Emotional Neglect: An Invisible Problem

According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), neglect is “a type of maltreatment that refers to the failure by the caregiver to provide needed, age-appropriate care although financially able to do so or offered financial or other means to do so”. It is usually characterised by a consistent pattern of inadequate care that is obvious to those who are in close contact with a neglected child.

There are four basic types of neglect, namely physical neglect (failure to provide basic necessities such as food, water and clothing), medical neglect (failure to meet a child’s basic healthcare needs such as ensuring that he receives his mandatory vaccinations or taking him to the doctor when he is sick), educational neglect (failure to educate him by sending him to school or allowing him to skip school without reason), and emotional neglect (failure to provide emotional support, which includes giving him warmth, love and encouragement. This includes refusing to hold/touch him, ridiculing him, or isolating him from friends and family members).

Of the four types of neglect, emotional neglect is often the most difficult to identify and is often reported secondary to other forms of neglect. However, it is a highly relevant problem in modern society. Neglecting an infant’s need for mental stimulation and failing to nurture him as he grows can result in delays in his mental/cognitive development. In the long term, an emotionally neglected child may have poor selfimage, which could lead to alcohol/drug abuse, destructive behaviour and even suicide.

Defining Child Abuse and Neglect

by Dr Anjli Doshi-Gandhi, Deputy Director General (Policy), National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN)

“Abuse” and “neglect” are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, they represent two different types of maltreatment – abuse happens when someone acts against the child (e.g. physical abuse), whereas neglect happens when someone fails to act for the child (e.g. leaving a child at home unattended).

While defining emotional abuse and neglect may be complex and imprecise, most professionals agree that the occasional negative attitude or actions of parents may not yield harmful or permanent effects on a child. Both emotional abuse and emotional neglect follow a persistent and chronic pattern.

Reasons for Emotional Neglect

There are many reasons why emotional neglect could enter the picture. They include:

  • Busy parents – Working parents often do not have time for their children (e.g. talking to them or playing with them). Some parents may feel overwhelmed with work or stress, to the extent that they start to reject their child emotionally. Some parents may isolate themselves from their child or are unable to interact with them. It is important to find a balance between work and family life to avoid neglecting your child.
  • Structure of the family – If you are a single parent, you may find it a struggle to be there for your child emotionally, while juggling your demands at work. Elsewhere, parents with large families (say you have seven kids) may find it difficult to connect emotionally with every one of their children.
  • Mental health issues – Mental health issues may affect the way a parent cares for a child or respond to their child’s needs. They may be unable to interact with their child, thus neglecting their emotional needs. Some parents may lead disorganised lives that could result in a chaotic household. This could affect their children emotionally in the long run.
  • Parents’ own history – A parent who was emotionally neglected as a child tends to lack empathy and is more likely to emotionally neglect their own children. They may not respond to their children or are unable to establish a meaningful relationship with them. Being deprived of love and a sense of attachment in childhood can make them incapable or unwilling to provide adequate attention and affection to their children.
  • Inappropriate expectations of their children – Some parents expect their children to behave in a certain way or meet certain standards (whether in behaviour or in school). When their children do not live up to these “standards”, they pull away from them emotionally.

Emotional neglect can have a significant impact on your child’s mental and behavioural development. It is imperative that you recognise the symptoms of emotional neglect, in ensuring that your child grows into a happy and wholesome individual.

What are the Effects of Emotional Neglect?

by Dr Yen Teck Hoe, Consultant Psychiatrist


A baby who has been deprived of basic emotional nurturance may develop a poor sense of self, even if he has been well-cared for physically. He could grow into an anxious and insecure child with low self-esteem.

Often, children who have been emotionally neglected grow up thinking that they are unworthy or deficient in some way. Due to this, he could face difficulty in making friends or conforming to the structure of a school-setting. He may experience delayed speech and language skills, and will tend to fare poorer academically compared to his happier peers.

These days, children who feel emotionally neglected at home may turn to social networking sites (such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter) to seek the attention and social interaction that they crave. This can be dangerous, as there are many child predators online. This also exposes them to cyber-bullying.

Signs and symptoms of emotional neglect

Signs and symptoms of emotional neglect often manifest into problematic or selfdestructive social or behavioural patterns. They include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Destructive behaviour such as:

    – Temper tantrums

    – Physical aggression

    – Drug/alcohol use

    – Chronic lying

    – Destructive to property

  • Excessive fears/phobias
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Overeating/abnormal eating habits/patterns
  • Stealing or hoarding food
  • Lack of self-control
  • Unwilling to follow rules
  • Wetting or soiling on self
  • Extreme risk taking
  • Running away
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Overdeveloped startle response
  • Nightmares
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies

Emotional Engagement

It is important to connect with your child emotionally. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Validate your child – Listen to what he says when he talks to you. Make sure that you give him your undivided attention. If you are busy, take a minute to explain why you can’t give him your full attention right then.
  • Parent your child together – Child care is a shared responsibility; if you feel that your spouse is not pulling his or her weight as a parent, talk it out and discuss how you can work together as a team to build a balanced and emotionally stable family.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry – There may be times when you do or say something that hurts your child’s feelings. When this happens, do the right thing by apologising to him. This will teach him to take responsibility for his mistakes.
  • Be realistic in your expectations – Having realistic expectation of what your child can or cannot handle will help you determine how much care and supervision he needs.
  • Compliment your child – Don’t be stingy with praises when he does something good, such as making his own bed or is wellbehaved on your outing together. More importantly, make sure that your compliments are honest and heartfelt.
  • Talk to other parents – Don’t be shy to get tips or exchange notes with other parents. Parenting classes, seminars or guidebooks may help you cope better with the demands and challenges of parenthood. You may also consult a child psychiatrist to learn more about your child.

Shaping Wholesome Individuals

by Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, Consultant Paediatrician & Paediatric Cardiologist


As parents, we are all guilty of distancing ourselves from our children emotionally at times. We all get angry, sad or overwhelmed, all of which could cause us to become hostile or disconnected towards the people around us. Along the way, we may find ourselves drifting away from our loved ones, particularly our children, who are unable to empathise with our feelings or frustrations at their young age.

This does not make us bad parents. It simply means we are human. However, it is important to always bear in mind that we play an important role in nourishing our children’s mental and emotional well-being, on top of providing the physical nurturance that their tiny bodies require.

Forming a close, emotional connection with your child will make him feel loved and needed. This will help foster a healthy selfesteem in the long run. A happy child is also likely to develop good social and interactive skills that will allow him to navigate any social setting with ease.

A child who is socially apt will be less inclined to turn to unhealthy habits, such as engaging in destructive or narcissistic behaviours, whether in real life or through social networking sites, to grab your attention.

Remember, a happy child is a healthy child. Your love and care will help ensure that he grows up to become a secure and wholesome individual.

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