Nobody Leaves their Childhood Unscathed

There is an old saying that goes, “nobody leaves their childhood unscathed.” This is especially true for survivors of childhood neglect. Child neglect is the most frequently-occurring form of child maltreatment in the United States, as well as the leading cause of death in children, and is defined by the American Health Association as the consistent behaviors of a caretaker that result in a lack of meeting a child’s basic needs (American SPCC). The effects of childhood neglect have been noted by psychologists as detrimental to an individual’s physical, cognitive, behavioral and psychological development (National Research Council, 1993). Neglect inhibits development more so than any other forms of child maltreatment (Spratt, 2012). Despite this, neglect is often the most disregarded form of child maltreatment (American SPCC).

Neglect is associated with the disruption of the development of language skills more than any other form of maltreatment (Spratt, 2012). Studies show that the impacts of a child’s neglect will become more detrimental and encompassing the longer the neglect continues without proper intervention during the child’s development (DePanfilis, 2006). It has observed that while child abuse has been on a steady decline for the past twenty years, child neglect has been equally on a steady rise (American SPCC, 2016). This may explain the inclination of juvenile charges, childhood depression, and child suicide rates (Rhodes, 2012). The effects of childhood neglect typically follow the child into adulthood, and often cause the victims to subconsciously perpetuate negligence by neglecting their children themselves (American SPCC). This is commonly called the “cycle of abuse.”

Prevention and intervention are the most effective methods for preventing future child neglect. It is important that these services are implemented as early as possible within a parent-child relationship, as studies indicate that early parental training is significantly more likely to decrease the likelihood of future child than later training (DePanfilis, 2006, p. 55). Risk-factors can result in a caregiver’s deficit in parenting, while protective factors can aid in a caregiver’s parenting skills and utilization of available resources (DePanfilis, 2006). However, in order for successful intervention to occur, one must be skilled in assessing the situation. To access the situation, means to be able to recognize the various possible indications of child neglect. For assessment to occur, one must first have the ability to recognize and understand the signs, factors and severity of neglect. One must also have an understanding of the various forms of child neglect: Physical, Medical, Emotional, and Educational/Developmental neglect (National Research, 1993).

Physical neglect is the commonly occurring form of neglect, and it refers to the deficit of a caretaker to provide for a child’s basic physical needs required for successful development. Physical needs of a child include: Adequate nutrition, clothing, hygiene, and safety (Depanfilis, 2006).

Nutritional neglect – This occurs when a child is frequently dehydrated, undernourished or malnourished. Nutritional neglect occurs most often when: the child is often left without proper supervision or are living in poverty (Depanfilis, 2006). This type of neglect can impact a child’s physical and brain development, create permanent health problems, lead to an early death, and can create a sense of insecurity within the child that can carry into adulthood (Cohen, 2016; Spratt, 2012).

Clothing neglect – When a child lacks access to sufficient clothing. Observable indicators of clothing neglect are: tattered, ill-fitting, dirty clothing, or clothing that is not appropriate for weather conditions or setting. This type of neglect occurs most frequently in households below the poverty line (National Research Council, 1993).

Other types of physical neglect also occur when the child has persistently poor hygiene, such as uncombed hair, dirty odor, or dirty appearance. Improper supervision is also physical neglect and includes when the caretaker intentionally leaves the child alone for an extended period, leaves the child with inappropriate supervision, or when the caretaker abuses substances (American SPCC, 2016).

Behavioral indicators of physically neglected children include: The exhibition of infant-like maladaptive behaviors to cope with stress, such as thumb-sucking or using a pacifier, or other maladaptive behaviors such as excessive sleeping, self-isolation and aggression (DePanfilis, 2006).

There are also behaviors and traits of a caregiver that can be correlated with negligence (DePanfilis, 2006). However, these characteristics do not always indicate neglect, rather, it increases the likelihood of neglect. Indicators of a physically neglectful parent may include: Apathetic or indifferent attitude toward child, views the child as burdensome, mental or physical illness, generalized anxiety, or substance abuse (Bennett, 2014).

Medical neglect is defined as refusal or delay in essential medical treatment of a child. Consequences of medical neglect in children can be noted through a child’s appearance, health, and behavior (DePanfilis, 2006). Visual indications of child neglect include an obviously undergrown child, a consistently sick child, untreated wounds or dental problems, or presence of lice (American SPCC, 2016). Behavioral indications of medically-neglected child include lack of energy, aggression, mood swings and depression (National Research, 1993).

