What Is Child Neglect?

By: Dylan Buckley

Updated August 31, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Children are gifts that we love and cherish as they grow up. Even in the families where children may not have been planned, parents will try to adjust to make sure that their children are properly cared for and loved so that their child has the best possible childhood and environment to grow up in. However, many parents may simply not be suited for this experience or may lose some of that interest and focus on their child over time. When this happens, child neglect sometimes happens, often without the parent's knowledge.

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Are You Neglecting Your Kid?

Definition

The definition of child neglect is when a parent fails to provide sufficient emotional, physical, or financial support for their child. “Support” includes all basic needs, such as necessary healthcare and medical attention, nutritious food, adequate clothing, education, safe housing, hygiene, emotional support, and security. A child needs all of these components to experience a stable childhood.

So What?

Child neglect is a form of child abuse, and legal action can be taken against someone who neglects a child in their care. A neglectful parent or guardian can be arrested and face criminal charges for neglect, as well as temporarily or permanently lose custody of their child. The most severe consequence of child neglect, however, is the long-term impact the neglect can have upon a child’s development, physical wellness, and lifelong emotional health. The following discussion will provide more details about the consequences of child neglect and how to prevent them.

What Is A Bad Parent?

A common fear among parents is that they might become a "bad parent." While labeling yourself or someone else as a “bad parent” is not productive, any form of child neglect needs to be stopped. Fortunately, recognizing the symptoms and signs of child neglect can help a parent or guardian improve their child’s life, either proactively or in response to realizing where they may have fallen short and become neglectful.

Learn To Recognize Symptoms

Signs To Look Out For

Your Kid...
  • Does not attend school regularly.
  • Is constantly dirty. The child has body odor, dirty clothes, hair, etc.
  • Has poor health due to the neglectful lack of health and medical care that's required.
  • Abuses alcohol and harmful substances - something that happens in older children.
  • Shows no attachment or affection towards you.
  • Is either extremely aggressive or extremely depressed and fearful all the time.
  • Has trouble with walking or sitting - most often found in sexually abused children.
  • Has cuts, bruises, and wounds on your their body - most often found in physically abused children.
  • Runs away from home for long periods.Common Examples Of Neglectful Behavior

If you are concerned about your own neglectful behavior to your child as a parent or guardian or think you may have observed child neglect outside your household, consider the following examples of neglectful behaviors.

Emotional:

  • Calling the child by derogatory names
  • Frequently yelling at or threatening the child
  • Belittling, shaming, or humiliating the child
  • Exposing the child to violence, even if the violence is not directed at them
  • Limited physical contact with the child—a lack of kisses, hugs, comforting, or other signs of affection
  • Ignoring the child or giving them “the silent treatment”
  • Rejecting the child when they approach
  • Comparing the child to others or using terms like “worthless” or “useless” to describe them

Physical:

  • Hitting or using violence against your child
  • When your child is sexually abused, even if it's by another adult and you're aware of it but do nothing about it
  • Abandoning your child for long periods of time and not leaving them supervised
  • Not providing your child with clothing and not providing them with appropriate clothing according to the weather
  • Leaving hazardous items around the house and within reach of your child. Not securing your home for your child
  • Not providing nutritious meals for your child and not keeping food in your home.
  • Poor hygiene - not bathing your child, grooming them, and washing their clothing
  • Leaving children in the car unattended
  • Not cleaning your home and allowing your child to live in a dirty and unsanitary home

Health:

  • Not providing the child with necessary health and medical care or neglecting preventive appointments, such as vision screenings or dental appointments
  • Not providing the child with needed treatments or equipment, such as dental fillings, hearing aids, or corrective lenses
  • Allowing the child to develop itchiness or wounds from lack of hygiene
  • Failing to provide a safe, quiet sleeping environment for the child

Educational:

  • Truancy or unexcused absences from school
  • Low grades without explanation or interest in improving
  • Lack of awareness about assignments and school events
  • Failure to make arrangements regarding the child’s special needs, if applicable

Potential Impacts

Developmental

Neglecting a child can have multiple negative impacts on their development and general behavior, both in the short term and over the child's lifespan. Children who are physically neglected are at greater risk of developmental issues, both physically and mentally.

Mental Illness

A child who is neglected is at greater risk of developing mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other conditions.

Perception

Children who are neglected tend to have lower self-esteem. A child who is neglected may have difficulty interacting with other children, and in the formation of healthy relationships with others in both childhood and adulthood.

Education

Children who are neglected tend to perform poorly at school, which can affect their later education and careers.

Risky Behavior

Teenagers who are neglected are more likely to engage in alcohol and substance use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and illegal behaviors. They are also less likely to form healthy relationships as adults. Being neglected as a child can make a person more likely to neglect their own children.

What Causes Parents To Neglect Their Kids?

It May Be Unintentional

No one becomes a parent with the outright goal of neglecting their children, but neglect to the child can still occur. Here are a few common reasons for the occurrence of child neglect:

Alcohol And Substance Use

If a parent has addiction disorders, they may focus on the addictive behavior to the exclusion of all else, neglecting their children. If a parent is preoccupied with substance use, their children may be left to fend for themselves in terms of food, education, transportation, and other necessities. Substance use treatment programs can help a willing neglectful parent regain control of their life over time.

