Child Neglect

Child neglect is a form of child abuse. Child neglect involves failure to provide for a child's basic physical, medical, emotional, or educational needs. It also includes failure to protect a child from harm, potential harm, or allowing the child to witness violence or abuse to others. Child neglect is thought to be the most common type of child abuse. Most often, the neglecter is the child's biological parent, but other caretakers can also be neglecters. Harm to the child may or may not be intended.


Child neglect occurs at every social, economic, and educational level. It occurs in all ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Neglect often occurs over a long period of time. Child neglect may be more likely to occur in the following situations:

  • After an unplanned or difficult pregnancy.

  • During a family crisis.

  • If a child is born prematurely, is difficult to feed, has a serious illness or disability, is adopted, or has a defiant personality.

  • If the caretaker was a victim of neglect during childhood.

  • If the caretaker is young, has little education, is a single parent, or has a large number of children and low income.

  • If the caretaker has substance abuse and mental health problems, such as depression or low self-esteem.

  • If the caretaker lacks social support and is socially isolated.

Caretakers may lack parenting skills and understanding of children's needs.


The caretaker's explanation for the child's condition may change with each retelling.

A neglected child may:

  • Be very hungry.

  • Have poor hygiene.

  • Wear clothing that is not appropriate for the weather.

  • Seem to have little or no adult supervision.

  • Stop developing at a normal weight and height for his or her age.

  • Begin to perform poorly in school.

  • Be unable to concentrate in school.

  • Have little interest in recreational activities.

  • Be socially and emotionally withdrawn, depressed, or apathetic.

  • Have trouble forming social relationships with adults and other children. He or she may become antisocial.

  • Revert to young child behaviors. This may include bedwetting or thumb-sucking.

  • Develop an eating disorder.

  • Think he or she has imaginary illnesses (hypochondria).

  • Show signs of hostility.

  • Develop destructive or self-destructive behavior.

  • Show emotional extremes. This can include:

  • Excessive or no crying.

  • Very aggressive or very passive behavior.

  • Being highly fearful or fearless.

  • Also show signs of physical abuse.

Children often feel shame about their abuse or fear of their abuser. The abuser may have threatened the child if he or she tells anyone about the abuse. A child who is inappropriately fearful of adults may be showing signs of neglect.


Neglect can result in lasting mental, physical, and emotional injury to a child and can be life-threatening. Children under age 4 are most likely to suffer serious or life-threatening problems. Long-term problems can include:

  • Long-term thinking, language, and physical development problems. Neglected children have trouble with learning and school performance.

  • Inability to socialize normally with adults or other children. This can affect the child's ability to develop healthy, intimate relationships as an adult.

  • Long-term psychological and emotional problems. This can include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug abuse, and suicide attempts.

  • Greater risk as an adult for smoking, alcoholism, severe obesity, sexual promiscuity, and certain diseases.


Contact your local child protective services, a child abuse hotline, or crisis center for help right away.

If you are being neglected:

  • Do not blame yourself for the neglect.

  • Find someone you can trust. Talk to them about the problem. This may be a family member, teacher, school counselor, or member of your church or community group. Your doctor can put you in contact with someone who will help stop the neglect.

  • Once you are in contact with child protective services or someone else you trust, always be honest in telling your story.

  • Stay hopeful. The situation can and will improve after you take action to protect yourself and bring professional attention to the problem.

If you or your partner is neglecting a child:

  • You must seek help immediately. If you do not, you could seriously injure or threaten the life of the child. Neglect can cause long-term emotional and physical effects. Child neglect is a crime.

  • Do not ignore the problem. Reach out for professional help in your community.

When abuse is reported:

  • The child is not always removed immediately from the home.

  • The report is anonymous. In most states, you do not need to provide your name.

  • The abuser is not entitled to know who reported him or her.


There is no simple approach to the treatment of child abuse and neglect. Treatment often involves:

  • Working with each family member.

  • Treatment teams. This often includes health professionals, social workers, mental health specialists, lawyers, and community workers.

  • Parenting classes, parent-effectiveness training, and information on child development.


Contact your local child protective services, a child abuse hotline, or crisis center for help right away.

  • Call your local emergency services (911 in U.S.).

  • Call your local child abuse hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453 in U.S. or Canada).

  • Visit the Childhelp website:

  • Contact your local health department, medical center, hospital, or other social service providers. They can refer you to an organization that provides specific services to help.