What Is Child Neglect, And Are You Unknowingly Neglecting Your Child?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include emotional and physical abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free, support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
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Are you worried you may be neglecting your child?

Even in the families where children may not have been planned, parents try to adjust to make sure that their children are properly cared for and loved so that their child has the best possible life and environment to grow up in. However, many parents may simply not be suited for this experience or may lose interest and focus on their child over time. 

When this happens, child neglect sometimes happens, sometimes without the parent’s knowledge. Parents and children alike can benefit from talk therapy or parenting classes through online counseling.

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 physical or emotional neglect needs to be stopped. Fortunately, recognizing the symptoms and signs of child neglect can help a parent or guardian improve their child’s health and life, either proactively or in response to realizing where they may have fallen short and become neglectful.

Are you neglecting your kid?

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

Child neglect is a form of childhood 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 emotional and physical 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.

Common signs of child neglect

There are some signs that can indicate that child maltreatment and neglect is happening. Keep in mind that each of these signs individually may not be symptoms of neglect, but may be reflective of different concerns in the home that still need to be addressed, but may not constitute childhood neglect. The combination of signs is a cause for major concern.

Your child may be experiencing neglect if they…

  • Do not attend school regularly.
  • Are constantly dirty. The neglected child has body odor, dirty clothes, hair, etc.
  • Have poor health due to the neglectful lack of health and medical care that’s required.
  • Abuse alcohol and harmful substances––something that happens in older children.
  • Show no attachment or affection towards you.
  • Are either extremely aggressive or extremely depressed and fearful all the time.
  • Run away from home for long periods.

Some signs of more direct abuse in children include frequent, unexplained injuries (cuts, scrapes, bruises, etc.), avoidant or secretive behavior, and/or trouble with walking or sitting. If you notice signs of potential abuse in a child, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Common examples of parents neglecting their child

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 can result in them being emotionally neglected, 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 keeping your home safe 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 of child abuse and neglect

Child neglect can have lifelong impacts on children and those around them. Neglect can severely impact children and may harm their development, mental health, and physical health, among other things. 

Development and mental health

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. Unless a person seeks adequate treatment, overcoming childhood emotional neglect or physical abuse may be difficult. In addition, children who are physically neglected are at greater risk of developmental issues, both physically and mentally.

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

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Risky behavior

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

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?

No one becomes a parent with the outright goal of neglecting their children, but neglect to the child can still occur for a variety of reasons. 

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 (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “substance abuse treatment programs”) can help a willing neglectful parent regain control of their life over time.

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.

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.

Turning your parenting around

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.

Finally, it is not true that physical or emotional abuse only comes from “bad people.” Some parents and guardians have no intention of harming or neglecting the children in their care, but they are living with and attempting to manage 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

Here are some things you can do to change your behaviors and actions to avoid neglect.

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 childhood emotional 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.

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Are you worried you may be neglecting your child?

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 members 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 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 unconfident about asking for guidance, especially if you did not receive positive or attentive parenting while you were growing up.

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 create change and effectively 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. 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

“I am THRILLED with Rachel and with BetterHelp! It is affordable, I am a single mom with 4 kids on a tight budget and a LOT of stress, and this format makes it easy to get help. I LOVE that I can write my feelings to her whenever I am having them, not have to wait a week for the next session. She is very insightful, and I am thankful!”

Takeaway

Being a parent can be difficult, challenging, and at times, overwhelming. It is okay to need help to ensure that your child is receiving the best possible care. To do nothing, and to allow your child to go without necessities, however, is neglectful and often illegal. Your child depends on you completely for their health and safety, so receiving the appropriate support from a therapist or other resource may be essential in keeping their quality of life consistently good.

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