Developmental impact of child neglect in early childhood

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Child neglect, often overlooked, is the most common form of child maltreatment.[1] Most perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are the parents themselves. A total of 79.4% of the perpetrators of abused and neglected children are the parents of the victims, and of those 79.4% parents, 61% exclusively neglect their children.[2] The physical, emotional, and cognitive developmental impacts from child neglect in early childhood can be detrimental as the effects from the neglect can carry on into adulthood.

Physical Health Development[edit]

Research has shown that by the time a child reaches the age of six, if he/she has experienced adverse exposures, such as neglect, his/her chances of having overall poor physical health increases by two-fold.[3] Infants can develop poor physical health if neglect starts even before the child is born. A child deprived of basic necessities, such as proper pre-natal care, is at risk of being born prematurely or having complications during birth.

A common outcome of medical neglect is failure to thrive in infants and children. This problem arises when a child is deprived of adequate nutrition or withheld from necessary medical attention required for proper physical growth and development.[4] As a result, the neglected child is left with potentially permanent physical disabilities.

Social and Emotional Development[edit]

Attachment and Avoidance of Intimate Relationships[edit]

A developing child requires proper nutrition, protection, and regulation for healthy attachment. About 80% of neglected children display attachment disorder symptoms and eventually form insecure attachments to their caregivers as a result of caregivers' unresponsive interactions.[5] This disturbed attachment to their primary caregiver alters future relationships with peers by becoming emotional and physically isolated from others reducing the likelihood of forming emotional connections.[6] Moreover, as a result of their past maltreatment, neglected children feel that forming intimate relationships with others loses their control in life and exposes them by increasing their vulnerability.[7]

Emotional Deregulation[edit]

Neglected children demonstrate lack of emotional regulation, understanding emotional expressions by others, and difficulty in distinguishing emotions.[8] When posed with problem-solving tasks, neglected children reacted with anger and frustration, and were less enthusiastic with completing a new task.[9] Neglected children often have distressing memories of their past to which they regulate their emotions by suppressing them.[7]

Psychiatric Development[edit]

Childhood abuse and neglect can lead to developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders later in life.[10][11] Although major depression is not readily seen in younger children compared to adolescents, it is still prevalent.[12]

Cognitive and Academic Development[edit]

Neuroimaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging have shown that the brain structure of a neglected child is significantly altered. The overall cerebral volume of the brain of a neglected child is significantly diminished, with a reduced midsagittal area of the corpus callosum, and the ventricular system is enlarged thereby resulting in decreased cognitive growth, development, and functioning.[13][14] Further studies show that neglected children have poor cerebral hemisphere integration and underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex region which affects the child’s social skills.[15]

Studies on academic progress in neglected children have indicated that these children may experience a drop in their academic performance. Children who have experienced neglect are more likely to have attention deficits and poorer academic achievements.[16] Further, neglect in early childhood can result in a rise in stress levels in the child.[10] Elevated stress levels from neglect can lead to a release of higher levels of cortisol causing damage to the hippocampus which can affects a child’s learning and memory.[17]

A study examining the motor, language, and cognitive development of neglected children showed that the scores from the Bayley Scales of Infant Development were significantly lower than non-maltreated children.[9] Neglected children displayed poor self-control and a lack of creativity in solving problem.[9] Standardized tests become a challenge for neglected children as they perform poorly on intellectual functioning and academic achievement.[9] Further, neglected children perform significantly poorer on IQ tests than non-maltreated children.[18]


  1. ^ Dubowitz, H., Black, M.M., Starr, R.H. and Zuravin, S. (1993) A conceptual definition of child neglect. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20, 1, 8-26.
  2. ^ U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. (2007). Child maltreatment 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  3. ^ Flaherty, E., Thompson, R., Litrownik, A., Theodore, A., English, D., Black, M., et al. (2006). Effect of early childhood adversity on child health. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160, 1232-1238.
  4. ^ Block, R.W. and Krebs, N.F. (2005). Failure to Thrive as a Manifestation of Child Neglect. Pediatrics. (116)5, 1234-1237.
  5. ^ Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991. Attachment for infants in foster care: The role of caregiver state of mind. Child Development. 70, 1467-1477.
  6. ^ Trickett, P.K., & McBride-Chang, C. (1995). The developmental impact of different forms of child abuse and neglect. Developmental Review, 15, 311-337.
  7. ^ a b James, B. (1994). Handbook for treatment of attachment trauma problems in children. New York: Lexington Books.
  8. ^ Pollak, S.D., Cicchetti, D., Hornung, K., and Reed, A. (2000).Recognizing emotion in faces. Developmental Psychology. 36, 679-688.
  9. ^ a b c d Hildyard, K. L., & Wolfe, D. A. (2002). Child neglect: Developmental issues and outcomes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26(6-7), 679-695.
  10. ^ a b Widom (1999). Posttraumatic stress disorder in abused and neglected children grown up. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 1223–1229.
  11. ^ Brown, J., Cohen, P., Johnson, J., & Smailes, E. (1999). Childhood abuse and neglect: Specificity of effects on adolescent and young adult depression and suicidality. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(12), 1490-1496.
  12. ^ Harkness, K., & Lumley, M. (2008). Child abuse and neglect and the development of depression in children and adolescents. In J. Abela & B. Hankin (Eds.), Handbook of depression in children and adolescents. New York: The Guildford Press.
  13. ^ De Bellis, M., Keshavan, M., Clark, D., Casey, B., Giedd, J., Boring, A., Frustaci, K., & Ryan, N. (1999). Developmental traumatology part II: Brain development. Biological psychiatry, 45, 1271-1284.
  14. ^ De Bellis, M., & Thomas, L. (2003). Biologic findings of post-traumatic stress disorder and child maltreatment. Current Psychiatry Reports, 5, 108-117.
  15. ^ Siegel D.J. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment, “mindsight” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94.
  16. ^ Slade, E. P. and L. S. Wissow (2007) The influence of childhood maltreatment on adolescents’ academic performance. Economics of Education Review, 26 604–614.
  17. ^ Middlebrooks, J.S. & Audage, N.C. (2008). The effects of childhood stress on health across the lifespan. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
  18. ^ Gowen, J. (1993). Effects of neglect on the early development of children: final report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, Administration for Children & Families.