How Might Child Neglect Affect a Child’s Self-Esteem in Adulthood


Child neglect is a social and public health problem that continues to pose serious threats to the wellbeing and health of the victims later in life. According to the Centers for Diseases and Control (2021), at least one out of seven children has undergone either childhood abuse or neglect or both during the past year. In the year 2019 alone, 1,840 children in the United States died as a result of the problem (Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect, 2021). However, it is children who live in poverty situations that experience more abuse and neglect (Children’s Bureau, 2019). The rate at which children are abused and neglected in low social-economic status families is five times more than other relatively well-off families. This is a big problem whose impacts are lifelong. In 2015, the United States suffered an economic burden of $428 billion as a result of child abuse and neglect (Child Abuse & Neglect, 2021). This is almost the same amount that the country spends on addressing such high-profile public health problems as type 2 diabetes and stroke. In addition to the associated cost implications, child neglect has serious problems on an individual’s self-esteem.

Research Question

Does child neglect have an effect on the victim’s self-esteem?

Definition of Concepts

  • Child abuse- engaging in an act that causes injury, emotional harm, or death of a child. It can also be through failing to take appropriate actions to prevent a child from harm.
  • Child neglect- A form of child abuse where parents or caregivers engage in an egregious behavior of depriving a child of his basic need as well as failing to offer adequate health care, housing, clothing, and supervision. Such parents and caregivers may also deprive their children of educational, physical, social, emotional, and safety needs.
  • Child maltreatment- An abnormal behavior towards a child that risks subjecting the child to emotional and physical harm.
  • Self-esteem- this is the overall subjection of personal value and worth that a person has for himself or herself. The self-esteem of an individual is the definition of his or her self-confidence, identity, feeling of competence, feeling of security, and sense of belonging.


The purpose of this research study is to answer the research question, which seeks to establish the nexus between child neglect and self-esteem. To answer this question, this study will review several literature materials on the same topic. A thorough internet search will be carried out to gather relevant materials on the same topic. This will be followed by a desktop study of the materials gathered for applicable content. Specifically, the researcher will narrow down his sources to newspapers articles, websites as well as peer-reviewed articles from scholarly databases. The newspapers will be expert opinion pieces from credible scholars and published on leading platforms. Similarly, the websites would be authoritative sites run by reliable institutions such as the Centers for Disease and Prevention.

Literature Review

In addition to physical injuries that a child can receive from maltreatment, the reactions of a child to neglect or abuse can be lifelong implications on his health and wellbeing. One of the most common types of maltreatment is child neglect (Holland, 2019). Child neglect and abuse is a disturbing social problem affecting millions of children across the world. Child abuse and neglect come in various forms and actions. They include ignoring the needs of a child, putting them in dangerous and unsupervised situations, making them feel stupid and worthless, and exposing them to sexual circumstances (Bhatti et al., n.d). These actions affect the mental and physical health of a child and can leave deep and long-lasting scars on the lives and wellbeing of children. Unfortunately, not many parents fathom the consequences of neglecting children (Hill, 2019). This is justified by the millions of child neglect victims across the world, including the United States.

In 2018, the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services approximated that 678,000 children were victims of neglect and abuse in the United States. About 60.8% of this number were specifically children who had been neglected (Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect, 2021). Worse still, in the same year, approximately 1,770 children in the United States die as a result of neglect and abuse (Child maltreatment, 2020). This is a clear indication that child neglect and abuse is a fundamental problem in the US. According to the Federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA), neglect refers to any failure or act by a parent or a caretaker whose consequences present an imminent harmful risk to the child (Sedghi, 2021). Therefore, any parent or caregiver who fails to provide food, medical care, shelter, clothing, or supervision to an extent that a child’s wellbeing, health, and safety is threatened, is deemed to have neglected the child.

Individuals who were victims of childhood rejection may nurse strong social pain out of a feeling that their fundamental emotional needs were ignored. The feeling of being cut and separated from their parents and caregivers or witnessing their siblings being favored more than them can breed strong social pains in them (Doward, 2017). The resultant social pain is a core feature of both episodic and dispositional envy, which is also a form of social pain. This is usually accompanied by a strong feeling of exclusion from self-related arenas (Xiang, et al., 2018). This explains why childhood neglect victims are prone to experiencing high degrees of shame, which is a response to the devaluation of self. Such a person may suffer from an inferiority complex that emanates from an upward social comparison of himself or herself.

Child neglect is usually characterized by unmet physical needs or the failure of parents or caretakers to offer adequate emotional and support and affection. This may result in an emotional and material deprivation of the child. Such children might desperately want to be overly concerned with or loved. They also want what their peers have but they do not themselves have, such as food, toys, money, toys, and clothes (Mwakanyamale & Yizhen, 2019). This feeling of deprivation may be generalized to other perspectives of life, which would, in turn, make them envious (Wood, 2019). The association between child envy and child neglect is mediated by self-esteem.