Emotional neglect is defined by the Department of Children and Families as the act of a caregiver denying a child of her right to receive proper attention and care. This form of neglect occurs when a caretaker willfully ignores a child’s emotional needs, consistently shows a disinterest in the feelings of the child, lacks the ability to meet the child’s emotional needs, or does not display love toward the child (DePanfilis, 2006). The emotionally-neglected child lives in an environment where she feels insecure, unloved, and unwanted. Often, a caretaker will unsuccessfully attempt to protect the child from exposure to their partner’s substance abuse or violent behaviors (National Research, 1993).

Children who have been emotionally neglected will often exhibit indicators of the neglect. Behavioral indicators include signs of depression, lack of language skills, lack of empathy, and aggression. Visual indicators may include a persistent apathetic expression on her face, and lack of expression of emotion (Child Welfare, 2009).

Caregivers who are emotionally neglectful may appear cold and indifferent toward their child or will have stressors that inhibit their ability to properly meet a child’s emotional needs, such as domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or financial issues (Bennett, 2014).

Emotional neglect can inhibit a child’s brain development, especially parts of the brain related to language and expression (Spratt, 2012). Adults who have experienced childhood emotional neglect will often have anxious or avoidant attachment styles, depression, anxiety, and empathy skills (Cohen, 2016).

Educational neglect occurs when a guardian fails to supply or ensure the child a proper education. Examples of these incidents include inattentiveness to special education needs, allowing continuing truancy, and the failure to enroll a child in school (National Research Council). A child enduring this type of neglect will often live in an unstable environment (Child Welfare, 2009).

Children who have been neglected educationally often exhibit difficulties being in a class-room environment and will often not attend school. A child who has been educationally neglected will likely show signs of lower intelligence; however, this is only one possible indicator of educational neglect, and may actually be related to other forms of neglect, abuse, or a cognitive disability (DePanfilis, 2006). Caregivers who are neglectful toward a child’s educational needs will often blame the child for problems regarding school. They also often appear indifferent towards a child’s education (Child Welfare, 2009).

Consequences of educational neglect include the increased likelihood of brain underdevelopment, intellectual delays, presence of attention-deficit disorders, low-self-esteem and other problems continuing into adulthood (Cohen, Joseph, 2016). Children who are uneducated are also more likely to have juvenile charges or be taken advantage of (American SPCC, 2016). Education is essential for a child to develop because an educational environment instills stability and richness, encourages achievement, and helps stimulate a sense of self. A child may have self-esteem issues concerning their education, and this can carry over into adulthood (Cohen, 2016). The uneducated child’s attention difficulties, lack of stability, brain underdevelopment, can cause the child to have difficulty learning later in life. Studies show that the longer a child goes without an education, the more unlikely it is that the child will pursue education later in life (Spratt, 2012).

Understanding the different types of neglect and their signs will help one better understand how to recognize neglect. However, before attempting to help stop neglect, one must be able to perform a risk assessment – that is, determining the likelihood of future child neglect within a certain family by measuring the presences of risk factors and protective factors (Child Welfare, 2012)

The household of a neglected child often has certain traits that increase the likelihood of neglect, called risk factors. Risk factors are conditions in a family whose presence increase the likelihood of child neglect. Risk factors can be reduced by strategies of prevention and intervention. However, a successful strategy will also include the integration of Protective factors, which are factors that are linked to decreased instances of child neglect (National Research Council, 1993).

The factors relating to childhood neglect can typically be categorized into three different levels: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Economic level (National Research Council, 1993). These levels have different risk and protective factors that interact with one another, and typically focuses on a woman’s role with these levels This may be because mothers are more likely expected to be responsible for a child’s needs, regardless of parenting skills. The intrapersonal level primarily focuses on the mother’s characteristics and attitudes that may contribute to neglect. The interpersonal level examines the relationship dynamics between the mother and her own mother, her partner, and other family members. At the Social/Economic level, the stressors related to poverty and social environment often are associated with child neglect (National Research Council, 1993).

Risk-factors that exist on the intrapersonal level often stem from: A history of childhood neglect, substance abuse, lack of meaningful relationships, single-parent households, lack of parenting skills, lack of problem-solving skills, lack of knowledge about neglect, and mental illness (DePanfilis, 2006). A study conducted in 2011 showed that one in four mothers are neglectful, and the likelihood of maternal neglect is four times more likely if the mother experienced neglect from her own mother (Thornberry, 2012). Young mothers and mothers of children that were a result of an unplanned pregnancy more likely than their counterparts to be neglectful, as well as more likely to live in poverty. Women who were reported as victims of physical abuse are more likely to be insensitive and unattuned to their child’s needs (National Research Council, 1993). Most of the applicable characteristics at the intrapersonal level are relatively the same to any gendered caretakers (DePanfilis, 2006).

