What Is Child Neglect? Signs, Consequences & Preventive Tips

Child neglect is a form of maltreatment wherein a caregiver, parent, or an individual in a custodial role fails to meet a child’s basic needs, such as providing food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare (1). According to experts, neglect is the most common form of child abuse, which affects a child’s long-term physical and mental health (2) (3).

Prompt reporting of child neglect is vital to offer timely care and support to a neglected child. Community care programs spreading awareness about child neglect can prevent child maltreatment and reduce its effects.

Read on to know about the different types of child neglect, signs to identify child neglect, the possible causes and consequences, the treatment options, and ways to prevent it.

Types Of Child Neglect

Child neglect is a broad term that encompasses neglecting a child’s physical, social, emotional, and medical needs. The following are the most common types of child neglect (4).

1. Physical neglect: Abandoning a child, refusing to accept their custody, or failing to fulfill their essential nutrition, hygiene, and clothing needs.

2. Emotional neglect: Isolating the child or exposing them to an emotionally abusive environment involving domestic violence and substance abuse. It also entails the failure to provide an emotionally secure and supportive environment to the child.

3. Educational neglect: Not enrolling the child in a school or home school, ignoring their special education needs, or allowing chronic absenteeism from school without justifiable reason or cause.

4. Medical neglect: Delaying or refusing to provide necessary or recommended healthcare treatments.

5. Supervisory neglect: Leaving a child alone or unsupervised at home, or leaving them with insufficient care arrangements, especially when they can’t take care of themselves

Signs Of Child Neglect

Identifying child neglect can be complex, especially during the early stages, and you can’t ascertain or confirm possible negligence only when the condition has reached its extreme.

Here are some warning signs that may help you notice and ascertain if a child is experiencing neglect (3) (5).

  • Poor hygiene and disheveled appearance
  • Dirty and smelly
  • Chronic absenteeism from school
  • Inappropriate or inadequate clothing for the weather
  • Frequently missing health check-ups, such as dental checks or scheduled vaccinations
  • Extreme hunger, making them beg or steal food
  • Untreated physical injuries and uncared open wounds
  • Left alone at home without supervision and care
  • Severe malnourishment with health issues, such as anemia
  • Extreme physical and psychological growth or development issues
  • Erratic behavior, with signs of self-harm, substance abuse, withdrawal, aggression, and isolation

The severity of signs may vary depending on the child’s age and the frequency and duration of neglect.

Risk Factors Of Child Neglect

There’s no single cause for child neglect. Research suggests that child neglect occurs due to the complex interplay of several risk factors present in children and their environment (1) (3) (6).

Most often, parents do not neglect their children intentionally. Most child neglect cases occur where the parents themselves had a neglected or abused childhood, or the parents are

  • Relatively young and inexperienced, so they are unaware of proper child-rearing practices.
  • Poor or belong to economically weaker sections, rendering them unable to fulfill their child’s basic needs, such as healthy food, proper clothes, and timely medical care.
  • Separated or divorced and have separate families to look after.
  • Alcoholics or indulge in drug abuse and aren’t physically and mentally capable of taking care of their children.

Besides these, when a parent or both the parents are sick, disabled, or incarcerated, child neglect is highly likely to occur.
Children with disabilities and chronic illnesses and children born to poor households or in dangerous neighborhoods are at a higher risk of neglect.

Consequences Of Child Neglect On Children

Persistent child neglect affects the health and overall development of a child. Some of these effects are lasting and may cause irreversible damages to the child’s mental and physical well-being. The following are some of the effects of chronic neglect that a neglected child may experience (7) (8) (9).

1. Physical growth and development issues: A neglected child often doesn’t receive quality food, which puts them at risk of malnourishment. A malnourished child has poor physical growth, lowered immunity, poor muscle tone, and weak muscle strength. Additionally, they don’t have timely access to immunization which compounds their risk of developing health issues, such as diabetes, poorer lung functioning, and vision and oral health problems.

2. Cognitive problems: According to the Children’s Bureau, child neglect can affect the formation, function, and growth of specific brain regions. Additionally, chronic neglect can cause toxic stress, which can affect brain development in early life. The child’s poor brain development can result in a range of problems, from delayed or impaired language development to attention deficit and low I.Q.

