Understanding child neglect

CFCA Paper No. 20 – April 2014

Effects of neglect

The effect that exposure to neglect has on children varies and some children are more resilient than others. In general, more severe, prolonged neglect results in more severe effects (Gunnar & Fisher, 2006).

Children are seldom exposed to only one form of maltreatment. Studies that address only neglect are uncommon, and often studies refer to neglect and other forms of abuse rather than specifically relating to neglect. Additionally, research varies according to sample age, exposure, and population groups, as well as the definition of neglect used and so results from some studies may not apply to the general population or across population groups. Despite this, there is little doubt that neglected children suffer serious negative outcomes and that neglect appears to have serious negative effects on the cognitive emotional and social development of children (Gilbert et al., 2009).

The effects of neglect vary according to the form or "subtype" of neglect. For example, a failure to provide adequate supervision may result in unintended injury, but a failure to provide nurturing in infancy will result in different outcomes. The effects of neglect are also influenced by the length of time that the neglect occurs.

The effect that neglect has on children also varies according to the developmental stage in which it occurs (Gunnar & Fisher, 2006). Neglect that occurs in the first 2 years of life has been demonstrated to be associated with childhood aggression (AIHW, 2013). In babies, neglect can affect all areas of cognitive, social, and emotional functioning (Perry, 2000) and can result in an impaired attachment style (Dubowitz, 2013). There is strong evidence to support links between neglect and delays in cognitive and emotional development (Mayhew, 2011), and impaired levels of feelings of competence (Gaudin et al., 1996). Neglected children are at increased risk for childhood internalising and externalising behaviour and a lack of ego resiliency (Fallon et al., 2013). They often have low self-esteem, poor impulse control, and express more negative and less positive self affect (Gaudin, 1993). Neglected children also have an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to children who were not neglected (Jonson-Reid, Drake, & Zhou, 2013).

Compared to adolescents and young adults not exposed to neglect in childhood, those who were exposed to neglect are more likely to engage in substance abuse (Schumaker, 2012), risky sexual behaviour (Westad & McConnell, 2012), and demonstrate aggression and violent behaviours (VanDorn, Volavka, & Johnson, 2012). These behaviours and consequences are likely to flow on to their adult lives. Adults who were neglected as children are more likely to have worse economic outcomes (Schumaker, 2012) and are more likely to require social service support (Peduzzi, Concato, Kemper, Holford, & Feinstein, 1996). The physical effects of childhood neglect also manifest with greater rates of adult obesity than for adults who were not neglected in childhood (Gilbert et al., 2009).

While this summary of some of the effects of neglect on children is not exhaustive, it emphasises the importance of a child protection system capable of an appropriate response to neglect. From a child protection response perspective, one of the impediments to responding to child neglect is that it is often not related to one specific event but a long-term developmental issue (McSherry, 2007).