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What is Neglectful Parenting?

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Though similar, learn more about how neglect or indulgence as a parenting style can harm teens and young adults.

Medically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

Many diverse styles of parenting exist across the globe. Described in greater detail in our, “Is Your Parenting Style Too Harsh for Your Teen?,” two overarching styles of parenting include the following: 

  • Authoritarian parenting
    Authoritarian parents demand that their children do as they are told without discussion. Love and warmth is dependent on obedience. As a result, children of authoritarian parents often end up becoming insecure, dependent on their parents, or have difficulty making decisions. 
  • Authoritative parenting
    Authoritative parents strike a healthy balance of warmth and discipline. They are emotionally responsive to the needs of their children while also setting clear boundaries, expectations, and rules meant to be followed. Children and teens of authoritative parents fare the best in research studies on parenting styles and mental health outcomes. 

In this post, we will review two very different styles of “hands-off” parenting on opposite ends of the parenting spectrum  – permissive indulgent parenting and neglectful parenting. 

Permissive indulgent parenting 

Permissive indulgent parenting (also referred to as permissive parenting or indulgent parenting) is a style of parenting that involves two key components: 

  • Being nurturing and warm 
  • Feeling reluctant to impose rules or discipline

In contrast to the authoritarian parenting described above, permissive indulgent parenting exhibits “high responsiveness” and “low demandingness.” While the first attribute is positive, indicating closeless with their children, the latter unwillingness to enforce rules can be problematic. 

Permissive indulgent parenting can manifest in the following parental traits: 

  • Allowing children to regulate themselves 
  • Avoiding use of overt power and ignoring a child’s bad behavior 
  • Not assigning children responsibility 
  • Not encouraging children to meet age-appropriate behavior standards

Research shows that children of parents who use permissive indulgent parenting may find themselves with the following outcomes: 

  • Difficulties with self-regulation
  • More prone to delinquency 
  • Higher BMIs  
  • Higher frequency of alcohol abuse 
  • Increased time spent watching TV 
  • Difficulties with sleep  

One positive? In one study, adolescents who were raised in a permissive household demonstrated higher self-confidence than those raised by authoritarian parents or uninvolved parents, described below.  

Neglect and neglectful parenting 

Neglectful parenting is a style of parenting defined by a lack of parental interest or responsiveness to a child. These parents are similar to permissive indulgent parents in that they lack control of their children. But they differ greatly from permissive indulgent parents in that they also are less attentive to and caring of the emotional needs of their child.  

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Child neglect, child abandonment, and child neglect through parental substance abuse are all features of neglectful or uninvolved parenting and are described below: 

Child neglect 

Child neglect can be thought of in the following three categories: 

  • Physical neglect
    When a parent fails to provide a child with medical care, nutrition, cleanliness, and/or safe living conditions. 
  • Supervisory neglect
    When a parent fails to provide a child with supervision to ensure protection from dangerous situations or people. Examples of this may be leaving for work without arranging for childcare, being too inebriated to care for a child, or allowing dangerous individuals to have access to a child. 
  • Emotional neglect
    When a parent is inattentive to a child’s emotional or developmental needs. One example involves allowing a child to drink alcohol. This is neglectful of a child’s developmental and physical age. 

Child abandonment

Child abandonment can be defined by a situation in which: 

  • The whereabouts or identity of a child’s parents are unknown. 
  • A parent leaves a child in a location in which the child suffers serious harm.
  • The parent has failed to maintain contact or provide support to their child for a specified period of time. 

Child neglect through parental substance use 

More than half of all states and the District of Columbia define parental substance abuse as an element of child neglect or abuse. These states define substance abuse as neglect or abuse to include the following circumstances: 

  • Prenatal exposure of a fetus to an illegal drug 
  • Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child
  • Using a controlled substance in a way that impairs the caregiver’s ability to take care of their child. Controlled substances are illegal drugs or potentially dangerous medication like opioids, stimulants, or steroids. 
  • Manufacturing controlled substances in front of a child or allowing children to be around equipment needed to manufacture a controlled substance. 

Why might parents neglect their children?  

For a multitude of reasons, neglectful parents are uninvolved in the life of their child or teen. Some of the most common reasons include:  

  • Parents who neglect their children may come from a family in which they were neglected. These individuals may not understand or know how to care for their child. Alternatively, if a parent had to rely on themself as a child, they may feel that their child can do so as well. 
  • Parents, specifically from low socioeconomic backgrounds, may be working several jobs and not have the time or money to adequately care for their child. 
  • Physical disease, mental illness, or substance abuse may interfere with a guardian’s ability to care for their child. 

Outcomes of neglectful parenting

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, many research studies link uninvolved or neglectful parenting with poor mental and/or physical health outcomes. Children from neglectful environments may struggle with the following consequences: 

  • Failure to grow
  • Developmental delay
  • Hyperactivity
  • Aggression 
  • Low self-esteem
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse 

In addition to the above, neglectful parenting has been directly tied to depression. In one study, childhood emotional neglect, defined as absence of parental attention or support, was measured from ages 8 to 17 and then depressive symptoms were measured at age 18. Higher levels of emotional neglect were associated with increased depressive symptoms. Of note, higher levels of peer support were found to be associated with decreased depressive symptoms. 