Parents Who Were Neglected

Because parents who were neglected as children were denied the care or resources they needed, they may be less aware of their own children’s needs. If a parent did not receive emotional support or care from their own parent or guardian, for instance, then they might not understand the typical depth of emotional support a child needs to thrive. Therapy and support programs can help a parent who has experienced child neglect learn to break the cycle.

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Parents Who Are Physically Ill

Unfortunately, some parents who wish to provide everything their children need may be unable to do so and become neglectful of their children because of a physical or mental illness. This situation can be devastating to a family, and outside support is needed to help both the parent or guardian and their children.

Turning Your Parenting Around

Common Misconceptions

Several misconceptions persist about child neglect, and it’s worth debunking them before considering what to change in your own parenting. First of all, neglect of children can occur in any family, regardless of wealth or socioeconomic status. Second, neglect is indeed a form of abuse—if a child is being denied from having a basic need fulfilled, whether physical, emotional, financial, or educational, then that child is experiencing abuse.

"Bad People"

Finally, it is not true that only “bad people” abuse or neglect their children. Some parents and guardians have no intention of harming or neglecting the children in their care, but they are struggling with a physical or mental illness, such as substance use disorder, or are overwhelmed by other life circumstances, such as unemployment. People who are well-intentioned and loving can still neglect a child. The good news is that help is available to support neglectful parents in providing their children with the care they need and deserve.

Tips To Change Your Actions

Understand What Needs To Change

Try to come up with a list of things that are not working and are leading to the neglect of your child. With the assistance of a therapist, if possible, write down a personal inventory of your current strengths and weaknesses and do some research into common neglectful parenting mistakes. Once you have developed a clear picture of the situation, your child's situation, what neglectful behavior is, and what needs to change, you can brainstorm possible solutions to neglect and seek out resources to help you and your child. 

Let Positivity Pave The Way

Your child is better able to grow when they receive sufficient, positive attention. This means focusing on supportive words and praise when you are interacting with your child and encouraging them through their schoolwork, interests, and decision making.

Make Time

No matter how important your career or other aspects of your life may be, don't neglect your child– your child comes first. Make sure that you are making a conscious effort to spend time with your child, talk with them, and play with them. Lack of time may be an instigating factor for neglect, especially if you are struggling financially or overextended at work, but even a few minutes each morning and evening of genuine focus and conversation with your child can start to make a difference.

Reach Out For Help

Parenting is a full-time job, and it can be overwhelming. Try not to be afraid of reaching out for help, both from supportive family and friends and from a therapist or counselor when you need it. It is not neglectful to your child to do so. As a well-known African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” No one is born knowing how to be an effective parent; try not to feel embarrassed or insecure about asking for guidance, especially if you did not receive positive or attentive parenting while you were growing up.

Ways To Get Help

Seeking therapy is not a sign of having failed as a parent, but rather of committing to become a better one—and it is effective. Studies have shown that parents can significantly improve their parenting competence and lower rates of child abuse and neglect by working with therapists, particularly when therapists provide strong ongoing coaching and supervision to help parents learn positive parenting and discipline methods. Online therapy can be a place to privately and effectively create change in your parenting style. Regardless of your life circumstances or additional concerns like substance use or other mental health concerns, online therapy through a service like BetterHelp may be able to provide the support you need.

BetterHelp’s online therapy services are provided by licensed mental health counselors who are experienced in helping families like yours. Services are flexible and accessible 24 hours a day; even if you work a night shift or don’t have transportation, you can connect with your therapist whenever you need to, through video chat, voice call, or messaging, on any device with an internet connection. If you are experiencing financial difficulties or don’t have health insurance, you can still access services through BetterHelp’s low-cost flat rate. You, your family, and your children deserve fulfilling, healthy, supportive relationships, and BetterHelp can assist you on the road to recovery. Here are a few reviews from previous clients of their BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor Reviews

Jillian

"When I signed up for BetterHelp, I was in the midst of a major life crisis. I was seeking a compassionate, experienced counselor like Jillian to help me cope with the initial pain, anger, and anxiety. Also, I chose Jillian because, in her self description, she states, "I'm a big believer in seeing life challenges, especially the most painful ones, as a catalyst for self-discovery, personal growth, and positive change." This really resonated with me. I knew that I wanted my experience to be an opportunity for personal growth. I am incredibly grateful that Jillian indeed helped me grieve and work through the challenges of divorce and early motherhood. She helped me learn about myself and transform my life in a positive way. She offered practical, specific tools to incorporate into my daily routine. She helped me to reconnect with myself and clarify and move towards my life goals. She offered constructive advice for interacting with my ex-husband and maintaining boundaries. Through working with her, I was able to care for myself so that I could be mindful, present mama, and really soak in the precious moments with my newborn daughter. My sessions with Jillian made a huge difference as I navigated this time in my life. I could not recommend her more highly."

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