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What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being neglected

Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic and essential needs.

Children need adequate food, water, shelter, warmth, protection and health care and they need their carers to be attentive, dependable and kind.

Nearly 1 in 10 children are neglected by their parents, causing serious and long-term damage.

There are many signs that may indicate neglect. If your instincts tell you that something is wrong then you should take action.

If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999 or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.

Why are children neglected

There are many reasons why child neglect happens. Some adults:

  • find it difficult to organise their lives, leading to a chaotic home life for children
  • do not understand the needs of their children, possibly because they did not receive adequate parenting themselves
  • find it difficult to show their feelings, neglecting their child's emotional needs

Children at risk of neglect

Some children are more vulnerable to neglect, such as children who are in care, seeking asylum or who live in families with cases of domestic abuse, drug or alcohol misuse or with parents with mental health problems.

What to look out for: signs and symptoms of neglect

Neglect can have a debilitating and long-lasting effect on a child's physical wellbeing, and on their mental, emotional and behavioural development.

In some cases the effects can cause permanent disabilities and, in severe cases, death.

Signs that a child could be suffering from neglect include:

  • living in an inadequate home environment
  • being left alone for a long time
  • being persistently ignored by parents or carers
  • poor appearance and delayed development
  • taking on the role of carer for other family members.

Physical effects of neglect may include:

  • poor muscle tone/prominent joints
  • poor skin: sores, rashes, flea bites
  • thin or swollen tummy
  • poor hygiene, like being dirty or smelly
  • untreated health problems, such as bad teeth
  • unwashed clothing
  • inadequate clothing, like not having a coat in winter

Emotional and behavioural effects may include:

  • difficulties with school work
  • missing school
  • being anxious about, or avoiding, people
  • difficulty in making friends
  • being withdrawn
  • anti-social behaviour
  • early sexual activity
  • drug or alcohol misuse.

What you should do

None of the signs outlined here would indicate for certain that a child is being neglected - busy family homes are often untidy or in need of a vacuum; children get nits and their clothes become dirty.

But children who are severely and persistently neglected may be in danger.

If you think a child is in immediate danger
Contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.

If you're worried about a child, but unsure
Deciding if a child is neglected can be very hard - even for a trained social worker - and it's natural to worry that you may be mistaken.

Some parents and carers simply need more resources and support to properly care for their children, but some have more complex problems. In both cases they need help from professionals.

If your instincts tell you something is wrong, please contact our NSPCC helpline and discuss your concerns with our trained counsellors.

Our counsellors will assess the information you give them and can take action on your behalf, if necessary. Alternatively, you can contact your local policeor children's services.

DO: offer support to the parent or carer if you feel that the situation in less serious and you can talk to them.

DON'T: put yourself at risk. If you think that you may make matters worse, contact the NSPCC first to get advice.

Further help and advice

Find out more about neglect and the services that the NSPCC offers.

You can also find more information at:

Professionals will find research, statistics and guidance on NSPCC inform.

ChildLine 0800 1111

Are you a child?

Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.

Get some help

NSPCC helpline

Worried about a child?

Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.

Report a concern

Contact the helpline in:
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Professional resources

Statistics, research, policy and guidance about neglect for professionals.

Find out more on NSPCC Inform

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Services in your area

We provide services across the UK to protect children from neglect, and to help those children who have been affeced.

See what services are available