Are neglectful parents abusive? 

Child abuse does not fall clearly under the umbrella of neglectful or uninvolved parenting. Not all neglectful parents are abusive. On the flip side, not all abusive parents are neglectful. 

Despite these differences, there are similarities and overlapping features of parents who neglect their children and parents who abuse their children. For this reason and many more, it is important for teachers, bystanders, clinicians, family, friends, and others to recognize features of abuse in order to act. 

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as defined by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. 

Physical abuse 

  • Physical abuse is defined as any non-accidental physical injury to a child. 
  • This includes hitting, kicking, burning, biting, and more. 
  • In many states, requiring minors to complete laborious jobs by force is included in the definition of labor trafficking and therefore physical abuse. 

Sexual abuse 

  • Sexual abuse is defined as taking advantage of a child through sexual acts.
  • Examples include allowing a child to engage in prostitution, raping or molesting a child, or producing child pornography.  
  • In many states, sex trafficking or trafficking children for sexual purposes is defined as sexual abuse. 

Emotional abuse  

  • Emotional abuse is defined as injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a child.  
  • Examples include overly criticizing a child, humiliating a child, threatening a child, blaming the child for other’s problems, and more 
  • Injury may present as changes in behavior, ability to think, withdrawal, and aggressive behavior. Mental illness such as anxiety or depression as a result of emotional abuse may also be seen.  
A young woman holding a cup of coffee sits alone outside staring

How can you gain control as a permissive indulgent parent? 

Setting clear boundaries is an important part of healthy parenting. According to experts, tips include:  

  • Set clear and easy-to-follow expectations and explain why they’ve been set. 
  • Focus on the positive: what your teen “can” do is better than emphasizing what they aren’t allowed to do
  • If it makes sense in the situation, provide options, but don’t overly negotiate. 
  • Communicate your feelings in a calm and respectful manner (no shouting, name calling, etc.) 
  • Practice active listening. 

Positively framing failure helps encourage teen optimism 

  • Give your teen permission to feel their feelings (no matter what) when they fail or come up short. Remind them that they can handle big emotions. 
  • Don’t judge or shame your teen if and when they fail. 
  • Emphasize that failure leads to lessons for the future. 
  • Share your own experiences with failures and how you were able to overcome or gain a new perspective.

One study demonstrated that parents who used failure as an opportunity to lean into opportunity raised teens who are more likely to have a growth mindset as opposed to one that’s fixed. Ultimately, a growth vs. fixed mindset can make a significant difference in mental health outcomes, as research has found that those with a growth mindset are less likely to struggle with mental health issues. 

What can be done to help children of neglectful parents? 

In suspected cases of abuse or neglect that is endangering a child, an individual should contact Child Protective Services (CPS). Child Protective Services is a branch of each state’s social services department that completes assessments and interventions in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect . Definitive proof of abuse or severe neglect is not required to make a CPS claim.  

Many individuals are designated as mandated reporters. Mandated reporters are individuals who are required to contact CPS if they suspect abuse. A few examples include: 

  • All licensed healthcare professionals or employees of a healthcare facility 
  • School employees  
  • Clergymen including priests, rabbis, ministers, Christian Science practitioners, religious healers, spiritual leaders of any established church 
  • Law enforcement 
  • Employees of a public library 
  • Foster parents
  • Adult family members who are responsible for the child's welfare and provide direct-care services to a child.
  • Any individual who is responsible for the child’s welfare or has direct contact with children through a scheduled program or activity 

After a child’s safety has been accounted for, next steps involve helping to solve underlying concerns that may be causing parental neglect. This may look like helping parents: 

  • Connect with clinicians or social workers to assist with childcare, food, or safe living arrangements
  • Connect with substance abuse treatment 
  • Start therapy or mental health treatment to better understand why they are uninvolved or neglectful 

As stated above, a child’s safety comes first. Once a child’s safety has been established, Charlie Health has options for family therapy to help regain trust and build communication between family members. In addition to individualized teen therapy sessions, virtual support groups that may help families or guardians who have stepped in to care for a child include: 

Parenting Skills Group

  • Learn skills related to conflict deescalation, mindful communication, and active listening when interacting with your family

Family Meeting Group

  • Learn how to facilitate a successful family meting at home

TLC Group 

  • Learn new and intentional ways to take care of yourself as a parent 

Each of these groups is designed to help parents learn the skills needed to respond to their teen’s needs, especially during moments of conflict. 

Family support and healing at Charlie Health

If you're a parent struggling with managing family dynamics or a teen who's dealt with a neglectful parent, we're here to help. Our virtual IOP offers therapy multiple times per week with peers who share similar life experiences. Teens and young adults are placed into trauma-informed groups, paired with a personalized individual therapist, and can gather with their family to work through conflict. Parents are offered weekly support groups, free of charge. Get started today.

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