Child Neglect

Child Neglect:

Child neglect defined: When a caregiver fails to provide those basic human needs that are necessary for a child/youth to grow into a healthy adult.

Other Child Neglect information on this page:

Signs Effects Statistics

Children need four specific behaviours from caring adults in order to develop into mature, healthy adults (Mosher, 19941):
  1. Verbal communication skills

  2. A safe environment to explore both physically and socially

  3. Their needs met appropriately according to their developmental stage

  4. The verbal & non-verbal expression of positive feelings towards them.

Signs of Neglect

Understanding the basic human needs is the key to recognizing the signs of child neglect.

Children are dependent on adults from the time they are born. The absence of some or all the basic needs determines whether or not neglect exists.

Basic human needs are split into two categories: emotional needs and physical needs.

Basic Human Needs:

Emotional Needs
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Caring and Love

Though it seems obvious, it's important enough to say anyway: A caregiver would show caring and love with hugs and kisses, compliments, spending time with the child. The child needs to feel important. A caregiver could very well love the child, but if the child doesn't feel loved, then neglect is probable.

Hugs and Kisses

Hugs and kisses are included several times within these examples, because hugs and kisses encompass both the physical and emotional fundamentals of the basic human needs. Here it is listed as an emotional need; children feel loved when there is human contact. More about this under 'physical needs'.


Most caregivers would agree that children should respect them and other adults. However, many caregivers fail to realize that respect is a two-way street, and that children learn to respect by being respected, not by being told to respect others. This is not to say that discipline can't enter the picture; firmness and decisiveness is an integral part of parenting.

Respecting a child comes in the form of listening to a child, speaking to the child in a way that demonstrates respect for the emotional and physical well-being of the child. A child who is constantly put down, degraded, and/or otherwise left feeling as though they don't matter is a child suffering from neglect, a child not getting their basic human needs met.

Moral Guidance and Discipline

Moral guidance is teaching a child right from wrong. Discipline is following through to ensure the child is learning the lesson.

Time Together

Time together means communicating and interacting with a child. With small children it can be getting down on the floor with the child and playing and talking with them. With youth, going out to watch the youth's soccer or football game(s), taking her/him to the mall for shopping, and having dinner with the family are three examples of communicating with adolescents.

Encouragement, Reassurance, Praise, Support and Attention

A child needs to feel valued. Phrases such as "Well done!", "Good job!", etc. are clear examples of encouragement, praise, support, and attention.

Reassurance is the act of making a child feel a sense of self-worth. This is particularly important when a child/youth makes mistakes. If the child is berated for these mistakes, his/her self-esteem is adversely affected. Low self-esteem is one of the signs of child neglect. Focusing on the positive instead of dwelling on the negative is a powerful way to ensure a healthy self-worth.

Listening Ears

Of the basic human needs, listening ears is as simple as it sounds: paying attention and hearing what a child has to say, without judgment.

Education An education falls under basic needs because a child must learn to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide in order to effectively contribute to society as an adult. An education is mandatory in North America. It is the responsibility of parents or caregivers to send their child to school--in Canada, kindergarten through grade 12--or to home school their child. It is the child/youth's responsibility to do homework.

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Physical Needs
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Though there is room for what we call junk food in a child's diet, overall, food has to be nutritious and should follow basic nutritional guidelines: fruit, vegetables, proteins, grains and cereals. Adequate quantity of food is just as important as quality. Poor nutrition is one of the top signs of child neglect.

With poverty, food is often the first of the basic human needs that is neglected. Does this mean there is neglect if proper nutrition is not provided when a family is stricken with poverty? If neglect by definition is a choice as identified earlier in this page, then the answer to this question must be a resounding 'no'.

But the answer isn't as simple as that. And even if the answer is no, the child or children are not getting proper nutrition, regardless of the cause.


Clothing must be clean and appropriate for the weather: warm coat and boots for winter, and adequate clothing to protect from other outdoor elements. This is one of the signs of child neglect that is most often noticed.


The criteria for appropriate shelter is that it be warm, dry, clean and safe. Housing can be an apartment, basement suite, house, or any lodgings that fit the above guidelines. Inappropriate housing is another of the most determinable signs of child neglect.

