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Understanding Childhood Neglect: Causes, Signs, Effects & How to Heal

Childhood neglect is a form of abuNecessitiesNecessitiese that takes place when caregivers fail to fulfill a child’s needs adequately.

Children have emotional, physical, nutritional, social, and educational needs and necessities. Failure to meet these needs either through indifference, mistreatment, or negligence can result in impaired growth.

Neglect that is left unrecognized and not treated can lead to many health problems in adults. This takes on the form of childhood neglect, which further stems from trauma.

It’s crucial that caregivers and parents recognize characteristics and actions that can be neglectful and harmful.

Below is a detailed guide to understanding childhood neglect its signs, effects, and how to heal from it.

Understanding Childhood Neglect
Understanding Childhood Neglect


In This Article


Causes of Childhood Neglect

Types of Neglect with Examples

Emotional Neglect

Failing to show empathy or adequate love and support to a child comes under emotional neglect. This includes emotional detachment. Examples of this are when parents ignore or reject their children.

Another example is when parents tell their children to stop crying or act tough when they are emotionally distressed. By failing to recognize the child’s emotional needs, the parent(s) is neglecting the child.

Educational Neglect

This form of neglect includes not providing a child with proper education. Generally, female children are at a greater risk of being neglected in this way.

Educational neglect also includes not paying attention to a child’s school life. Neglectful parents often don’t know if a child is being bullied in school or is struggling to keep up. They might not bother to make sure their child attends school regularly, which leads to the child being neglectful in their learning.

Not providing the necessary resources (when they are easily accessible and affordable) also comes under this term.

Physical Neglect

Not providing a child with the space or resources to be physically active comes under neglect. Additional forms of physical neglect include poor hygiene and exposing a child to (or failing to protect from) harmful and dangerous situations.

Lack of medical attention (for major or minor issues) also comes under this category. In some cases, parents may provide their child with medical attention, but it is usually after the problem can’t be ignored anymore. When this happens, neglectful parents might become outright abusive and scold the child for creating issues or wasting their time.

Nutritional Neglect

Failing to provide necessary food and water to a child comes under nutritional neglect. In most cases, this leads to malnutrition.

Malnutrition can have serious effects on the chemical makeup of the brain and body and can damage a child’s physical and psychological growth.

Social Neglect

Social neglect includes preventing a child from making friends, activities, and other forms of social contact. Often parents that are socially isolated indirectly or directly force their children to withdraw from social interactions in school and their personal life.

Neglect Of Basic Necessities And Duties

In some instances, neglect of necessities can also be considered a form of physical neglect. Necessities include but are not limited to food, shelter, clothing, safety, and security. Basic necessities can be physical or emotional. Failure to protect a child, which results in sexual exploitation or abuse.

Why Neglect is also Abuse?

While other forms of abuse are normally considered to be deliberate, neglect falls under inattention and carelessness. Irresponsibility towards the needs of a child also comes under this category.

While physical abuse can be easily identified, neglect can be easily overlooked. Because neglect is hard to determine among other forms of abuse, it often goes unnoticed, resulting in more long-term damage.

What is the Most Severe Form of Childhood Neglect?

According to Child Welfare,

“Emotional neglect is more difficult to assess than other types of neglect, [and] is thought to have more severe and long-lasting consequences than physical neglect.”

Victims of emotional neglect may fail to believe that they were mistreated because their treatment wasn’t given the same reactions as other forms of abuse.

This can lead to unhealthy attachments to abusers in the future, causing a spiral of abusive relationships throughout an individual's life. Once an individual is trapped in this cycle, they will find it extremely difficult to break free.

What is the Root Cause of Neglect?

Neglect is often caused by many factors. This includes:

  • Poor parenting because of ignorance and immaturity

  • Parents that don’t want children

  • Lack of support for parent(s)

  • Narcissistic and irresponsible parents

  • Stressful and difficult circumstances

  • Poverty and illness

  • Parents that suffer from neglect, trauma, and abuse

Some factors are deliberate, while others happen because of ignorance. Indifference can be considered deliberate as well because a parent(s) is choosing to not educate themselves or take care of their child.

