Social-Emotional Development

Neglected Children

By Kathleen A. Platzman, Ph.D.

Child neglect is not the same as child abuse, although sometimes both abuse and neglect happen to a child. Neglect means that a child does not get enough care and nurturing such as physical care/protection, affection, approval, sympathy, companionship, stimulation/teaching, or appropriate supervision/discipline. For those of us who were not neglected, it is hard to imagine what childhood would have been like if we didn't know someone loved or worried about us. We might remember childhoods that were filled with experiences that taught us we were loved, appreciated and not alone. The supervision and discipline we received, even if not appreciated at the time, told us that someone cared about us.

Neglect can have a broad impact on development. Neglected children can often take care of themselves (e.g. cooking food, putting themselves to bed etc.) at an age when most children typically need help to survive. Also, neglected children don't easily trust adults or authority figures. They know that when the 'chips are down', no one necessarily comes to the rescue. So when neglected children come into foster care or schools, they might meet (often for the first time) adults who truly care about them. This can be confusing to the neglected child because it runs counter to everything they know about the world. Therefore a foster child with a history of neglect often "tests the system" to see at what point the new caregiver will stop caring. For example, the child might hassle her foster parent/teacher, show quick frustration/disappointment in others, socialize poorly, and take care of herself without asking for help. Additionally, she might have difficulty expressing feelings of sadness or anxiety.

In his book, Troubled Transplants, Dr. Richard Delaney describes the experience of neglect as creating very sad or upsetting "mental blue prints", or beliefs, about the world, caretakers, and self. He says that neglected children tend to believe that the world and adults are unsafe, undependable, and even dangerous. This belief makes it unsafe to express feelings of vulnerability, hurt or disappointment.

What causes parents and caretakers to neglect their children? Research shows that neglectful parents often were neglected children themselves. They also tend to be in difficult marriages and relationships, or socially isolated, with few friends or loved ones to turn to for help. They also tend to be impulsive, have poor problem-solving abilities, chaotic lifestyles, and drug and alcohol problems. They often lack knowledge about what makes a good parent. Sadly, they are more likely to have physical and psychiatric problems.

Foster parents and teachers are often quite challenged when they care for a neglected child. It is their job to teacher these children a "new reality". This might take several forms of showing the child that: he is part of a group or family that can be depended upon, that she can trust that her needs will be reliably met, that he can share feelings and thoughts and not be judged harshly, and that people care for her. This is easier said than done. However, therapeutic approaches to neglected children include emphasizing group participation, clearly stating (and showing) that activities are supervised, talking about feelings without judgement, and giving abundant positive attention while minimizing negative attention.
Oftentimes the behavior of children who have a history of neglect can be puzzling or difficult to understand. Understanding their inner feelings of mistrust, sadness and anxiety often helps those who care for them.