Safe Environment

A safe environment encompasses all aspects of safety in, around and outside of the home (like safe driving when in the car), and takes into account the age of the child or children. This not only means keeping the child safe from harsh outdoor elements, the removal of dangerous surroundings, and the incorporation of safety rules, it also includes ensuring that young children are not left unattended around hot stoves, ovens, furnaces, hot water, etc.


Supervision is generally not thought of when considering the basic human needs. It is often one of the signs of child neglect that is determined only after a child is injured in some way.

For small children, supervision means not leaving them unattended. Supervision is required daily and during potentially dangerous activities such as swimming and driving.

With adolescents, supervision means asking where the youth is going, who he/she is going with, what time he/she will be back, and imposing curfews. Again, I'm stating the obvious when I say a caregiver needs to know where their children or youth are at all times, otherwise child neglect is present.

Good Hygiene

Good hygiene is as simple as making sure the child is bathed regularly and that their hair is clean. In terms of signs of child neglect, your sense of smell is the best indicator here.

Medical and Dental Care

Medical care means getting a child to the doctor in a timely manner when the child is not feeling well, the child is in pain, has a fever, and/or the child is vomiting.

Dental care requires that a caregiver provide a toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss for the child to keep their teeth clean. If a child has a toothache, the caregiver must get him/her in to see a dentist. Rotting teeth, coupled with ongoing bad breath is one of the signs of child neglect.

NOTE:  Braces or other orthodontal work are not considered basic human needs.

Physical Touch: Hugs and Kisses

Here we are with hugs and kisses listed again, this time as a physical need. The act of touching is a primary need for children, for human beings in general. This primary need was tragically demonstrated during war time when orphaned babies, too many for the scant reserve of nursing staff to hold, rock or even touch, except for occasional diaper changes, died as a result of lack of human contact.

Adequate Rest

Adequate rest is paramount for children and youth to function properly. This is not just curfews for youth, but with a small child it means she/he needs to be in bed early to ensure the child gets enough sleep. Also, a mattress, clean sheets and an appropriately warm blanket are necessary to provide a setting for the child to get adequate rest. If a child is constantly too tired to perform day to day activities, or if the child is frequently dozing off, these may be signs of child neglect.

Exercise and Fresh Air

Exercise and fresh air are two of the basic human needs that Canadian schools have taken into account with our mandated physical education program. While there is no predetermined number of hours set as the minimum required, experts advise that children should receive at least 3 hours of exercise per week, and 1 hour of fresh air daily.

Did You Know[Research into common characteristics shared by neglectful parents show that] many neglecting mothers possessed a limited capacity to meet their child's needs because, as children, they experienced childhood neglect (Polansky et al., 19853 ).

Possible Signs of Neglect

Physical, Psychological and Behavioural Signs:

»  in infants, failure to thrive
»  difficulty concentrating
»  difficulty learning
»  low self-esteem
»  withdrawal
»  depression
»  frequent absences from school
»  poor health
»  body odour
»  always dirty and severely unkempt
»  rotting teeth and chronic bad breath
»  sleepiness/always tired
»  child unusually small for his/her age
»  child is very thin and always hungry
»  child is rifling through garbage for food
»  child is stealing food and/or lunch money from others

PLEASE NOTE:  Some of the above signs of child neglect are clearly due to some type of neglect. Other signs must be taken in combinations, and may also be signs of other forms of abuse.

The purpose of including this list here is to raise the red flags of child neglect. As with all other forms of abuse, if you suspect that abuse is taking place, report it to the appropriate authorities.

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Effects of Neglect

The effects of child neglect are not limited to the children in the neglectful families. Research is now showing that effects last well into adulthood. And not just emotionally, but physically as well.

Many neglected children feel unworthy to interact with peers, may isolate themselves and may encounter peer rejection (Lowenthal, 1996, p. 224).

Among the different groups of maltreated students, child neglect was associated with the poorest academic achievement (Lowenthal, 1996, p. 225).

More children die from neglect than from abuse (Mosher, 19946).

Child neglect was a significant factor in 74 of 100 deaths of children in Ontario from January, 1994 to December, 1995 (Gadd, 1997, A27).

Did You KnowThe significance of child neglect should come as no surprise, given that a lack of parental care and nurturance--hallmarks of child neglect--poses one of the greatest threats to children's healthy growth and well-being (Rutter & Stroufe, 20008; Sameroff, 20009).

