CASA of Arizona

Childhood Neglect - pg. 8

Understanding the Causes of Child Neglect



Effective intervention to prevent or remedy child neglect requires an understanding of the causes. However, specification of the causes of neglect is hampered by the limited research on child neglect. Most studies of child maltreatment include both neglectful and abusive families and fail to differentiate between the groups, thus making it impossible to identify results specifically related to neglect. The numbers of studies that focus specifically on child neglect are few in comparison to studies on other types of maltreatment.

Nevertheless, it is clear from existing studies and from the experience of practitioners that there is no single cause of the inadequate parenting we term child neglect. Thus, understanding the causality of child neglect requires that it be viewed from a broad ecological-systems perspective. It has been proposed that the determinants of adequate parenting arise from three sources:

  • parents' own developmental history and resultant personal psychological resources,
  • characteristics of the family and child, and
  • contextual sources of stress and support.

The developmental experiences of parents influence their personality and psychological resources, which directly influence both their parenting attitudes and behavior, and their ability to develop supportive relationships with others. Parenting behavior influences the child's personality and behavior, which reciprocally influences parents' response to the child. The social context of the parent-child relationship, which includes the marital relationship, social network supports, and work-related factors, is highly influential on parenting. The model provides an organizing framework for examining the contributing causes of neglect suggested by the existing research.

Parents' Developmental History and Personality Factors



The ability of a parent to provide adequate care for a child depends partly on his/her emotional maturity, coping skills, knowledge about children, mental capacity, and parenting skills.

Growing up in unstable, hostile, non-nurturing homes led to unstable personalities when the children became adults, which led to stressful marriages and abusive parenting practices with their own children. Parental personality is the most influential factor on parenting because the personal psychological resources of the individual are also influential in determining the marital partner, the quality of the marital relationship, and the amount of social support one receives.

Child development researchers have used attachment theory to shed light on the personality development of abusive and neglectful mothers. The mothers' lack of secure psychological attachment and psychological immaturity result from inadequate care received as children. They found that regardless of level of stress or the availability of emotional supports for parenting, the emotional stability of the mother was the most significant predictor of maltreatment. Mothers who were no longer maltreating their children at a 6-year follow-up were more outgoing, more mature and less reactive to their feelings, more realistic in problem solving than those who continued to neglect and abuse.

A cycle of neglect is suggested in numerous studies. Nevertheless, the direct cause-effect relationship between parental history of neglect and subsequent neglect of children is not clearly established by the research. Most of the studies are based on high risk or clinical samples or retrospective studies of identified neglectful parents who are not representative of the population of neglect victims.

Victims of neglect who do not repeat the cycle have fewer stressful life events; stronger, more stable and supportive relationships with husbands or boyfriends; physically healthier babies; and fewer ambivalent feelings about their child's birth. They are also less likely to have been maltreated by both parents and more apt to have reported a supportive relationship with one parent or with another adult. These mediating factors provide critical indicators for interventions to improve parenting potential.

Neglectful mothers as a group were judged to be more dysfunctional than the abusive mothers, less socialized, more angry, more impulsive, more easily aroused (by infant cries), and have greater difficulty habituating to stressful and non-stressful stimuli.

Neglectful parents are typically not only deficient in their parenting skills, but have pervasive deficiencies in coping skills in many areas of living. Studies of neglectful mothers revealed that deficiencies in social skills and poor self-esteem resulted in neglectful mothers selecting equally ineffectual, unsuccessful male partners, who only served to confirm and compound their deficiencies. A subsequent study, which included neglectful fathers, revealed deficiencies in social participation and in their abilities to invest themselves emotionally in another person and in productive work.

Abuse of alcohol or drugs is often present in cases of child neglect. Recent reports from urban CPS agencies indicate that substance abuse is a factor in a growing percentage of child neglect cases. A study of women served in a Chicago alcoholism treatment program reported that 65 to 75 percent of the women were neglectful toward their children. The epidemic of cocaine addiction in urban inner-city areas has resulted in large increases in the numbers of neglect reports. The alarming increase of cocaine-affected infants has placed large burdens on the already overtaxed child welfare system. In spite of these associations, there is yet insufficient data to conclude that substance abuse causes neglect, but it is an increasingly significant contributing factor.


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