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Understanding Neglect

Why is a caring relationship with an adult so important to a child’s healthy development?
Understanding Neglect

The biological benefits that children gain from a stable relationship with a committed adult can power their success, even in spite of poverty and trauma. Understanding why some children beat the odds is important, but for many educators, especially in high-need schools, it’s equally important to understand the biological effects of not having that support. What happens to neglected children?

A research report and other resources from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University offer insight. Without at least one caring, attentive adult in their lives, children may lack intellectual stimulation, emotional security, and social awareness. They might not gain the tools to develop executive function skills, such as planning and ability to pay attention, and they could be at risk for other weakened cognitive skills, too.

The good news is that intervention for these children can be lifesaving — and responsive relationships with adults can be healing. Increasingly, researchers are recognizing the importance of supporting adults who themselves may have experienced neglect or other adversity early in life, helping them give their own children the tools to succeed. 

The Consequences of Neglect

For a child’s healthy growth, responsiveness from caregivers is key. When that responsiveness — the “serve and return” interaction that shapes the brain — is lacking, dangerous biological and developmental delays can result. The Center on the Developing Child calls it “a double-whammy” for healthy development: “Not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.”

In these cases, ongoing fear and anxiety can affect the brain. Neglected babies can experience delayed growth in head circumference and in overall body size. Severely neglected children have been found to have smaller prefrontal cortexes, an area of the brain that supports executive function. Children who have experienced neglect in institutional settings exhibit diminished electrical neural activity, decreased brain metabolism, and differences in neural reactions when processing information, such as identifying others’ facial expressions.

Neglect happens along a continuum of severity, from sporadic inattention to chronic understimulation to severe neglect in a family or in an institution. Chronically understimulated children have few opportunities to interact with adults, and therefore may have little exposure to developmental enrichment opportunities. Severely neglected children may have so few interactions with adults that basic nutritional and physical needs go unmet, putting them at risk for severe impairments to their health and development.

In school, neglected young children are more likely to have trouble distinguishing emotions in others, and preschoolers are more likely to be overly dependent on their teachers. The reduced executive function of neglected children can lead to academic delays and difficulties with attention. Neglected children are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to have poorer reading skills than their cared-for peers. Adolescents and adults with histories of neglect are less likely to engage productively with peers.

Intervention and Policy Fixes

Neglect is a more common form of abuse than physical or sexual abuse, but it gets less attention and fewer services than either. And this lapse is critical, since early intervention — by giving a child exposure to a caring, responsive adult and by providing therapeutic care — is key to recovery.

When that intervention happens, the consequences of neglect can be reduced. “Effective interventions are likely to pay significant dividends in better long-term outcomes in learning, health, and parent­ing of the next generation,” the Center’s report explains. A focus on preventing child neglect by helping adults strengthen their parenting skills could lead not just to safer, happier, and stronger children, but to more resilient communities as well.

Additional Resources


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