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Neglect Statistics

Child neglect statistics reflect that low income increases the likelihood of maltreatment and neglect. Poor people typically spend their energies trying to cope with little available funds, and often, inadequate or sub-standard living accommodations. They tend to cluster in poor neighbourhoods with high need and very limited resources.

What resources do I mean? Extended families, neighbours, friends, religious organizations, clubs, employment colleagues, social services or other significant persons. Without these resources, without these healthy support systems in place, the family is at risk for chronic neglect.

Did You Know
47% of caregivers of children with substantiated neglect suffered from substance abuse (Health Canada, 200110).

Did You Know
Neglect and emotional maltreatment were more likely to be associated with families who relied on social assistance or some other form of benefit (Health Canada, 200111).

Did You KnowFemale lone parents and their children are among the most economically disadvantaged. Over 60% live below--and in many cases, far below--the Statistics Canada designation for low income (Mayson, 199812).

Did You Know
Mothers are found to be the neglectful parent in 72% of neglect cases (DHHS, Children's Bureau, 199813).

NOTE:  The above 72% rate is not surprising when one considers the neglect statistics listed immediately before it, as well as the one immediately following:

Did You Know
According to Statistics Canada's 1996 data, women headed the vast majority--well over 80%--of the 1.1 million lone-parent families in Canada (Vanier Institute of the Family, 200014).

Did You Know
Neglect tends to be global--it is rarely a single form of neglect, but rather encompasses neglect of many needs (Polansky et al., 1992, p. 2115).

Did You Know
Of all maltreating families, neglecting families resist change most; after treatment only 40% of neglecting families maintained their new behaviours (Mosher, 199416).

Did You Know
One of the most obvious features of neglectful families is that everyone is neglected (Crittenden, 199217).

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Child Neglect

NOTE: Information pages on this site were based on material from the Canadian Red CrossCanadian Red Cross RespectED Training Program. Written permission was obtained to use their copyrighted material on this site.

1 Mosher, C. (1994). Neglect of children: A comprehensive review. Victoria, BC: Ministry of Social Services (unpublished).

2 Gauthier, L., Stollak, G., Messe, L. & Aronoff, J. (1996). Recall of childhood neglect and physical abuse as differential predictors of current psychological functioning. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(7), 549-559.

Signs of Child Neglect

3 Polansky, N., Ammons, P. & Gaudin, J. (1985). Loneliness and isolation in child neglect. Social Casework, 66 38-47.

Effects of Child Neglect

4 Lowenthal, B. (1996). Educational implications of child abuse, childhood education. Intervention in School and Clinic, 32, 21-25.

5 Lowenthal, B. (1996). Educational implications of child abuse, childhood education. Intervention in School and Clinic, 32, 21-25.

6 Mosher, C. (1994). Neglect of children: A comprehensive review. Victoria, BC: Ministry of Social Services (unpublished).

7 Gadd, J. (1997, March 26). Neglect seen as sign of child death risk. The Globe and Mail, A2.

8 Rutter, M. & Stroufe, L. (2000). Developmental psychopathology: Concepts and challenges. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 265-296.

9 Sameroff, M., & Miller, S. (Eds.) (2000). Handbook of developmental psychopathology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Child Neglect Statistics

10 Health Canada. (2001). The Canadian incidence study of abuse and neglect. Ottawa: Health Canada.

11 Health Canada. (2001). The Canadian incidence study of abuse and neglect. Ottawa: Health Canada.

12 Mayson, M. (1998). Welfare reform & single mothers. Retrieved January 7, 2003 from

13 Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. (1998). Child maltreatment 1996: Reports from the states to the national child abuse and neglect data system. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

14 Vanier Institute of the Family. (2000). Profiling Canada's families II. Retrieved January 7, 2003 from

15 Polansky, N., Gaudin, J. & Kilpatrick, A. (1992). Family radicals. Children and Youth Services Review, 14, 19-26.

16 Mosher, C. (1994). Neglect of children: A comprehensive review. Victoria, BC: Ministry of Social Services (unpublished).

17 Crittenden, P. (1992). Child neglect Chicago: National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

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Updated Feb 20, 2017

E-book: Victim To Victory

From Victim to Victory
a memoir

How I got over the devastating effects of child abuse and moved on with my life


E-book: Victim To Victory

From Victim to Victory
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How I got over the devastating effects of child abuse and moved on with my life


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