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Effects of neglect on children

NSPCC factsheet


Related NSPCC resources

Child neglect homepage

Neglect factsheet series

September 2012


Neglect can have serious short-term and long-term effects for children. Some of the effects listed here also act as indicators that a child is being neglected.

This page sets out the effects of neglect on:



Brain development


A child who is neglected in their first year can suffer from serious brain development issues.

During a baby's first year many of their neural pathways are forged and then strengthened by the kind of stimulus they receive from their environment. Poor attachment and low levels of interaction can alter how a child's brain develops emotional and verbal pathways. If a baby is malnourished then the neural cells themselves can become weak or damaged causing lowered brain function (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009). 

The term "global neglect" has been used to describe children who experience several different kinds of deprivation (for example language, touch, interaction with others) and studies have found that the brain of a globally neglected child will be significantly smaller by the age of three. The most severe of these cases will be when neglect begins early in a baby's life (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009). 

Neglect can severely alter the way a child's brain functions, leading to an increased risk of depression in later life as well as dissociative disorders and memory impairments. Changes to the brain caused by neglect have also been linked to the emergence of panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009). 



Related NSPCC resources

Core-Info series of leaflets on identifying signs of child abuse and neglect

Identifying child negelct

Health and welfare


Poor nutrition, poor hygiene and a lack of parental supervision can result in any of the following:

Faltering growth. There are a number of reasons why a child may not grow and develop at the expected rate. One of the reasons for faltering growth is chronic neglect or abuse. Where there is no medical or health reason for faltering growth, neglect should be considered as a factor.

Medical conditions such as anaemia. If a child does not get enough iron in their diet, then this can lead to tiredness, weakness and emotional mood swings.

Exacerbation of existing medical conditions  due to failure to manage ongoing care of chronic conditions such as eczema or asthma. Poor care can also result in non-chronic conditions persisting or constantly recurring. Poor care includes missing health appointments, failing to adhere to medication and treatment plans or failing to follow medical advice on diet and exercise.

Incontinence. In some cases, a neglected child who has wet or soiled themselves may not even seem to notice as they are used to not being cleaned up at home.

Skin conditions such as scabies or ringworm (more serious when infections are left untreated).

Infections where injuries such as cuts or burns are left untreated.

Dental problems caused by poor oral hygiene, an unhealthy diet or a lack of dental care.

Injuries from accidents (including cuts, burns and breaks) caused by a lack of parental supervision.

Poor educational outcomes when parents have taken no interest in their child's education.



Emotional and social development


The emotional damage caused by an absence of love and care from parents or carers can alter many aspects of a child's life from how they behave and perform at school, to how they interact with other children and adults, to their future relationships as adults.

Attachment

Attachment theory looks at the relationship between a parent and their child. As they develop, a child learns to recognise the adults who are providing them with the care and affection that they need. If those needs are not being met by the adults who they are spending most of their time with, the child will seek to change their behaviour and the way they see themselves, to increase their chances of their needs being met. There are four main patterns of attachment: secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised (Howe, 2011). 

Where a child views their parents as dismissive, rejecting or controlling, they learn to contain their own feelings and suppress their own needs (these are known as avoidant patterns of attachment) (Howe, 2011). 

Where a child is confused by their parents' reactions (for example unpredictable behaviour caused by drugs and alcohol or a lack of supervision failing to protect them from danger) they are unable to identify ways to get care and love from their carers, which results in disorganised attachment (Howe, 2011). 

Poor attachment (that is avoidant and disorganised) during childhood can have significant effects later on in life. It can significantly affect the relationship that people have with their own children in the future. The sooner negative avoidant and disorganised attachment patterns can be tackled, the less damage a child is likely to suffer and the more likely they will be able to form their own positive attachments as adults and parents (Howe, 2011). 



Mental health and risky behaviour


Where neglect is chronic, the effects on a child's mental health can be dramatic. As children grow older, feelings of being unloved and unwanted can lead to running away, antisocial behaviour, self-harm and suicide. Or some young people seek out care and affection from other people, which can put them at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation (Rees et al, 2011). 

As mentioned above, childhood neglect has also been associated with the emergence of depression, dissociative disorders and memory impairments, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in later life (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009). 



Anyone who is concerned that a child is at risk of neglect should follow their organisation's child protection procedures. Or they can contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 for advice and support about what action they can take to safeguard a child they are working with.



Related NSPCC resources

NSPCC Library Online

References


Child Welfare Information Gateway (2009) Understanding the effects of maltreatment on brain development. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Crittenden, P.M. (2008) Raising parents: attachment, parenting and child safety. Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing.

Howe, D. (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rees, G., Stein, M., Hicks, L. and Gorin, S. (2011) Adolescent neglect: research, policy and practice. London: Jessica Kingsley.


Contact the NSPCC Information Service with any question you may have about child neglect or any child protection topic