‘Child neglect’ or ‘child abuse’ is an ambiguous and all-encompassing term used to describe actions perpetrated by parents on children which are universally deemed harmful by society and as defined by law. Many degrees of child neglect exist within two main categories, emotional/psychological and physical. This paper examines the consequences of child abuse and neglect.
Historically speaking, child neglect is a relatively new concept and its meaning is in a constant state of evolution. Until the early nineteenth century, child neglect was more or less a way of life, especially for poor children. The terminology may be a new concept but the practice is long-lived. Throughout the history of mankind, children have been abandoned, killed, mutilated, kidnapped, raped, jailed and otherwise exploited in various ways. A clear definition of neglect has been the subject of much debate since the 1974 Act was signed into law and will likely continue for a long time to come because every alleged neglect situation is different and societal standards of decency are constantly in a mode of adjustment.
Children do not always suffer negative lifetime effects as a result of neglect. The type of neglect (duration, severity and frequency), child’s age, relationship with parents and psychological/emotional make-up all vary extensively from case to case (Chalk, Gibbons & Scarupa, 2002). Children possess varying abilities to deal with neglect. Some are exceedingly resilient and even thrive after experiencing neglect. Children who are generally optimistic, have a sense of humor, are independent in nature, have a high intellect and high level of self esteem have a better chance to overcome negative experiences. Other factors such as access to a supportive adult, the stability of the surrounding community and degree of health care access are described as ‘protective factors’ that can be helpful in alleviating long-term adverse consequences of child neglect (Thomlison, 1997).
Child neglect has been proven to cause the vital regions of the brain to develop improperly. This results in diminished emotional, mental and physical development which causes a wide-array of maladies. “The stress of chronic abuse causes a ‘hyper-arousal’ response by certain areas of the brain, which may result in hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, and anxiety, as well as increased vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, and learning and memory difficulties” (Dallam, 2001). Neglected children often suffer from feelings of fear, isolation and lose their ability to trust in others which transforms into an increased chance for developing psychological disorders including depression and perceptions of low self-worth, effects which could last a lifetime. Studies have concluded that most children that suffer from neglectful circumstances exhibit deficiencies in emotional and mental health as compared to those that were not. One study found up to 80 percent of those that had been neglected as children were diagnosed with no less than one psychiatric condition by the age of 21. Their psychological problems included anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and eating disorders among others (Silverman, Reinherz & Giaconia, 1996).
Neglected children also experience cognitive impediments. According to the 2003 National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, children who had to be removed from a neglectful home environment placed lower than average when tested on their cognitive aptitudes and language skills which lowered their ability to succeed academically (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). Neglected children, to a much greater extent than others, find difficulty interacting socially. “Children who are abused and neglected by caretakers often do not form secure attachments to them. These early attachment difficulties can lead to later difficulties in relationships with other adults as well as with peers” (Morrison, Frank, Holland, & Kates, 1999). Victims of child neglect have higher incidences of behavioral problems too. Behavioral issues intensify during the teenage years which lead to acts of abusive behavior and acts of delinquency as juveniles and more severe types of offenses as adults. It also increases the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse.
Many influences determine whether a child may be considered ‘at risk’ for neglect. The personality and past experiences of the parent, the family’s economic circumstances and the temperament of the child all are contributing factors to the overall health of the home life. Parents who were themselves victims of neglect, have psychological issues, monetary problems or believe in stern discipline techniques beyond what is commonly considered acceptable are ‘at risk’ for neglecting their children. The child’s gender and age are also factors that could heighten the possibility for neglect. Those more susceptible to neglect include girls, young children, infants and children who have less than affable temperaments. Babies who suffer neglect from being shaken are an all too common occurrence. This form of neglect commonly causes brain damage and death. Instances of neglected infants are more likely to be reported to child services than are the abuses of older children (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996).
During the past century, a national awareness and resulting desire to curb the instances and affects of child neglect has emerged which has caused legislation to be enacted. The definition of neglect and degree to which the government should be involved has been a subject of much debate and research. The long-term effects of child neglect varies depending on the level of neglect and degree to which the child is resilient but unquestionably, it negatively affects the child, family and the whole of society.
Chalk, R., Gibbons, A., & Scarupa, H. J. The multiple dimensions of child abuse and neglect: New insights into an old problem. Washington, DC: Child Trends, (2002).
Dallam, S. J. “The long-term medical consequences of childhood maltreatment.” The cost of child maltreatment: Who pays? We all do. K. Franey, R. Geffner, & R. Falconer (Eds.). San Diego, CA: Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute, (2001).
Morrison, J. A., Frank, S. J., Holland, C. C., & Kates, W. R. “Emotional development and disorders in young children in the child welfare system.” Young children and foster care: A guide for professionals. J. A. Silver, B. J. Amster, & T. Haecker (Eds.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, (1999): 33-64.
Sedlak, A.J. & Broadhurst, D.D. The Third National Incidence Study of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Silverman, A. B., Reinherz, H. Z., & Giaconia, R. M. “The long-term sequelae of child and adolescent abuse: A longitudinal community study.” Child Abuse and Neglect. Vol. 20, N. 8, (1996): 709-723.
Thomlison, B. “Risk and protective factors in child maltreatment.” Risk and resilience in childhood: An ecological perspective. M. W. Fraser (Ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press, (1997).
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being: One year in foster care wave 1 data analysis report. (2003).