Children often do not know when they are suffering from neglect

One in 10 children have experienced neglect, but many young victims may not understand that what is happening to them is wrong.
A child suffering from neglect (posed by model) but more often than not, children and young people do not know when they are being neglected.A child suffering from neglect (posed by model) but more often than not, children and young people do not know when they are being neglected.
A child suffering from neglect (posed by model) but more often than not, children and young people do not know when they are being neglected.

When young people talk to Childline, they often don’t realise that the situations they describe are neglect. It’s often the way they’ve been brought up their whole lives – so they don’t know any different.

We define neglect as the failure to provide basic needs, but it manifests in many different behaviours. It could be leaving a young child at home alone while a parent or carer goes out with friends – putting them at serious risk of harm. It could be ignoring a doctor or dentist’s advice for a child, or failing to care for their nutrition and hygiene.

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Any of the examples above could have a substantial impact on the wellbeing of a child, which is why it’s so important for people to understand the signs of neglect. Whether you’re a relative or a neighbour, a teacher or a doctor, you could be the person who helps the child receive some much-needed support.

Neglect can also involve shunning a child’s medical needs and refusing help when they ask for it. A child posted on our message board, saying: “I had breathing problems when I exercised... I spoke to my parents about it repeatedly and was told it was probably nothing. It kept happening and getting worse so I asked to be taken to the doctors to get it checked out. They refused, just saying that it was nothing.”

A girl wrote on the Childline message board: “I'm really hungry. My parents have bad money trouble and there's very rarely enough food. I woke up this morning and went to get breakfast but there's no cereal or bread or anything breakfast-y. All the fruit is rotting apart from the dried apricots but I'm not allowed them because they're for my mother.”

Hunger can have a substantial impact on concentration and focus, meaning that a child may not perform well at school. This could lead to depression, isolation, and further health complications. Children in this situation may also appear tired, distant, and have a thin or swollen tummy.

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Other physical signs of neglect could include a child appearing dirty, lack of warm or clean clothes and medical or dental issues. Non-physical signs may include missing school, changes in eating habits, becoming withdrawn and finding it difficult to concentrate.

It is also difficult to know when to leave a child at home on their own – and if a child is being left alone, it might not necessarily mean they are being neglected. But if anyone is ever concerned about a child’s welfare, we would always urge them to speak out. While there is no legal recommended age to leave a child at home alone, here at the NSPCC guidelines we advise that a child should never be left at home alone if they do not feel comfortable with this, regardless of their age. If a child is being put at serious risk of harm, then it is important that anyone aware of this comes forward.

A child may not always recognise that they are being neglected. But you can. If you identify any signs of neglect, the NSPCC would urge you to report your concerns.

By noting the signs of neglect, you can make sure that a child going through an unthinkable ordeal gets the help they need. The NSPCC offers free advice about understanding neglect, and any adult who is concerned about a child can call our helpline on 0808 800 5000.

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Children who are concerned about abuse and neglect can contact Childline on 0800 1111 or visit

For further information on neglect, visit