Emotional Trauma and Child Neglect: Abuse or Just Bad Parenting?


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Emotional neglect hurts too. Image by mensatic

Emotional neglect hurts too. Image by mensatic

Should parents who neglect children emotionally be subject to legal penalties?  In Great Britain, experts are debating that question in light of research finding that a large number of children are neglected either physically or emotionally.

Traumatic Life Events

Increasingly psychologists are discovering that traumatic events affect the way our brains function.  One assessment, the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths Assessment or CANS lists sexual, physical, emotional, medical, natural disasters, witnessing violence in the family or community, criminal activity, war or terrorism as possible sources of trauma.

What happens when someone’s experienced trauma? Possible behavioral effects include problems with affect regulation, or problems controlling emotions, intrusions such as unwanted thoughts and nightmares, attachment issues, or being unable to form relationships or detach from them, and disassociation such as feeling like one is in a dream state.

This assessment asks how often abuse occurs.  Specifically with emotional trauma, the duration is important.  The CANS asks if the abuse lasted over a period of a year.

Emotional Abuse Defined

One definition of emotional abuse used in the medical field is “coercive, demeaning, or overly distant behavior by a parent or other caretaker that interferes with a child’s normal social or psychological development.”  Unlike broken bones or black eyes, the results of emotional abuse are more difficult to see, and to diagnose.

The BBC cites one child welfare group, Action for Children, whose research found 1.5 million children, or one in ten children in Great Britain experienced neglect.  Neglect may include emotional abuse.  The group defines child neglect as “ranging from obvious physical signs such as being severely under or over weight to being ignored when distressed.”

Proposed Legislation in Great Britain

Researchers have found that emotional trauma, such as bullying has lasting effects.  According to the BBC, legislators in Great Britain  are proposing laws to punish parents whose behavior may cause “impairment of ‘physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.‘”

BBC reporter Patrick Howse writes that one government agency, Olfsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, conducted its own investigation, concluding that “children are being left for too long in harmful situations.”  Ofsted’s director for social care, Debbie Jones believes, “we need to examine what we can and should be doing to stop neglect far earlier in their lives.”

Legislation May Foster Discussion

A more comprehensive definition of neglect written into law could further the goal of Jones of providing “help and intervention before the damage becomes irreparable.”  Unfortunately, some parents may be unable to provide emotional support for their children, while others may simply be unaware of the harmful consequences of ignoring emotional needs.  Proposing legislation provides an opportunity to shine light on the problem.

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