What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being neglected
Children need adequate food, water, shelter, warmth, protection and health care. They also need their carers to be attentive, dependable and kind. Children are neglected if these essential needs – the things they need to develop and grow – are persistently not met.
There are many signs that may indicate neglect; if your common sense and instincts tell you that something is wrong then you should take action.
Children may be neglected because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, although most children from such backgrounds are well-cared-for. A child’s circumstances may also make them more vulnerable to neglect, such as children who are in care or seeking asylum.
Some adults find it difficult to organise their lives, which can lead to a chaotic home life for children. Some adults simply do not understand the needs of their children, possibly because they did not experience adequate parenting themselves. These adults sometimes neglect their children's physical needs.
Other adults find it difficult to show their feelings. This difficulty can cause them to neglect their children's emotional needs. For example, a parent may give gifts to their child as a substitute for feelings they are unable to express.
Mental health problems, domestic abuse, and drug or alcohol misuse, may also affect a parent’s ability to meet their children's needs.
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. The effects of physical 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
The effects of neglecting a child's mental development may include:
- difficulties with school work
- missing school.
The effects of neglecting a child's emotional development may include:
- being anxious about, or avoiding, people
- difficulty in making friends
- being withdrawn.
The effects of neglecting a child's behavioural development may include:
- anti-social behaviour
- early sexual activity
- drug or alcohol misuse.
The effects may last into adulthood and may cause a person to neglect their own children later in life.
An inadequate home environment may suggest that a parent cannot cope and can be a sign that children are being neglected; as are adults who leave their children alone for long periods, persistently ignore them, or fail to properly supervise or protect them from danger. And where adults have mental health problems, suffer violence in the home, or have a drug or alcohol addiction, it is possible that the children in their care may be neglected.
Poor appearance and delayed development (see Effects) are also common signs that may indicate a child is being neglected. A child taking on the role of carer of other family members, in the absence of a parent, is another sign.
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.
However, children who are severely and persistently neglected may be in danger. Some adults 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.
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. However, if your common sense or instincts tell you something is wrong, it's important that you discuss your concerns with a professional.
You can discuss your concerns with the NSPCC. Our counsellors will assess the information you give them and can take action on your behalf, if necessary. Alternatively, you can contact your local police or children's services.
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 the situation is less serious, and if you feel able, you could talk to the parent or carer concerned about their situation – you may be able to offer some support, like helping out with some housework. However, if you are worried that you may be putting yourself at risk, or you think that you may make matters worse, contact the NSPCC first to get advice.
NSPCC: Advice and support for adults concerned about a child.
Police: Emergency and non-emergency police services.
Family Lives: Help and support in all aspects of family life.
Sure Start: Service centres for children and families.
Are you a child?
Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.
Worried about a child?
Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.
Information for professionals
Get more detailed information from our website for professionals.