Whether neglect happens intentionally or unintentionally, parents and society still need(s) to be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). By doing so, the cycle of neglect can be stopped.

Click Here to learn what happens when this cycle continues

What are the Characteristics of a Neglectful Parent?

Some noticeable signs of uninvolved parenting are:

  • Lack of supervision or concern toward a child

  • Emotional disconnection and inability to express love

  • Extremely busy parents

  • Poor stress coping skills (such as drinking or isolation)

  • Using a child as a ‘sub parent’ or therapist

  • Not attending milestone events in a child’s life, such as graduation

  • Lack of interest in the child’s activities or school-work

  • Busying the child with distractions (to an extreme level)

  • Not providing proper meals regularly

  • A very messy and dirty house; lack of personal grooming

Need help? Visit our article on Unlearning Wrong Habits as a Parent

Case Study: The Feral Child Genie

The Feral Child Genie
The Feral Child Genie

TW: This case study can be disturbing for some readers.

Genie (pseudonym) is an American child born in 1957. Genie’s father was raised in unstable foster homes, which contributed to his abusive personality. Genie’s father didn’t want children, yet he and his wife Irene had multiple children. Their first daughter died as a baby after she was left in a cold garage. A second child died from birth complications. Then the couple had John, who was five at the time Genies was born. A while after Genie was born, her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Shortly after, when Genie was 20 months old, her father locked her in a room.

Genie was either tied to a potty seat or stuck under a covered crib. After this ensued years of abuse and neglect. When Genie was found at the age of 13, she was classified as a feral child. Genie had multiple disorders and deformities, making her unable to chew or walk properly. She was unable to communicate with others and showed animal-like behaviors. The damage affected Genie for the rest of her life.

Genie’s case prompted more research on the effects of abuse and neglect. Although this case has other forms of abuse as well, the damage that can be caused by neglect is tragically evident. Not all parents neglect or abuse their child on the same level of extremities done against Genie. However, this case study is a clear example that no form of neglect should be tolerated.

Effects of Childhood Neglect

How Childhood Neglect Affects Growth and Development

You may have heard of the ACE Study, a research project conducted by CDC-Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1900s. The main focus of the study was the long-term effects of childhood trauma. The outcome of this study created a huge shift in how neglect and abuse were perceived.

Researchers found that individuals that experienced some form of trauma as a child were at greater risk of longer-term harm. According to NHTTAC,

“A direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, incarceration, and employment challenges [was found]”.

A higher number of ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) meant a greater amount of negative impacts on a person.

What Does Childhood Neglect Do to a Person?

Physical Effects on a Child’s Development

Trauma can put the body in defensive mode. When a person is always on edge and anxious, they can develop extreme levels of stress. High levels of stress can cause hormonal imbalances.

This excessive stress can take a toll on the body, causing the body to act and react differently. Children may experience an array of health problems often. These health issues are usually linked to each other.

For instance, if a child experiences unhealthy weight gain because of stress and is unable to manage their health, they might become obese. Creating a risk for heart disease and hypertension in the future.

It’s near impossible to determine just how big of an effect the long list of health problems and risks associated with childhood neglect can have on an individual. However, it should be assumed that the effects can be extremely detrimental.

Emotional and Psychological Effects on a Child’s Development

How Does Neglect Affect the Brain?

Neglect can impact a child’s cognitive development. This form of development is extremely important because it affects a child’s ability to think and reason throughout their life.

“Neglect has been shown to harm the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and memory (Perry, 2002; DeBellis, 2005). Extreme neglect can actually make children's brains smaller”.

Click Here to improve your Child's Cognitive Development

What Mental Illness is Caused by Childhood Neglect?

If a child’s frontal cortex and cognitive development become impaired, they will be at a greater risk for attentional, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disorders. (Harvard InBrief: The Science Of Neglect). These disorders can be linked to each other.

