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Parental Factors that Contribute to Child Neglect

Updated on December 17, 2015

What is Neglect?

A simple definition of neglect is; not getting what you need when you need it. Following are the major categories of child neglect.

  • Basic needs, as in food, clothing, and shelter
  • Education
  • Supervision
  • Medical care

We can say the child is neglected when they are not provided with these things at the time they need them. For example when a child is younger they need help to get up and get ready for school. If the parent or caregiver does not send their child to school they are neglectful. However, when a teenager is sent to school but leaves to hang out with his friends on a regular basis we cannot say the parent is responsible.

Let's look at parental factors that can contribute to neglect.


Poverty is the best predictor of child neglect. We need to understand that not all families who live in poverty neglect their children, but most children who are neglected live in poverty. Let's explore the correlation between poverty and child neglect. Poverty can be an underlying reason for a lack of mental health care, lack of safe housing, and lack of fresh and healthy food. Rather than charge parents with being poor, we charge them with neglect, which sometimes results from poverty.

Lack of Knowledge

When a parent has little knowledge of child development they may not understand what their child needs. An infant must be fed on a regular, consistent basis. Teenagers have the ability to fix, or locate food for themselves. Small children must be more closely supervised than older children. This lack of knowledge can lead to inaccurate expectations of the child. Understanding when children should reach developmental milestones, such as walking, allows us to notice if there are issues.

There are resources such as cash assistance, food stamps, and housing that can help a family in need. If the parent is unaware of these resources the child may not receive what they need. The child's pediatrician can help the parent connect with the agencies that can help them.

Physical and Mental Health

The physical health of the parent can determine the care the child receives. If the parent has an illness they may not be physically able to take care of their children. A co-worker once completed an investigation on an extremely dirty and disorganized home. The condition of the home made it unsafe for the children. The mother told the worker she had not been feeling well for some time. After seeing the doctor it was determined she had breast cancer. Once her health issues were addressed she could once more care for her home and her children.

The mental health of the parent can impair their ability to take care of a child. I once worked with a mother with schizophrenia who refused to take her medication. She had a rare case where she experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations. She would describe seeing the walls of the home burning. She would drink to self-medicate. She would often forget to feed, change, or otherwise take care of her infant daughter. After living with her grandparents for a time, the baby was adopted by a family member.

Age of the Parent

Parents of any age can be neglectful, but studies have shown that teenage parents have a high incidence of neglect. Perhaps we can blame this on their parents neglecting them when they were children. Parts of the teenage brain such as impulse control are still developing. The teen years are a time for experimentation and developing autonomy. This does not fit in well with parenting. They may become resentful of their child because they see them as a barrier to having fun or seeing their friends.

Information on Teenage Parents

Support System

We all have others we turn to in times of need. We find that parents charged with neglect do not have a support system. They are often isolated or may be a part of a peer group that is in the same situation they are. Without a support system they will have no one to go to with questions. We all need help every now and then whether it is financial or encouragement.

Substance Abuse

One of the major factors contributing to child neglect is substance abuse. In my career I have seen parents forget they have children because of methamphetamine use. All they are concerned about is obtaining more of the drug. They may even begin manufacturing meth in the presence of their children. The children may experience lung issues because of the fumes from the chemicals involved. When the drug wears off the user can sleep for more than 24 hours. Some states report over 50% of their neglect cases are because of substance abuse.

Drugs vs A Child


When a child is neglected by a parent one or more of these factors will be present. Those of us who have contact with children; teachers, counselors, and doctors need to be aware of these factors so we may make sure the children are cared for. More children die from neglect than from physical abuse. We need to watch out for our children.


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      As a School Psychologist on a Native American Reservation, we found that many of the children having disabilities had similar issues within their families. Drug use was a strong factor, as well as trauma within the family. Several times, we had to report parents for abuse or neglect when children reported issues to us during our provision of services to them.


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