Neglect is by far the most common type of child maltreatment in the United States; in recent years, almost four-fifths of child victims reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) have been neglected compared to one fifth of victims who have been physically abused and less than one in ten victims who have been sexually abused. Neglect is more strongly associated with child poverty than physical abuse or sexual abuse, and is more recurrent than other types of child maltreatment as indicated by CPS re-reports, multiple substantiations or re-entry into care. In its chronic form, neglect is often found in combination with substance abuse, mental health conditions and domestic violence, as well as poverty. During the past two decades, a rapidly expanding body of research has found that the lack of responsive parenting which often accompanies pervasive neglect of young children’s basic needs has devastating effects on early brain development and on children’s emotional, social and cognitive development.
For decades, scholars remarked on the ‘neglect of neglect’, a relative lack of interest which extended to study of the intergenerational transmission of neglect. However, in recent years Carolyn Widom and Valentina Nikulina, Jessica Bartlett and Melissa Easterbrooks, Emily Putnam-Hornstein, and other scholars have published research which sheds new light on the intergenerational transmission of both abuse and neglect and which contains some surprising findings:
- A parent’s history of physical abuse in childhood increases the risk of neglectful parenting by a factor of four. A history of physical abuse in childhood is more likely to lead to neglectful parenting than abusive parenting.
- The experience of multiple types of maltreatment in childhood greatly increases the risk of intergenerational transmission of neglect.
- Most parents neglected or multiply maltreated in childhood do not become neglectful or abusive parents; nevertheless, histories of childhood maltreatment are common among parents who neglect infants.
- The frequency and dependability of social support and positive early bonds moderate the effects of child maltreatment histories on parenting in the next generation.
Most of these research findings have not yet been adequately explained by scholars. Nevertheless, plausible hypotheses include: (1) Severe and chronic neglect in early childhood is associated with large doses of the adversities found in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies to compromise health and mental health over the life span. (2) The combination of material hardship and psychological distress found in chronic neglect and multiple maltreatment is especially toxic to positive child development. (3) Histories of early trauma and neglect undermine the capacity for friendship and intimacy; on the other hand the capacity for positive social relationships is a source of resiliency. (4) Impaired cognitive functioning and early onset mood disorders negatively affect self- efficacy in multiple domains. (5) The low academic achievement of neglected and multiply maltreated children leads to low wage employment which frequently results in the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
The intergenerational transmission of neglect can be interrupted through (a) the experience of nurturing caregiving, supportive friendships and intimate relationships, and frequent dependable social support; (b) elimination of severe child poverty and child homelessness; (c) the adoption of trauma-informed practices by social institutions, including schools, child placing agencies and child welfare systems; (d) by screening of children’s mental health status and provision of evidenced based mental health practices and programs as early as possible; and (e) commitment to empowerment practices for work with severely and chronically neglected children and their parents, and for communities that have had long histories of oppression.