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Breaking the Silence: The Devastating Consequences of Early Neglect

Abuse isn’t always easy to detect. While it’s easy to see a bruise or a black eye. Abuse is not always that visible. Some abuse, like neglect, is silent. It must be found by reading between the lines or putting pieces of a puzzle together. For children, especially young children, the only hope they have at receiving help is for an adult to step in and intervene. As Child Abuse Prevention Month wraps up, join us at KVC Nebraska in raising awareness about neglect and how it’s affecting children around the nation. 

What is Neglect? 

Neglect happens when a primary caregiver consistently fails to meet a child’s physical, medical, educational and emotional needs. Neglect is a form of abuse in itself, but it often occurs in conjunction with other types of abuse. This might include physical, emotional, sexual and psychological. 

Surprisingly, neglect is much more prevalent than many believe, and by a landslide. Physical abuse accounts for about 17% of all abuse cases, sexual abuse around 9% and psychological abuse accounts for around 8%. Studies indicate that neglect accounts for about 75% of child mistreatment, far surpassing the abuse rates of other child abuse cases. With a significant difference like this, it’s even more shocking that we don’t discuss childhood neglect more often. Why? Sometimes, it’s due to a misunderstanding of what neglect looks like. 

Types of Neglect

Father teaching son to brush teethIn some cases, neglect may be easily identified. For example, children’s hygiene not be cared for properly, they may fail to appear in school or be undernourished. However, since neglect is the number one form of child abuse, it’s clear that it’s easy to overlook. To help prevent or treat potentially dangerous situations, a basic understanding of neglect is necessary. 

Neglect can take several forms, including:

  • Emotional neglect: The deprivation of love, security and affection that has the potential to inflict serious and lasting effects on a child’s development. 
  • Educational neglect: A caregiver doesn’t ensure their child receives an education.
  • General neglect: This happens when a caregiver fails to provide appropriate food, clothing, shelter, medical assistance or supervision but no physical injury has occurred.
  • Physical neglect: The absence of appropriate or responsive care for a child’s health, safety and wellbeing. 

Neglect can also have different degrees of severity: 

  • Occasional inattention: Independent play and care can be beneficial for children under the right circumstances. If diminished attention occurs on an intermittent basis in an otherwise loving and safe environment, there is no need for intervention for neglect at this stage. 
  • Chronic under-stimulation: This can be witnessed when a child consistently receives a diminished amount of stimulation or responsiveness from their caregivers. Under-stimulation can lead to developmental delays and may require intervention to assist the caregivers and children in recovery. 
  • Severe neglect: This type of neglect can be found in both a family and institutional setting where there is a significant absence of interaction that causes an immediate threat to health or survival. Intervention or removal is necessary to ensure the basic and developmental needs are met. 

The Impact of Childhood Neglect

father and daughter hugging, neglect preventionThe effects of child neglect can be just as devastating as other forms of abuse, and in some cases, even deadly. In fact, national studies show that an estimated 1,750 children died from abuse in 2020, and of those, 72.9% of victims died from neglect. Sadly, those younger than three years old are those affected most by deaths associated with neglect from caregivers. Children who survive neglectful circumstances battle developmental difficulties and lasting mental, emotional and psychological trauma. 

Both acute and chronic cases of neglect during early childhood can have a significant impact on the development of children. Even minor neglect at the wrong time can have major consequences. However, general neglect of a child manifests much like the symptoms and behaviors associated with other forms of abuse. It can look like: 

  • Lack of trust in others (or difficulty establishing trusting relationships)
  • Damage and developmental issues in the brain
  • Stunted or delayed emotional and cognitive processes
  • Toxic stress response
  • Behavioral changes and disruptions
  • Increased risk of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts 
  • Trouble academically
  • Increased likelihood of substance abuse
  • Health issues, including heart, lung and liver diseases

Indications of Neglect: What to Watch For

mother reading book with toddler

Children of all ages, but especially those between infancy and age five, require safe and secure relationships and environments for healthy growth and development. Sharing a loving, caring and safe environment with responsive caregivers helps to create a foundation for children to experience, regulate and express their emotions which leads to the ability to form secure and supportive relationships. 

When this experience is lacking or there are disruptions to a stable environment, it negatively impacts healthy development. Consequently, these disruptions can go on to affect many areas of a child’s life. Neglect isn’t always as easy to spot as other forms of abuse. However, there are a few things to watch out for. 

  • Lacking medical or dental care
  • Frequently sleepy or hungry
  • Demonstrates poor hygiene 
  • Dresses inappropriately for the weather
  • Displays destructive or antisocial behavior
  • Lack of supervision 
  • Unsanitary or dangerous home conditions
  • Undernourished or provided with poor-quality food

Treating Neglect in Children

Child therapy, neglect preventionThough neglect is sometimes hard to spot, there is hope for children who have experienced this kind of trauma. Timely intervention and appropriate treatment can help diminish or even reverse the negative impact of neglect. In less severe instances, counseling, and professional individual and family therapy services like KVC’s Intensive In-Home services are available to provide necessary treatment and support for families who could benefit from education and guidance to improve neglectful behaviors before children are removed from their homes. 

However, for more severe neglect cases, intervention would likely lead to the child’s removal from their caregivers and getting placed into foster care. The lack of responsive care from parents, caregivers or family members will be too great a risk for a child to remain in their care. Although removing children from a neglectful environment and placing them in a responsive and supportive home can be beneficial, it does not guarantee that the negative effects will be reversed. Depending on the state of the child’s health and wellbeing, hospitalization or other treatment might be necessary. There is hope — and we can help.

Spreading awareness brings us one step closer to preventing more neglect of children. But there are organizations, like KVC Nebraska, ready to help families find connection and healing again. Professionals at KVC are trained to interact with clients in a trauma-informed manner to help ensure that they feel safe to receive the best care possible. If a child or family is struggling and in need of extra support, your local KVC is available to assist today. 


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