Neglect can have serious and long-lasting effects. It can be anything from leaving a child home alone to the very worst cases where a child dies from malnutrition or being denied the care they need.

In some cases it can cause permanent disabilities. Neglect can be really difficult to identify, making it hard for professionals to take early action to protect a child.

Having one of the signs or symptoms below doesn't necessarily mean that a child is being neglected. But if you notice multiple, or persistent, signs then it could indicate there’s a serious problem.

Children who are neglected may have:

They may:

  • be smelly or dirty
  • have unwashed clothes
  • have inadequate clothing, e.g. not having a winter coat
  • seem hungry or turn up to school without having breakfast or any lunch money
  • have frequent and untreated nappy rash in infants.

They may have:

  • untreated injuries, medical and dental issues
  • repeated accidental injuries caused by lack of supervision
  • recurring illnesses or infections
  • not been given required medicines and vaccinations
  • poor muscle tone or prominent joints
  • skin sores, rashes, flea bites, scabies or ringworm
  • thin or swollen tummy
  • anaemia
  • tiredness
  • faltering weight or growth and not reaching developmental milestones (known as failure to thrive)
  • poor language, communication or social skills.

They may be:

  • living in an unsuitable home environment for example dog mess being left or not having any heating
  • left alone for a long time
  • taking on the role of carer for other family members.


Children who are neglected often suffer other forms of abuse.


Things you may notice

If you're worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour. 

  • withdrawn
  • suddenly behaves differently
  • anxious
  • clingy
  • depressed
  • aggressive
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders
  • wets the bed
  • soils clothes
  • takes risks
  • misses school
  • changes in eating habits
  • obsessive behaviour
  • nightmares
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • self-harm
  • thoughts about suicide

If you're worried about a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse.


The impact of neglect

Children who have been neglected may experience short-term and long-term effects that last throughout their life.

Children who don’t get the love and care they need from their parents may find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships with other people later in life, including their own children.

Children who have been neglected are more likely to experience mental health problems including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young people may also take risks, such as running away from home, breaking the law, abusing drugs or alcohol, or getting involved in dangerous relationships - putting them at risk from sexual exploitation.

Effects on relationships and attachment

A parent or carer's behaviour has a big impact on a child. It can also affect the relationship between parent and child.

This relationship, or bond, between a child and their primary caregiver - usually mum or dad but sometimes another family member or carer - is described by attachment theory.

When a child is neglected they don't usually have a good relationship or bond with their parent. Psychologists would describe this as a poor attachment.

Poor attachment can significantly affect the relationships that people have throughout their lives, including how they interact with their own children. Early intervention can change attachment patterns, reducing harm to a child and helping them to form positive attachments in adulthood.

(Howe, 2011)

Effects on brain development

The first years of a child's life have a big impact on how their brain develops. That is why neglect can be so damaging – a child's experiences can change their thought processes and neural pathways.

If a baby is malnourished, neural cells can become weak or damaged and this can cause lowered brain function.

If a child has a poor relationship, attachment or little interaction with a parent then it can change how their brain develops emotional and verbal pathways.

Neglect can severely alter the way a child's brain works. This can lead 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 panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009)

People

Over 21,300 children were identified as needing protection from neglect last year. 

Explanation: There were 21,312 children in the UK on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans under a category that included neglect on 31 March 2013 (or 31 July 2013 in Scotland). This equates to 42% of all the children on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans. This is based on figures from each UK nation and includes all categories that include neglect.

These figures represent children identified and assessed as being at risk of significant harm from neglect.

Find out more about the child protection system in the UK

Neglect is the most common reason for taking child protection action.

Explanation: Neglect is the most common reason for children to be on the child protection register or subject to a child protection plan. It is also the most common reason for people to contact the NSPCC’s helpline and the most common reason for the NSPCC to make referrals to police or children’s services

The NSPCC’s helpline responded to 13,389 contacts about neglect last year. 

Explanation: The NSPCC’s helpline responded to 50,989 contacts in 2012/13, from people who were concerned about a child’s welfare. 13,389 contacts (or 29%) were concerns about neglect. Where concerns indicate a child is at risk of harm, then we refer the concerns on to the police or children’s services. 41% of the referrals that we made to police or children’s services, related to neglect.

Further information and advice

Who is affected by neglect

Why children are at risk from neglect
Read more

Keeping children safe from neglect

How to help keep children safe from neglect
Read more

References

  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway (2009) Understanding the effects of maltreatment on brain development. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services.
    https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/issue_briefs/brain_development/index.cfm

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