For instance, a grown child might be diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and depression. Neglect can also lead to CPTSD. CTPSD is similar to PTSD, the only main difference being the complexity and continuation of the trauma caused by neglect.

What are the Effects of Temporary Neglect?

Neglect isn’t always consistent. Sometimes a parent might fall into a depressive episode and neglect their child for a while, but later manage to come out of it. Some parents believe that they only need to fulfill their child’s basic needs (such as food and clothing). When their child grows older and needs more attention, they then focus on their child’s other needs.

Even if a parent stops neglecting their child after they grow older, it will still impact a child’s development. Most of a child’s development happens in the early years, specifically during the ages of 2-4.

The child might not remember the way they were treated, but their body will.

Although it might not be as damaging, the neglect will still have emotional and physical impacts. This is perhaps worse because a child might feel detached from their parents and not understand why.

Similarly, this also goes for neglecting them when they grow older, especially in their teen years. Highly stressed parents can lead to temporary neglect.

Click Here for help in Managing Stress as a Parent

What Happens When a Child Doesn’t Feel Loved?

Childhood neglect understanding
Kid Being Bullied by Age-Fellows

Although they may not be able to fully understand or express it, even toddlers can understand how neglect feels. Children can recognize when they are being mistreated or are not wanted.

However, because they don’t understand why they are being neglected, they often come to believe that they are at fault. This leads to unhealthy coping mechanics and people-pleasing tendencies.

When a child doesn’t feel loved or valued they will begin to have low self-esteem and doubt their abilities. They won’t find hope in the future and will fail to find purpose in life, resulting in withdrawal from others. Isolated children can fall prey to bullies and abusers, who exploit their vulnerabilities.

Signs of Childhood Neglect

How Can You Tell if Someone is Neglected? (As A Child)

Some things to look out for:

  • Children that parent themselves; independent (make their own food etc.)

  • Overly mature or emotionally disconnected children

  • Extremely quiet

  • Overly sensitive and nervous

  • Excessive anger, harshness, and aggression

  • Children that pull away from people

  • Clinginess and separation anxiety

  • Poor appearance and hygiene

  • Malnourished and unhealthy

  • Always alone without parental supervision

Sometimes children have phases of silence, aggression, or clinginess. However, if the above factors are present in a child together, then it can be assumed that the child is being neglected.

What Attachment Style Do Neglected Children Have?

Children that experience neglect are more prone to separation anxiety. This can develop into a clingy and dependent attachment style. Children might become anxious when the people around them show slight signs of being upset with them.

They are constantly worried that they aren’t enough, and don’t want to create problems for others–making them overly apologetic.

What Does Childhood Neglect Look Like in Adulthood?

Struggling children are often criticized in school and by society for their uncontrollable behaviors in response to abuse. Children begin to develop a mindset that they are bad.

Making them susceptible to criminal behaviors, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and other harmful behaviors.

Signs of childhood neglect in adults look like this:

  • Fear of rejection

  • Dependant Personality Disorder (DPD)

  • Extreme independence (refusing to accept help)

  • Low self-esteem and self-shame

  • Self-criticism (Perfectionism)

  • Self-harm and self-punishment

  • Constantly overwhelmed and worried

  • People pleasing tendencies

  • Lack of self-care and love

Mother Talking to Her Daughter
Mother Talking to Her Daughter

Awareness and Healing from Childhood Neglect

Can Only One Child in a Family Be Neglected?

Some adults struggle to accept that they had a bad childhood because they have a seemingly normal family. This is especially true in families where all the children are successful, except for one black sheep.

One child can be neglected. There can be several reasons for this. Parents might neglect their first child because they are immature, but later learn to become more involved in their children’s lives.

More commonly, some parents neglect their youngest child because they are busy with their older children. Other parents might come to neglect a child because of something unexpected. This can be a new busy job or illness.

How Do You Know If You Were the Invisible Child?

Invisible children are rarely given the attention they deserve. This teaches them that they are unimportant. Invisible children are usually unnoticeable. They might be reticent and avoid activities or crowds that put the spotlight on them.