By definition, self-esteem refers to the general sense that one has for his own worth or value. Parents play a key role in developing the self-esteem of their children. However, this is not exemplified by Elizabeth Gilpin’s father who watched her and did nothing as strangers dragged her out of her bed. Gilpin was a 15-year-old girl who suffered at the hands of an alleged rehabilitation institution due to her father’s neglect. Warm and supportive parents offer their children a positive atmosphere to grow up in. Parents who offer positive feedback to their children are thus valuable in determining and shaping their children’s self-esteem (Çelik & Odacı, 2019). On the other hand, parents who provide negative responses and do not allow emotional interactions with their children can be detrimental to the self-esteem development of their children. This means that children who have been victims of neglect may develop low self-esteem later in life.

When infants and babies are neglected, they are prone to experiencing disorganized and insecure attachment problems against their primary caregivers. Early social and emotional development occurs as a result of patterns of attachment provided to the child by the caregiver (Brown, 2021). In the absence of support and security from parents and caregivers, infants and babies may not find it easy to trust other people even if they are in distress. This leads to persistent anger and anxiety experiences and low self-esteem (Bergstein, 2021). Furthermore, insecure attachment interferes with the child’s developmental processes, which, in turn, affects his interaction and communication abilities as well as other healthy relationships forms throughout the life of the child. In adolescence, this problem is associated with problematic relationships with peers and potential romantic partners.

Children who are neglected early in life experience damaged developmental capacities particularly in such critical areas as language and speech. This affects their learning achievements and academic performances in school. According to Çelik & Odacı (2019), children who were neglected during infancy record relatively lower scores in mathematics as compared to the rest. Additionally, such children experience difficulties in performing daily life activities such as dressing up (Yoon et al., 2019). Their inability to perform such activities sometimes invites teasing and jokes from their peers, a factor that further demoralizes and inculcates low self-esteem in them.

The recent increase in cases of youth suicides is partially linked to child abuse and neglect. Incidentally, most suicide or attempted suicide victims are individuals with low-self-esteem who suffered from childhood neglect and abuse. Child neglect victims often nurse a feeling of shame in addition to internally attributing themselves blames. This makes them vulnerable to various forms of maltreatment including sexual abuse and rape. An individual who has undergone these ordeals is left with a strong hatred against self, which sometimes drives them to commit suicide.

Low self-esteem accrued from childhood neglect sometimes drives its victims into abusing alcohol and drugs. Higher substance use levels have indeed been reported among victims of childhood neglect. Some people who suffer from low self-esteem think that using these substances would boost their morale and lift their spirits. However, the more they use them, the more their bodies get used to them (Lim & Lee, 2017). As a consequence, they overindulge in these substances to meet up their body’s expectations. This leads to abuse, which, in turn, results in physical violence, unplanned pregnancies, and irresponsible sexual behaviors. Furthermore, child neglect victims are more prone to violence, criminal activities, and aggression (Ayhan & Beyazit, 2021). In some cases, these are individuals who are burning with anger accumulated over the years. At the slightest provocation, they would not hesitate to vent these negative feelings against their victims.


There are several adverse consequences that can be caused by child neglect. However, low self-esteem is the common denominator in all individuals who had been neglected when young. An individual with low self-esteem is vulnerable and can be easily be manipulated into indulging in queer behaviors. The challenge is therefore on parents and caregivers to ensure that they are always there for their children and provide them with warmth and all the support they need during their formative years.


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Bergstein, R. (2021). My ‘troubled teen’ school hell: Strip searches, ‘smooshing’ and humiliation. New York Post.

Bhatti, B., Derezotes, D., Kim, S.-O., & Specht, H. (n.d). The association between child maltreatment and self-esteem. In B. Bhatti, D. Derezotes, S.-O. Kim, & H. Specht, The social importance of self-esteem (pp. 25-62). University of California Press.

Brown, E. (2021). Sexual assault against boys is a crisis. The Washington Post.

Çelik, Ç. B., & Odacı, H. (2019). Does child abuse have an impact on self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stress conditions of individuals? International Journal of Social of Psychiatry.

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Hill, A. (2019). ‘I was an intruder’: what it’s like to be your parents’ least favourite child. The Guardian.

Holland, K. (2019). Childhood emotional neglect: How it can impact you now and later. Healthline.

Lim, Y., & Lee, O. (2017). Relationships between parental maltreatment and adolescents’ school adjustment: Mediating roles of self-esteem and peer attachment. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 393–404.

Mwakanyamale, A. A., & Yizhen, Y. (2019). Psychological maltreatment and its relationship with self-esteem and psychological stress among adolescents in Tanzania: A community based, cross-sectional study. BMC Psychiatry, 19, 176. doi: 10.1186/s12888-019-2139-y.

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Sedghi, A. (2021). Seven ways to boost your self-esteem. The Guardian.

Wood, A. (2019). 4 ways childhood abuse and neglect affected my self-esteem. The Mighty.

Xiang, Y., Wang, W., & Guan, F. (2018). The relationship between child maltreatment and dispositional envy and the mediating effect of self-esteem and social support in young adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1054. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01054.

Yoon, M., Cho, S., & Yoon, D. (2019). Child maltreatment and depressive symptomatology among adolescents in out-of-home care: The mediating role of self-esteem. Children and Youth Services Review, 101, 255-260.

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