Understanding Neglect

Neglect is the lack of adequate care and attention, generally considered in the context of children and their adult caregivers. It can result in a wide variety of short- and long-term problems related to health and wellbeing, education, attachment, emotional regulation, and self esteem. Understanding the signs and effects of neglect, as well as methods for healing, can lead to powerful, meaningful realizations for adult survivors who may be struggling with the consequences of their childhood and upbringing.

What is Neglect? 

Neglect can come in many forms, and each affects a child’s well being uniquely and may not always be visible. Physical neglect manifests through poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, or unsafe living conditions. Emotional neglect revolves around a child’s emotional state, which leads to withdrawal, low self-esteem, and difficulty managing emotions. Educational neglect is evident when a child lacks proper schooling, support, or interest in learning. Medical neglect transpires when a caregiver ignores a child’s health needs and leaves injuries or illnesses untreated. 

Signs of Neglect

The signs of neglect can vary and can go unnoticed for months, years, or even forever in some people. The parameters of what is considered neglect vary based on culture, location, and generation, and things our grandparents may have considered normal and acceptable are now considered neglectful. 

In the case of physical neglect, observable indicators often relate to a child’s basic needs. Poor hygiene, unwashed clothes, untreated skin conditions, malnutrition, dehydration, or unsafe and unsanitary living conditions are common signs. Emotional neglect, on the other hand, revolves around a child’s emotional and behavioral patterns. Withdrawal from others, difficulty forming connections, persistent sadness, low self-esteem, or trouble managing emotions can all point to emotional neglect.

Educational neglect becomes apparent through a child’s level of engagement with school and learning. Regular absences from school, lack of encouragement, disinterest in learning, or struggles with coursework are signs that educational needs aren’t being met. 

Lastly, medical neglect manifests through unaddressed health issues, untreated injuries, or overlooked illnesses. Recognizing these signs early allows for timely intervention and support to safeguard the child’s welfare and promote their healthy development. If any signs of neglect are suspected, reporting to appropriate authorities is essential for immediate action and protection of the child.

Causes and Risk Factors for Neglect

Most parents genuinely strive to care for their children and often don’t intend to overlook their physical, emotional, and medical needs. Siblings born on different sides of a crisis, tragedy, conflict, or mental health struggles can experience radically different parenting styles, with one experiencing neglect and the other not. This can make it challenging for some people to recognize the neglect they suffered and lead people to think their later struggles with relationships, intimacy, substance use, and a range of other effects are solely their fault. 

Understanding the interplay of external circumstances, parental mental well being, and parents’ history can help build a wider picture of the environment that survivors of neglect experienced as children. It is common for adults exhibiting neglectful behavior to struggle with myriad circumstances:

Mental Health Disorders: Depression and other mental health issues can overshadow a parent’s ability to attend to their child’s emotional needs consistently, creating an unpredictable cycle of attention and inattention.

Substance Misuse: Substance misuse impairs judgment and compromises a parent’s capacity to provide adequate emotional support.

Lack of Parenting Experience or Skills: Limited knowledge of positive parenting practices can make it difficult for parents to meet their child’s emotional requirements. This may result from taking on the responsibility of caregiving unexpectedly or at a young age or from struggling to balance various life demands.

External Challenges: Conflict, economic instability, homelessness, etc. can hinder a parent’s ability to provide emotional support due to preoccupation with meeting basic needs for their families.

History of Neglect: Those who experienced neglect in their own childhood may lack the emotional tools for effective parenting.

Neglect often perpetuates in a cycle, as parents from neglectful backgrounds continue the patterns they experienced.2 Childhood trauma can make it challenging to understand and fulfill their own child’s emotional needs because they lack an internal picture of adequate emotional support and suffer from the instability and trauma of their own upbringing. Breaking this cycle necessitates support, education, and intervention to guide parents toward healthier, more nurturing relationships with their children.

What are the Short Term and Long Term Effects of Neglect?

Neglect, whether physical, emotional, educational, or medical, has profound short-term and long-term effects on individuals, particularly during their formative years. In the short term, neglect can lead to immediate physical and emotional consequences. Physically, it can result in malnutrition, poor personal hygiene, untreated medical conditions, and exposure to hazardous environments, which compromise a child’s overall health and development.

Emotionally, the immediate effects can include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, withdrawal, difficulty in forming attachments, and trouble managing emotions. These emotional scars can hinder a child’s ability to trust, feel secure, and form healthy relationships. Neglect can also impact cognitive development, which causes delays in language and speech, poor academic performance, and a lack of motivation to learn.

Long-term effects of neglect often extend into adulthood. Individuals who experienced neglect during childhood are at a higher risk of mental health issues like depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal tendencies. They may struggle with substance abuse as a way to cope with the emotional pain that stems from their past neglect. Neglect survivors often grapple with a damaged sense of self-worth, making it difficult for them to establish and maintain healthy relationships.

Moreover, neglect can contribute to a cycle of intergenerational trauma, where those who were neglected as children may unintentionally perpetuate the same neglectful patterns with their own offspring. Therefore, the impact of neglect is enduring, far-reaching, and detrimental to not only the individual but also to their families and communities. Addressing neglect and providing appropriate support and intervention are crucial to breaking this cycle and promoting healing and resilience among survivors.

Ways of Healing from Childhood Neglect 

Healing from neglect can be a long and challenging journey. Coping mechanisms that were created to deal with the challenges of childhood can impede the vulnerability, reflection, and self belief required to engage in many forms of psychotherapy. There is, however, a great deal of hope for survivors of neglect. In order to survive complex difficulties, individuals who have suffered from neglect can become incredibly resilient, fiercely independent, and capable of coping with acute challenges.

Therapy, including trauma-informed and cognitive-behavioral therapies, can help survivors process their experiences and develop coping mechanisms. Engaging in activities that foster personal growth, education, and skill development can empower survivors to reclaim their lives. Cultivating a strong sense of self, setting boundaries, and seeking professional help when needed are essential steps in overcoming the lasting impact of neglect and in fostering resilience. The best approach to healing from neglect can vary based on the type of abuse experienced, the type of long-term effects it has caused, and the coping mechanisms a person has developed in response. A more in-depth exploration of this will be found in next week’s blog.


[1]  Mate, G. (2023) Scattered minds: The origins and healing of attention deficit disorder. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

[2] Mulder TM, Kuiper KC, van der Put CE, Stams GJM, Assink M. Risk factors for child neglect: A meta-analytic review. Child Abuse Negl. 2018 Mar;77:198-210. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.01.006. PMID: 29358122.

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