Invisible children are usually compliant and overly well-behaved. Invisible children are usually referred to as ‘old souls’ and wise beyond their years.

How to Heal from Childhood Neglect?

Acknowledging that you have been neglected as a child is the first step toward the journey of healing. Accepting your emotions will help you come to terms with the way you were mistreated.

Although it might not make you forget what has happened to you, it can help you understand you deserve better and don’t need to hold onto the past.

The best way to heal from childhood neglect is to find a therapist that specializes in trauma. Having a support group and professional help will help you recognize your emotions and teach you how to manage them. Consult a doctor for neglect-related health problems.

Take the necessary steps to create a safe and understanding environment around you. Remember that you aren’t alone, and you deserve to function and prosper like others.

Realistically, the effects of neglect do not disappear. However, healing can help manage the effects so that they don’t affect your life as much. You are allowed to feel upset and betrayed.

Being honest about your experiences can create more awareness about these issues, which teaches others understanding and compassion.

Resources To Help Support You On Your Journey

Self Help Books

Running On Empty (Dr. Jonice Webb)

The Body Keeps The Score (Bessel van der Kolk)



Traumatic Childhood (Reddit)

Emotional Neglect (Reddit)


Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Adult Chair (Dr. Jonice Webb)

Healing Men's Trauma (HTM)

Mother Kissing Her Daughter
Mother Kissing Her Daughter


1. Is a messy house child neglect?

Having a messy house doesn’t mean that you are neglecting your child’s needs. Even the best parents have days when their house is unorganized and messy. These minor mishaps don’t indicate that your child is being neglected. With that being said if your house is unnaturally messy and can pose dangers to your child’s health and movement, that will be considered neglect.

2. What isn’t considered child neglect?

Accidents or issues that occur once in a blue moon aren’t considered neglect. These are things that happen by natural human error. Giving your child a meal late one day doesn’t make you a neglectful parent. Issues such as poor hygiene, emotional detachment, and failing to meet the basic needs of a child will be considered neglect—if they happen to the extent where it impacts their daily life and growth.

3. Can I report child neglect?

You can–and should–report child neglect. You should be sure that a child is being neglected before reporting. Having evidence or proof of neglect can be very helpful. However, if you are suspicious about how a child is treated in their home but are unsure, it is still best to consult childcare services in case. Failing to report mistreatment can lead to many issues in a child’s life, and in some cases, death. Any individuals that allow child neglect to happen can be legally held accountable.

4. What are the statistics of child neglect?

According to WHO, “Globally, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.” (WHO 2022)

Many children-based organizations believe that the scope of this figure is not entirely accurate because many cases are not reported.

5. How can I help a child that has been neglected?

Offering any and every kind of support can make a huge difference. You can report abuse and provide a safe space for the child so that they can come out of the abusive environment they live in. If you are unable to help, providing emotional support and care directly also goes a long way. This applies to both children that are being neglected and adults that experienced childhood neglect. Let the individual know that they are not at fault and encourage them to speak up against the abuse.

Takeaway from Sheasmother

Child neglect is an issue that is rarely taken seriously. It can have horrific effects on a child and stunt their growth. Individuals who experience childhood neglect fail to adjust to daily life like ordinary people. They are often isolated because of their learned behaviors, which makes it harder to heal.

Understanding the seriousness of this situation can help parents and caregivers reflect on their habits. Ending the cycle of violence is only possible if parents recognize the harm that can come from this form of abuse. Relatives and close friends of neglectful parents should stand up and hold them accountable for their actions. By doing so, lives can be saved.

It’s important to acknowledge that children are also humans, and deserve to be treated with the same respect that is expected for adults. Children deserve to feel safe and loved.

Mentioned above are very few out of the many resources individuals can access for help. Confide in someone you trust and find a support system that can help you tackle your trauma. Understanding that you deserve bNecessitiesNecessitiestter is the first step on the long (but admirable) road to healing. The only way to go is forward.

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