The interpersonal level examines the familial and spousal relationship dynamics of the mother, the availability of resources within a family, and the stressors that affect the family’s ability to function. As stated in the intrapersonal level, mothers who have been neglected by their own mothers are more likely to neglect their children. The interpersonal level examines the mother’s current relationship with her own mother, and how this relationship may cause the mother to be hesitant to accept or request resources from her mother. A significant number of neglected children live in homes headed by single mothers, or mothers with a transient male partner. Mothers in these situations will often be unable to cope with the responsibilities of parenting on her own, which leads to neglect. (National Research Council, 1993). Domestic violence increases the risk for child neglect considerably, and the substance abuse of the caretaker or caretaker’s partner also increases the risk for negligence (Thornberry, Terence, 2012).

The Socio-economic level examines the factors between poverty and child neglect. Often, families of a low social class are more at risk for child neglect. This is because poverty typically coexists with additional adversaries, which lead to additional stressors that increase the risk of child neglect (DePanfilis, 2006). Because of limited financial resources, lower-class parents are less likely to purchase necessary resources for their children, which can lead to a child’s lower academic grades, and juvenile records (Rhodes, 2012). A common adversity of a lower-class family, especially with single parents, is the inability to work to provide financially for a child while also providing the child with proper supervision and meeting their emotional needs (National Research Council, 1993).

Now that one can recognize risk factors, one can now properly carry out strategies to reduce the likelihood of future child neglect. As stated in the beginning of this paper, the most effective strategies for reducing risks are prevention and intervention.

Prevention is the act of reducing risk-factors and forming protective factors before child neglect occurs. Although this method is typically applied to at-risk families, prevention is useful for all expecting parents. Intervention is when an outside individual helps improve the caregiver’s parenting skills by promoting protective factors and reducing risk-factors. Intervention may also include social workers removing the child from the environment, if the negligence continues or in cases of extreme negligence (Child Welfare, 2009.)

The most effective strategies of prevention and intervention by means of the incorporation of protective factors include parenting classes, integration of a support system, marital/familial counseling, knowledge of available resources, enrollment of the child in a childcare center, and, if applicable, reconciliation with childhood maltreatment. Studies show that expecting parents who receive parenting classes are less likely to neglect their children (Child Welfare, 2009). This may relate to the fact many of negligent parents do not understand the consequences of their behavior on their children (American SPCC, 2016). Marital counseling is found to be beneficial in reducing the likelihood of child neglect. The accumulation of friends who are non-neglectful parents will also serve as a protective factor; this may be because of the social norm of taking care of one’s children. Protective factors help families care for their children by providing them with information, resources, and fulfilling relationships (Child Welfare, 2009).

Strategies which involve the removal of risk-factors may include the incorporation of substance abuse counseling, parenting classes, enrollment of the child in a childcare center, marital counseling or the divorce of a toxic partner (Thornberry, 2012). Counseling and other classes for the parent are shown to be effective in preventing child neglect by discouraging the ignorance of resources. A child day-care center is beneficial for a parent whose negligence is caused by the stresses related to parenting, as well as beneficial for the child’s emotional needs. At times, divorce/separation from a toxic partner is necessary to prevent neglect. Much of child neglect occurs because of domestic abuse and a caretaker’s domineering partner (Bennett, 2014). The removal of risk-factors will cause the addition of protective factors to be more effective in preventing child neglect (Child Welfare, 2009).

Studies indicate that the most crucial step in preventing child neglect is by the activation of social services. The implementation of preventative and interventive measures are most effective if done by an authoritative figure such as a social worker. The authoritative-effect of social workers upon a caregiver will more likely cause the caregiver to address the factors related to child neglect (DePanfilis, 2006). An individual can best utilize his or her own knowledge about child neglect by learning to identify key factors that increase the risks of child neglect. The sooner the suspected neglect is reported, the better the chances of preventing further abuse and the proper treatment of neglected children are. By reporting suspected neglect to proper authorities, the chances of child neglect are significantly decreased compared to a non-trained individual attempting to reduce the risks on his or her own. The best step that a citizen can take in reducing suspected child neglect is by reporting suspected child neglect to the local children protection services as soon as possible (National Research Council, 1993).

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Nobody leaves their childhood unscathed. (2021, Apr 24). Retrieved September 23, 2022 , from

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