parents may have been affected adversely by their own past experiences, more research is needed to explore the link between past experiences of maltreatment and neglectful parenting behaviors.

Alcohol and drug abuse in caregivers are important risk factors for recurrent child maltreatment after accounting for other known risk factors; the increased risk appears to be similar between alcohol and drug abuse.


At the social/economic level, the association between poverty and neglect has frequently been made. A study of the maltreatment of children by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children supports the association between neglect and lower socio-economic class.

US studies have shown that less affluent families are more likely to be found to maltreat their children, particularly in the form of neglect and physical abuse, than affluent families. Some argue that many forms of physical neglect, such as inadequate clothing, exposure to environmental hazards and poor hygiene may be directly attributed to poverty whereas others are more cautious in making a direct link.

Studies have shown that parents in a low socioeconomic level are less likely to purchase resources needed for their children, which makes them experience school failure at a more frequent level. While poverty is believed to increase the likelihood of neglect, poverty does not predetermine neglect. Many low-income families are not neglectful but provide loving homes for their children.

However, when poverty coexists with other forms of adversity, it can negatively impact the parent’s ability to cope with stressors and undermine their capacity to adequately respond to their child’s needs. It can also mean that parents who want to work are faced with the choice between being unemployed and leaving their children at home. McSherry argues that the relationship between child neglect and poverty should be seen as circular and interdependent.

Where caregiver alcohol abuse is identified, children are significantly more likely to experience multiple incidents of neglect compared with children where this is not identified, as were children where other family risk factors (including markers of socioeconomic disadvantage) are found.

The Role of Parenting Styles

The patterns of repetitive behavior point out that a cycle of violence repeats. Research on the correlation between child neglect and parenting styleshas shown that those who suffered from parental neglect tend to have problems in relationships as adults.

The attachment style of children of abusive parents was less secure compared to children withauthoritative caregivers. Children who suffered from physical and emotional abuse are more likely to have an insecure attachment, such as preoccupied, dismissive, or fearful. There are three parenting styles that lead to child neglect: authoritarian, permissive, and disengaged styles.

What Are the Effects of Child Neglect?

Effects of child neglect can differ depending on the individual and how much treatment is provided, but generally speaking child neglect that occurs in the first two years of a child’s life may be more of an important precursor of childhood aggression compared to later neglect, which may not have as strong a correlation.

Cognitive, behavioral and emotional effects

Children who suffer from neglect most often also have difficulties, cognitive deficits, emotional/behavioral problems, and physical consequences as a result of neglect. Early neglect has the potential to modify the body’s stress response, specifically cortisol levels (stress hormones) which can cause abnormalities and alter the body’s overall health.

Research has shown that there is a relationship between neglect and disturbed patterns of infant-caretaker attachment. If parents lack sensitivity to their baby’s needs, the baby may develop insecure-anxious attachment. The neglectful behavior the child experiences will contribute to their attachment difficulties and formation of relationships in the future, or lack thereof.

In addition to biological and social effects, neglect affects intellectual ability and cognitive/academic deficits. Also, children who suffer from child neglect may also suffer from anxiety or impulse-control disorders. Another result of child neglect is what people call “failure to thrive“.

Infants who have deficits in growth and abnormal behaviors such as withdrawal, apathy, and excessive sleep are failing to thrive, rather than developing to become “healthy” individuals (Barnett et al., p 86).

Health Effects

A study by Robert Wilson, a professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and his colleagues, showed for the first time that children under the age of 18 when they were moderately neglected in some manner by their caregivers had a 3 times likely risk of stroke over those with moderately low levels, after controlling for some common risk factors (they interviewed 1,040 participants ages 55 or older; after 3 1/2 years, 257 of them died and 192 were autopsied, with 89 having stroke evidence upon autopsy and another 40 had a history of it).

Neglect, bullying, and abuse have previously been linked to changes in the brain’s grey matterandwhite matterand to accelerated aging. For further information, please see the link to the online news story article on the study, from

Child Neglect Statistics

In terms of who is reported for neglectful behavior, it is most often women. The higher proportion of females reported for neglect may reflect the social attitude that mothers are responsible for meeting the needs of their children. In recent years, latent issues for child development and for the culture and political economy that are associated with paternal neglect have received more attention, however.

Neglecting parents interact less with their children, engage in less verbal instruction and play behavior, show less affection and are involved in more negative interactions with their children, for example, verbal aggression. Often parents who neglect their children are single parents or disabled mothers who already have to care for themselves, and therefore the child is an additional stress.

This additional stress is often neglected. Family size can contribute to child neglect. If a family has several children, they may not be able to give all the children all the basic necessities needed to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, if the family cannot provide for all their children, children can suffer from neglect.

Family history can play a role in parents’ neglectful behavior. If parents were neglected as children meaning they learned neglectful behavior from their own parents, they often internalize and believe those behaviors to be the “norm”, which results in neglecting their own children (Barnett et al., p. 92).

In one study done in 2011, results showed that one in four mothers were neglectful, and neglect was four times as likely with a maternal history of physical abuse in childhood than with no history of maltreatment.

The Problem with Identifying and Dealing with Child Neglect

Research suggests that most neglected children, even when they are able to talk to a professional about their circumstances, do not use the word ‘neglect’ and may not even indicate that they are being neglected. It is therefore recommended that professionals are proactive in exploring and identifying neglect.

When neglect is disclosed, the action is not always taken. Equally, when professionals pass concerns about neglect on to other professionals in the workplace they find those professionals do not always respond.



*This article uses material from the Wikipedia article “Child neglect”, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0 (view authors).

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