Neglect – the effect it has on your child


Neglect – the effect it has on your child

 ‘’Parent’s do matter’’.

Every word, facial expression, gesture, or action on the part of a parent gives the child some message about self-worth. It is sad that so many parents don’t realize what messages they are sending.  Virginia Satir

Attachment disorders – a result of child neglect

The time between birth and five years is a critical time in a child’s life, during which the child learns to bond with his/her parents. The parents are a child’s primary caregivers. If a child is neglected during this time, it can lead to lifelong insecurity in the child and affect all future relationships.

The ability to form bonds (to love and connect) develops in infants when they are looked after by someone available to soothe, console, comfort, and consistently protect them. Babies internalise their parents (and other attachment figures) as a secure base. This allows them to feel safe internally and to explore the world around them with confidence. Primary attachment figure(s) cannot suddenly be replaced because that relationship is unique and stable.

It means that a child who loses a primary giver during this development stage is in danger of developing an attachment disorder. Many children experience the loss of primary caregivers, either because they are physically separated from them or because the caregiver is incapable of providing adequate care.

Please note: Many children experience disruptions in their relationships with caregivers, and many children become aggressive, hypervigilant, or defiant. However, these children do not necessarily have attachment disorders. It is a disorder that a health professional diagnoses, for example, a psychiatrist.

Listed here are a few examples of loss or neglect that cause attachment problems:

  • Being orphaned by the death of a primary caregiver
  • Abandonment by the father or mother
  • Placement in foster care/orphanage
  • Caregivers who abuse drugs
  • Caregivers that are not reliably or consistently present
  • Caregivers that respond in an unpredictable and uncertain way
  • Exposure to multiple caregivers instead of one
  • Caregivers who have multiple unmanageable stressors
  • Caregivers who have been maltreated or have experienced multiple attachment disruptions themselves.
  • Caregivers who fail to protect children against harm – be it from family or outsiders.

What types of neglect can cause attachment disorders?

  •  When you fail to make your child feel safe and cared for
  • When your baby cries and you don’t respond or offer comfort.
  • When your baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
  • When no one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby, so the baby feels alone.
  • When your young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviours.
  • When your young child or baby is mistreated or abused (this includes corporal punishment).
  • When you are inconsistent in caring for the child – sometimes the child’s needs are met, and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect.

As the child grows up, they struggle to form and sustain relationships. They work with low self-esteem and to trust others. They have low self-worth because they feel no one ever really cared about them. Because this often happens in dysfunctional families, the problems tend to be long lasting and be dominant even in their adult lives.

What does a neglected child look like?

  •  They fail to thrive.
  • Their hygiene might be inadequate because of neglect.
  • In contrast to normal, thriving children, neglected children might present with weaker motor coordination and muscle tone.
  • Their appearance can be bewildered, unfocused, and under-stimulated.
  • They often have a blank expression, with eyes lacking the usual lustre and joy
  • Their responses towards people differ from that of normal children – they can’t read body language; they don’t know how to interpret facial expressions; they avoid eye contact or body contact. They might protest being pick-up or have no boundaries at all towards strangers.

  • A child who rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed
  • Minimal social and emotional responses to others
  • Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness or tearfulness
  • Limited expressions of positive affect or joy
  • Evidence of inadequate basic emotional and social caretaking

  • Lack of reticence in approaching and interacting with unfamiliar adults
  • Overly familiar verbal or physical behaviours such as hugging strangers or sitting on the laps of unfamiliar adults
  • Willingness to approach a stranger for comfort or food, to be picked up, or to receive a toy
  • Diminished or absent checking back with the adult caretaker when in unfamiliar situations
  • Evidence of inadequate social and emotional caretaking, sometimes with a history of repeated changes in the primary caretaker

The child uses psychological defences (eg, avoidance or ambivalence) to avoid disappointments with the caregiver.

It’s someone who avoids getting attached emotionally to other people or situations.

People with a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style will tend to keep an emotional distance between themselves and their partners.

They could come across as ambivalent, and while they do want to have their emotional needs met, their fear of being close can get in the way.

Someone with Anxious-Avoidant Attachment style will be preoccupied (even obsessed) with their relationships. They tend to read way too much between the lines, whether it’s text messages, conversations, actions, or other social situations.

It is considered to be the most advantageous attachment style. Anxious-ambivalent attachment occurs when the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant. Anxious-avoidant attachment occurs when the infant avoids their parents.


Get help

Most of the treatment for attachment disorders (is provided by primary caregivers (e.g., parents or substitute parents) in their everyday interactions with the child. Ideally, these caregivers can rely on the expertise and advice of a mental health professional who is aware of children’s emotional needs, the phenomenology of attachment disruptions, and the need to repair and recreate the sense of security in the child. Referral to a mental health professional may be critical.


Preventive efforts are essential. Providing support and safe environments to stressed families and single parents is crucial for helping children have a good early experience and forming appropriate bonds. This is preferable to removal. Child welfare services and the courts need to understand that removing a child from parents harms and is not a benign intervention.

Get help


You can chat with an online counsellor on our helpline: LIVE CHAT.

It is a text-based chat and you may remain anonymous.

References & Resources

Attachment disorders

Avoidant Attachment: A Guide to Attachment Theory

More information:




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