3. Psychological concerns: Chronic neglect can make children feel isolated and depressed. They can also develop feelings of fear and distrust. Due to the build-up of such negative emotions, children may develop attachment issues, low levels of enthusiasm, poor self-esteem, and low self-confidence, all of which can hinder their ability to maintain healthy relationships.

4. Social and behavioral problems: Depending on the severity of neglect or abuse, children exhibit several behavioral issues. They may often indulge in risky activities, such as unsafe sexual practices, alcohol and substance abuse, and criminal activities at a young age, leading to adult criminality.

Treatment For Child Neglect

Treatment and management of child neglect begin with its reporting. Once a child neglect case is reported, a social worker or a child protective services (CPS) officer will contact the family and schedule a home visit or family interview.

In some cases, child safety is assured by educating the family on child neglect and providing them the necessary resources, such as financial aid.

In other cases, children may be placed in some other facility, such as a foster home, to ensure the child is safe. Once the child is safe, health professionals and physicians begin therapy, depending upon the health concerns the child is facing (10).

1. Developmental therapy: This therapy helps determine the effects of chronic neglect on a child’s physical growth and development. Depending on the evaluation, the therapy is performed to resolve or overcome the growth and development issues.

2. Intrapersonal therapy: This therapy studies how child neglect has altered the child’s personality and interpersonal abilities. Based on the investigation, a treatment course to rectify the child’s interpersonal issues is recommended.

3. Cognitive and behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps analyze how neglect has affected the cognitive and behavioral functioning of the child. Based on the investigation, the therapist helps the child overcome their cognitive concerns and improve their behavior.

Besides a therapist, medical, dental care, and educational service providers may also work with the child. If the child is involved in substance abuse or any criminal activity, the concerned federal, state, or local agencies will intervene to correct or rehabilitate the child.

How To Report Child Neglect?

The guidelines to how and who needs to report child neglect varies from country to country and from state to state within a country. For instance, some states in the US allow only medical professionals, teachers, childcare providers, and law enforcement officers to report child neglect. On the other hand, in some states, any person who suspects or witnesses child neglect can register a case (11).

If you are in the US and know a child neglect victim, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) to speak with a professional. A trained professional will investigate the case and conduct a comprehensive assessment to help determine which services will be needed to keep the child safe.

Tips To Prevent Child Neglect

Here’s what you can do to prevent child neglect around you (12) (13).

1. Know the signs of child abuse or neglect. Child neglect is different than child abuse. Its signs are often not easily recognizable, especially when the abuse hasn’t been happening for long.

2. Educate yourself and others about the types of neglect. This learning is necessary for children and adults who feel that neglect only means failure to provide food and shelter. They often aren’t aware that negligence can be emotional or educational.

3. Invest your time in community service. Help vulnerable families and their children by educating them about child neglect and its effects on one’s health. Share ways to seek help for themselves and others whenever they require it.

4. Participate in after-school activities, such as parent education classes and mentoring programs that educate parents on child abuse and neglect. Motivate other parents in the community to attend these programs to get the right professional help to identify child neglect and act on it.

5. Report child abuse or neglect. As soon as you witness a child neglect case, report it to the concerned authorities. You can contact your local police or state’s child protection services. Until the concerned person arrives, talk to the child and reassure them that they have done the right thing by talking to an adult.

Listen to them carefully and motivate them to share the issues they have been facing. Collect as many details as you can and share them with the concerned person. Do not force the child to talk if they look scared or fearful.

6. Be a foster parent and help a family avert child neglect. You can provide foster care to vulnerable children and fulfill their needs. Alternatively, you can offer financial or moral support to a family and keep them afloat in challenging and stressful times.

7. Donate what you can. This way, you can support one or more families with the essentials that they need. Diapers, clothing, toys, utensils, etc., are some items that you can donate. A donation drive is another good initiative that you can organize to encourage your privileged neighbors to help the needy in your community.

Child neglect is a serious problem that needs prompt reporting when witnessed. The treatment and management depend on the type of neglect. Children who face neglect struggle with several growth and development concerns. When left unaddressed, these concerns can lead to physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social issues that affect the child and society.


MomJunction’s health articles are written after analyzing various scientific reports and assertions from expert authors and institutions. Our references (citations) consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

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