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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 18, No. 1
January 2013

Impact of Neglect on Brain Development and Attachment

Neglect is sometimes considered less severe than other forms of maltreatment. However, a study comparing developmental repercussions for four types of child maltreatment--neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychologically unavailable parents--concluded that neglected children suffer the worst consequences (Gaudin, 1993).

Why would neglect have such an impact? Two big reasons: brain development and attachment.

Neglect and Brain Development
Because development begins in utero, neglect can affect the brain even before a child is born. For an illustration of the impact environmental conditions can have on children before they are born, consider Charil's study (2010), which found reduced brain size and impaired development in children whose mothers had high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy.

The ongoing nature of chronic neglect significantly impacts the brain in infancy and early childhood. According to Perry (2002), neglect at this phase impedes formation of neurological pathways essential to communication in the brain. In particular, neglect has been shown to harm the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and memory (Perry, 2002; DeBellis, 2005). Extreme neglect can actually make children's brains smaller.

There are many outcomes related to this disruption in brain development, including lowered IQ, cognitive delays that impact learning, and difficulty with behavioral inhibitions (Wilkerson, 2009; Barkley, 1997).

Neglect and Attachment
A secure attachment to a primary caregiver is the foundation that allows children to learn to trust others and explore the world around them. This foundation is crucial for healthy development. The degree to which children are attached to their caregivers depends on how well their needs were responded to in early life. Because neglect by definition means needs are not met in some significant way, we would expect higher rates of attachment problems in neglected children.

That's just what we find: up to 85% of children in out-of-home placement have some disruption in attachment (Perry, 2002). Attachment difficulties caused by neglect affect every aspect of children's development, especially their ability to relate to others. Studies have repeatedly shown that children with disrupted attachment who have experienced neglect have problems coping and managing emotions, are more hopeless, and have a poor self-concept (Hildyard, 2002; Erickson & Egeland, 2002; Shipman, 2005).

According to Erickson and Egeland (2002):

Emotionally neglected children expect not to get what they need from others, and so they do not even try to solicit care and warmth. They expect not to be effective and successful in tasks, and so they do not try to succeed. Or perhaps, these children's dependence needs are so overwhelming that they are barely able to concern themselves with being motivated and task-oriented.

Given neglect's impact, we must address the gap between what we know and what we do. The phrase "neglect of neglect" has become a common saying regarding what has been referred to as "the absurd paradox" of our field: although neglect is the most common form of maltreatment with the most significant impacts, it is also the least understood and often the least addressed (McSherry, 2007). We need to focus more on understanding the complex factors that contribute to neglect and developing strategies for intervening as early as possible.

Learn More

Want to learn more about how neglect disrupts the developing brain and how best to respond? Read the clear, accessible Working Paper #12 from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. You can find it at

Other Learning Resources

References for this and other articles in this issue