CASA of Arizona

Childhood Neglect - pg. 9

Characteristics of the Family and Child



Research suggests that certain factors in family composition, size, and patterns of interaction contribute to child neglect. Even some characteristics of children may contribute to neglectful parenting.

Child Characteristics

Studies have not identified unique characteristics of neglected children that contribute to neglect. However, studies of parent-child interactions in abusive and neglectful families suggest that the children in neglectful families develop behavior patterns as a result of the interactions that make them more likely to experience further neglect. As a result of the mother's inattention, the neglected child often develops patterns of either extremely passive, withdrawing behavior or random, undisciplined activity. Both of these patterns are likely to result in further inattention and distancing on the part of the child's neglectful parent.

Family Composition

Most neglectful families are single-parent families. The absence of the father in the majority of neglectful families means lower income and less tangible resources to provide for children's needs. Neglectful families with fathers present in the household had significantly higher income and provided better physical care than the single-parent families, but not better emotional/cognitive care. The physical absence or emotional disengagement of the father has been identified as contributing to deprived parenting in families of failure to thrive infants.

Family Size

Chronic neglectful families tend to be large families with fewer resources to meet basic needs than other families. Numerous studies have discovered that neglectful families on the average have more children than non-neglecting families. The Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect reported that the estimated rate of neglect among families with four or more children was almost double the rate among families with three or fewer children.

Family Interaction Patterns



Patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication between neglectful parents and children have been characterized as infrequent and predominantly negative. Compared with abusive mothers and non-maltreating controls, the neglectful mothers stood out as the most negative and least positive in their relationships with other family members.

Similarly, neglecting mothers offered so little stimulation and responded to so few infant signals that they left their infants socially powerless and largely responsible for their own stimulation. Their infants showed correspondingly depressed levels of activity which reduced both the stimulations and feedback available to the already unresponsive mother.

The neglecting parents are characterized as unresponsive and withdrawn. They responded to few of their children's overtures when interacting with them and initiated almost no activity. Their children responded with a reduction in communicative activity. Toddlers in the neglectful homes, as soon as they were able to walk, sought out their own stimulation through uncontrolled exploratory activity. Neglectful mothers largely ignored these toddlers on the loose, only infrequently and ineffectively attempted to exercise some control by yelling at them, often without bothering to observe the results. The children merely imitated the parent's disregard.

Neglecting families who were also abusive were typically large, very unstable, and disorganized, with children sired by several different fathers. The mother had often lived with a series of men, been alone, and lived with her own mother for periods of time. The only certainty was that the present structure, too, would change. The parent-child interactions in these families vacillated from the extremes of non-systematic, unpredictable, violent episodes of physical punishment in an effort to control the children's behavior to sullen withdrawal. The goal was momentary peace and quiet relief from the chaos in the family. Children react to their highly unpredictable environment by being always on guard and chronically anxious. The need to be ever vigilant to unpredictable violent adult reactions resulted in the children experiencing significant developmental delays.

The marginally maltreating families were typically two-parent families, but with different fathers for the children. The mother-partner relationships were unstable and often physically abusive. These families were disorganized and chaotic, constantly reacting to a series of day-to-day crises with frantic, ineffectual activity. There were no consistent rules or expectations of the children, and discipline was an expression of parents' frustration. The marginally maltreating parents were not able to engage in systematic problem solving, but instead stumbled from crisis to crisis trying to cope with whatever limited methods and help they could muster. These mothers were not always angry and could respond empathetically to their children's distress when it was expressed dramatically through tears or tantrums. Consequently, tears and tantrums were frequent, but the solace that resulted was short-lived and not secure.

These distinctively different patterns of interaction in contrasting types of neglecting families reinforce the need to assess each neglectful family independently. Individualized family patterns suggest the need for individualized interventions to remedy the neglect.


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