Why do parents neglect their children

Neglect of children

Child neglect is when a child's basic needs, such as care, food, or affection, are consciously or unconsciously neglected. The consequences of neglect range from developmental and personality disorders to physical harm.

Playing together and having an open ear for wishes and fears is not a matter of course for many children. According to experts, parents often leave their children to their own devices much too early. If children are neglected, they often not only suffer psychological damage, but are later also affected by physical problems.

What does a child need?

For a child's mental, emotional and physical development to be healthy, their basic needs must be met. Unlike adults, children depend on the support of others to meet their needs. They need reliable, stable and predictable social relationships that give them support, stimulation and care for their personal development. The following basic needs (see also "Maslow’s hierarchy of needs") have a say in the development of a child:

  • physical needs, such as: sleep-wake rhythm, food, personal hygiene, health care and body contact
  • Need for security, such as: protection against dangers and diseases
  • Belonging and love need, such as: belonging to social communities, emotional closeness and connectedness
  • Appreciation and appreciation need, such as: unconditional recognition as a valuable person, support in developing one's own individuality, independence
  • Need for stimulation, play and performance, such as: promoting curiosity, support with experiences and exploring the environment, stimulating interest, strengthening intrinsic motivation
  • Need for self-realization, such as: development of skills and talents, pursuit of individual goals in life, development of awareness


What does neglect mean?

nter neglect (also neglect) is generally understood to mean the continuous or repeated failure to provide care by persons responsible for care (e.g. parents), which would be necessary to ensure the mental and physical care of a child. It is a form of abuse. If the basic needs of a child are not met over a longer period of time, this can have serious consequences for their emotional, mental and physical development. Neglect occurs, for example, when children are insufficiently nourished, cared for, encouraged, supervised with health care or protected from danger. The following applies: the younger the children, the greater the risk of permanent physical and mental damage. The risk of life-threatening or fatal consequences resulting from neglect is also greater for young children than for older ones.

Neglect occurs in all social classes. Often, financial worries, relationship problems or abuse in one's own childhood are risk factors that parents or caregivers neglect their own child. Overtaxing and exhaustion often result in indifference towards the child.

Usually there are two forms of neglect - physical and emotional / psychological neglect. Since the two forms can often not be clearly separated from one another, mixed forms can also occur. The sick, disabled and other needy people are also often affected by neglect.


What is physical neglect?

Physical neglect occurs when parents or caregivers do not or insufficiently guarantee the child the necessary basic care. In extreme cases, physical neglect can even lead to death.

Examples of neglect of physical needs include:

  • Insufficient supply of food and fluids
  • Inappropriate clothing (e.g. if the child does not wear clothing appropriate to the season)
  • Insufficient personal hygiene (e.g. if the child always wears soaked diapers)
  • Irregular sleeping times that are not age-appropriate
  • Inadequate medical or health care (e.g. if the child is sick very often)
  • No security against everyday dangers (e.g. poisoning, apartment fires, accidents, etc.), insufficient supervision


What is psychological neglect?

Psychological or emotional neglect usually manifests itself in careless handling and disparaging care for the child. For example, emotional neglect is when:

  • Too little attention and care is given to children
  • Children are left alone all the time
  • Children are not supervised according to their age and are exposed to dangers
  • Children do not receive attention and love
  • Children are constantly exposed to cold feelings
  • Children are disregarded
  • Hostility towards children
  • Children are constantly being yelled at
  • Constantly condescending criticism of the child and is never praised
  • Children are denied social contact with their peers and adults
  • the child is not supported in making their own experiences
  • the child is not valued

+++ More on the topic: Violence against children and adolescents +++


How do you recognize a neglected child?

If a child is neglected, it is usually not visible to outsiders. This can be particularly dangerous for babies and toddlers, as they cannot defend themselves and are helplessly exposed to abuse. Often a child has already been neglected for a long period of time when the consequences become visible. In order to recognize child neglect at an early stage, it is therefore important to know the symptoms and possible "warning signs" of a child.

Physical symptoms:

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Disturbed social behavior
  • Lack of distance or complete withdrawal
  • Difficult contact with other children or adults
  • Restricted gaming behavior
  • Hyperactivity
  • indifference
  • sleep disorders
  • eating disorder

+++ More on the topic: Sexual violence against children +++

Mental symptoms:

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Learning difficulties

How should one act if neglect is suspected?

If you suspect that a child is being neglected around you, the first thing to do is to remain calm and consider the following:

  • Avoid rash actions. Noticeable symptoms can also have completely different causes. Try to establish contact with the affected child and offer your help.
  • If you suspect neglect, get professional help from the competent authorities and contact a child protection center, for example. You know what to do and what subsequent steps must be taken!
  • Reconsider a police report. If the police find insufficient evidence of neglect, the child cannot be guaranteed effective protection. In the event of a suspected case, the child often has to continue to live in the same environment and may be exposed to an even greater risk after the report. Remember: the child's best interests are paramount.

+++ More on the topic: Help with child abuse +++

How can you prevent neglect?

In special parenting and child protection training courses in schools, kindergartens and after-school care centers, parents and caregivers can learn which symptoms indicate whether a child is in danger, how to proceed in a suspected case and what the legal framework conditions are.

+++ More on the topic: How can child abuse be prevented +++

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Tanja Unterberger, Bakk. phil.
Medical review:
Dr. Sigrid Maria Schmidl-Amann

Updated on:

Guideline "Violence against Children and Young People" from the Federal Ministry of the Interior; www.kinderrechte.gv.at (last access, November 20, 2017)

How to deal with child abuse and neglect: Recommendations for child protection at clinics. German Society for Child Protection in Medicine 2016 http://www.kindesmisshandlung.de/mediapool/32/328527/data/DGKiM-DAKJ_KSG-Leitfaden_1.61-23.12.2016.pdf (last access, November 20, 2017)

"Violence against children and adolescents", guidelines for child protection work in health professions. Federal Ministry for Health, Family and Youth 2008 https://www.gewaltinfo.at/uploads/pdf/Leitfaden-Kinderschutzgruppen-2011.pdf (last accessed on November 20, 2017)

Brazelton, T.B./Greenspan, S. I. (2002): The seven basic needs of children. What every child needs to grow up healthy, learn well and be happy. BELTZ Verlag, Weinheim and Basel

Resch, F./Lehmkuhl, U. (2008): On the development of child-like personality: Basic needs and demands on the social environment In: Early childhood. The first six years. 2/08

Egle, Hoffmann, Joraschky (2004): Sexual abuse, mistreatment, neglect: Recognition, therapy and prevention of the consequences of early experiences of stress. Schattauer-Verlag, Stuttgart.

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