How Neglect Can Affect A Child

July 15, 2020

What does neglect look like? What signs or signals will a child who is the victim of neglect display if they are silently calling out for help? Neglect can be difficult to spot. Therefore, a child suffers through or is victimized by neglect for many years (possibly their entire childhood) without being able to receive the help and therapy they so desperately need.

Every child deserves love, protection, and to be cared for. However, at least one out of every ten children have experienced some form of neglect. Understanding what childhood neglect is and how it happens is essential for parents, teachers, and caregivers. It is also crucial to understand what it looks like in a child who is experiencing neglect and what can be done to correct it and help the child or teen overcome the mental health consequences associated with their experiences.

What is Neglect?

Childhood neglect is commonly defined as the ongoing failure of a caregiver to meet a child’s basic needs. Childhood neglect is also the most common form of child abuse. Ongoing neglect can have both short and long-term consequences on the child’s mental health. Neglect can be present in various ways; however, generally speaking, there are four different types of neglect.

  • Physical Neglect: Physical neglect is defined as the failure to meet a child’s basic needs. Basic needs include food, clothing, or shelter. Also, children who are not provided adequate supervision for their age or who are not “kept safe” are considered victims of physical neglect.
  • Educational Neglect: Education neglect arises when a parent, guardian, or caregiver fails to ensure a child is provided a proper education.
  • Emotional Neglect: A child is the victim of emotional neglect when they are not provided with the nurturing and stimulating environment that they need to thrive. This could result from a parent, guardian, or caregiver ignoring, humiliating, intimidating, or isolating the child or teen.
  • Medical Neglect: Medical neglect occurs when a child is not provided with proper health care. This can include seeking adequate dental care or refusing or ignoring medical recommendations.

What Does Neglect Look Like?

As noted above, neglect does not often present itself clearly or distinctly. On the contrary, children and teens who are victims of neglect will often attempt to hide what they are experiencing for a wide variety of reasons, including fear and embarrassment. Children and teens who experience neglect may have:

  • Poor appearance and hygiene: this can include being smelly or dirty, being hungry, having disheveled unwashed clothes, and having the wrong clothing for the season.
  • Health and development difficulties: health and development problems can range from medical development issues to emotional and educational development challenges. Symptoms include poor muscle tone, dental issues, missed medical appointments, poor language skills, regular or frequent illnesses, repeated injuries, skin issues, lethargy, and weight or growth issues.
  • Housing and family difficulties: housing and family issues can be more challenging to see or “notice” than some of the other symptoms of neglect. They aren’t usually visible to those who live outside of the home unit. Housing and family issues may include living in an unsafe (or unsuitable home environment and being left alone for a long time (when not age-appropriate).
  • Behavioral changes: behavioral changes may present as a usually independent and happy child or teen becoming abnormally clingy or aggressive. A child or teen may also become withdrawn, display obsessive behavior, experience changes in eating habits, miss school, exhibit signs of self-harm or begin using drugs or alcohol.

The symptoms of childhood neglect in any form can range from silent and subtle to overt and obvious. The vast majority of damage will remain silent or hidden at first; however, they may begin to present in a more visible or even verbal form over time.

Effects of Childhood Neglect

Those who are emotionally neglected as children often grow into teens and adults who continue to struggle with the ongoing consequences of their experiences. Neglect changes childhood and results in both short and long-term difficulties for children and teens. Some of the most common effects of childhood neglect that can appear during teen or adult years may include the following:

  • Problems with or reductions in brain development
  • Feelings of deep personal flaws
  • Poor self-discipline
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Getting into dangerous relationships
  • Taking risks such as breaking the law or using drugs and alcohol
  • Anger and aggressive behaviors
  • Difficulty trusting others or relying on others
  • Challenges with relationships later in life; including those with their own children

Teens (and adults) who experienced childhood neglect are also at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Disordered eating
  • Anxiety

Also, it is essential to note that adults who experience neglect as children or teens may also become parents who neglect their children. Unfortunately, victims of neglect never learn the importance of their own needs and emotions and may not know how to nurture them in their own children adequately.

Diagnosing Childhood Neglect

Unlike many other childhood and teen mental health conditions, there is no test for detecting childhood emotional neglect. Instead, a diagnosis can be made after symptoms are discovered, and other issues are ruled out. Unfortunately, this often comes after the child has experienced years of physical, emotional, or other forms of neglect without relief. Due to the lack of an “official test,” symptoms must be noticed before a diagnosis, therapy, or other solution can be provided. This means children and teens must suffer from various forms of neglect for an untold amount of time before experiencing relief.

