How Neglect Can Impact Your Health

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Neglect is the failure of a caregiver to meet a dependent person’s basic physical and emotional needs, including the need for shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and emotional support.

While we generally think of physical, sexual, or emotional harm when we think of domestic abuse, neglect is also a type of abuse, particularly if it puts the person’s health, safety, or well-being at risk.

Neglect is most often witnessed in relationships between parents or caregivers and children—it is estimated that two-thirds of complaints reported to child services involve neglect.

However, apart from children, other people who are dependent on family members/caregivers, such as elderly people, people with medical conditions, or people with special needs, may also experience neglect.

This article discusses the types, signs, causes, and effects of neglect as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful.

Types of Neglect

Neglect is generally classified into the following categories:

  • Physical: Failure to provide shelter, food, clothing, or appropriate supervision for the person’s age, physical condition, mental ability, and environment
  • Emotional: Failure to provide psychological care, attention, emotional validation, and healthy communication
  • Medical: Failure to provide the necessary medical or mental health treatment for the person's needs, or withholding medically indicated treatments for life-threatening conditions
  • Educational: Failure to educate a child or provide for a person’s special education needs

It’s important to note that being unable to provide care due to poverty is not considered neglect, whereas a caregiver’s failure to provide care despite having resources available to them would be considered neglect.

Signs of Neglect

These are some of the common signs of neglect:

  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Poor personal hygiene 
  • Untreated wounds, sores, or injuries
  • Unattended medical problems
  • Unsanitary living conditions (including dirt, insect or animal infestation, or soiled clothes or bedding)
  • Hazardous living conditions (including improper wiring, lack of heat, or no running water)

While these are some of the more visible signs of neglect, it can take a toll on the person’s emotional and mental health as well. These effects can sometimes be harder to see.

Mental and Emotional Effects of Neglect

Neglect can affect a person’s mental and emotional health and increase their risk of experiencing:

  • Negative emotions, such as guilt, fear, anger, shame, isolation, and distrust
  • Self-esteem issues, such as low self-confidence and sense of self-worth
  • Self-control issues, which can lead to risky or impulsive behaviors as well as alcohol and drug use
  • Executive functioning difficulties, such as memory impairment, learning difficulties, and inability to focus 
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, attachment disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use, and suicidal tendencies
  • Relationship difficulties, often due to social withdrawal or antisocial behaviors such as bullying or aggression
  • Poor quality of life, due to poor academic and professional performance, and lower mental and emotional well-being

Causes of Neglect

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a combination of individual, familial, and societal factors can contribute to the risk of experiencing or perpetrating neglect.

Individual Risk Factors

These are some factors that can make an individual caregiver more likely to perpetrate abuse and neglect:

  • Having mental health issues
  • Having alcohol or drug use disorders
  • Having experienced neglect or abuse as a child
  • Having witnessed neglect or abuse as a child
  • Being young or single parents
  • Having many children or dependents
  • Not being biologically related to the dependent person
  • Having low income or education
  • Having high levels of financial stress
  • Not understanding the person’s development or needs
  • Having a tendency to use corporal punishment methods, such as hitting or spanking, to discipline dependents
  • Having a tendency to accept or justify aggression, bullying, and violence

Family Risk Factors

These are some familial risk factors that can make people more likely to experience or perpetrate abuse and neglect:

  • Families that have household members in prison or jail
  • Families that are isolated from other people, such as extended family, friends, and neighbors
  • Families who have experienced or witnessed other types of violence
  • Families with negative communication styles and high conflict

Community Risk Factors

These are some community risk factors that can make people more likely to experience or perpetrate abuse and neglect:

  • Communities with high poverty rates
  • Communities with high rates of food insecurity
  • Communities with limited educational access
  • Communities with limited economic opportunities
  • Communities with high unemployment rates
  • Communities with high rates of crime and violence
  • Communities with easy access to alcohol and drugs
  • Communities with limited communal activities for residents
  • Communities with low engagement and trust among residents, making neighbors less likely to look out for each other 
  • Communities with temporary or unstable housing arrangements, where residents tend to move frequently
  • Communities with unsanitary and unsafe living conditions

Coping With Neglect

If you have experienced neglect as a child or an adult, these are some steps you can take to heal and cope.

Recognize Your Emotions

Neglect can cause you to disconnect from your feelings. Living with emotional neglect particularly can make it hard for you to understand that your feelings are supposed to be recognized and validated.

As you start to heal, it’s important to start recognizing and identifying your own emotions. This can be hard to do if you didn’t grow up in an environment where people talked about their feelings.

It’s important to validate your own emotions, both positive and negative, because your emotional experiences are an important part of who you are and should not be suppressed.

Identify Your Needs

Neglect means not having your needs met, whether physical, emotional, medical, or educational. This can make it hard for you to articulate your needs and prioritize them. It may also cause you to feel like you don’t deserve to have your needs met.

It’s important to start paying attention to your needs and learning to prioritize them. This might mean making changes in your life and your relationships to ensure that your needs are being met, rather than ignored. 

Seek Support

If you need help coping with the effects of neglect, it may be helpful to see a mental healthcare professional. They can help you work through some of the trauma of your experiences, express and label your emotions, challenge negative thought patterns that cause you to believe you are unworthy of care, and develop healthy coping strategies.

It may also be helpful to join a support group for abuse survivors. They can be a valuable source of inspiration, advice, resources, support, and coping mechanisms.

A Word From Verywell

Neglect may not be as easy to identify as other forms of abuse; however, it can be equally harmful to your mental and physical health. If you have experienced neglect, the journey of healing involves learning to prioritize self-care to ensure your needs are being met.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing child abuse and neglect.

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Definitions of child abuse and neglect.

  3. Dubowitz H. Neglect in children. Pediatr Ann. 2013;42(4):73-77. doi:10.3928/00904481-20130326-11

  4.  Child Welfare Information Gateway. What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms.

  5. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Types and signs of abuse.

  6. Zeanah CH, Humphreys KL. Child abuse and neglect. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018;57(9):637-644. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.06.007

  7. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and protective factors.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.