Some forms of emotional neglect, such as medical neglect or educational neglect, might be a little easier to spot. In terms of medical neglect, a child’s primary care provider may notice underlying medical issues such as failure to thrive or frequent illnesses and injuries associated with neglect and choose to look deeper into the child’s situation. As part of their job as a medical provider for that child, they may also notice the caregiver’s lack of interest in their child’s health or well-being, leading them to report their concerns about childhood neglect through proper channels.

Educational neglect may also be easier to spot then emotional or physical neglect. Most states in the United States have educational attendance requirements designed to ensure that children attend school for a specific amount of days during the academic year. Social services organizations, typically through a state’s local child protective services or Family Services departments, receive notifications from schools when children miss too many days. These reports usually spur child protective organizations to research why the child is missing school. This research may sometimes result in findings of emotional and physical neglect in addition to educational neglect.

Treatment for Childhood Neglect

The effects of childhood neglect can extend and persevere throughout one’s lifetime. They could impact your teen’s ability to maintain healthy relationships and an adult’s ability to do the same. Treatment for childhood neglect is likely the same whether the individual seeks treatment as a teen or as an adult who was neglected as a child. There are several different treatment options that can be conducted in various therapy settings depending on the individual’s needs. For long term symptoms associated with childhood neglect, a residential treatment center such as Hillcrest might be the best option. At a residential treatment program, teens have access to care, therapy providers, and communication with peers throughout the day. Residential care programs with experienced providers like Hillcrest offer many different treatment programs, nutrition programs, medical supervision, and around the clock care designed to meet your teen’s individual mental health needs. This type of intensive care provided by highly experienced therapy professionals can help your teen work through the symptoms they are experiencing, which may stem from events they don’t necessarily remember.

As previously noted, there are a variety of treatment options for childhood neglect. Some of these treatment options include:


During a treatment program, a psychologist or therapist will use evidence-based treatment modalities to help your child or teen learn to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. If a child or teen is used to suppressing their feelings, it may be challenging to recognize the emotions they are experiencing, how those emotions affect their day-to-day lives, and how to cope with those emotions in a way that doesn’t cause further difficulties.

Teens who seek treatment may have been suppressing their emotions for a very long time. This can also lead to difficulties expressing emotions in a healthy way. It can also lead to ongoing challenges with emotional regulation as they enter adulthood. Therapists, medical health professionals, and other support providers here at Hillcrest can help both children and teens learn to identify, accept, and express their emotions in a healthy way for both themselves and their loved ones.

Family Therapy

It may seem strange to suggest family therapy for a teen who has experienced childhood emotional elect at home. However, if childhood neglect occurs in the home, family therapy can help both the parents, guardians, or caregivers as well as the child. Therapy providers can help parents understand the impact they are having on their child or teen through their actions while helping them learn to cope with the issues they may already face. For family therapy to be the most successful, early intervention is necessary. The earlier treatment begins, the more likely it will work to both modify and correct the behaviors that lead to neglect and the inevitable consequences that arise from said neglect.

Parenting Classes

Parenting classes are also an option. Parents, guardians, or caregivers who neglect their children emotionally, physically, medically, or educationally could benefit from parenting classes. These courses are designed to help parents or people in a caregiver role learn the skills necessary to recognize, listen to, and respond to a child’s emotions in a positive manner.

Therapy Neglect Hillcrest

Seek Treatment for Childhood Neglect

Childhood neglect can have a long-lasting impact far beyond the years in which it occurs. The aftermath of neglect can result in long term damage to a child’s self-esteem, emotional stability, and medical health. The long-lasting effects of childhood neglect can persist throughout, and individuals’ adult relationships with other adults. It can also have a detrimental impact on their relationships with their own children. Unfortunately, without treatment, childhood neglect can become a generational problem. Seeking treatment for childhood neglect at a residential facility like Hillcrest can help put a child or teen on a healthy path to learning to cope with their emotions and their experiences safely. If you are a teen who has experienced neglect or a caregiver who is concerned about a child or teen who has experienced childhood neglect, contact your local Agoura Hills adolescent treatment center today.