Neglect is when a person does not look after the needs of someone under their care. It is a type of abuse. Other forms of abuse include physical violence and emotional abuse.

The difference between neglect and other forms of abuse is that neglect is passive. It involves not doing something, as opposed to taking action.

However, this does not mean that neglect is not just as harmful or hurtful to people who experience it.

This article explores the distinction between neglect versus abuse, the different types of each, examples, signs, and when to seek help.

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Neglect is a type of abuse. But while other forms of abuse involve taking action that hurts a person, neglect involves inaction.

Neglect can involve not taking care of any aspect of a person’s needs. In the context of child neglect, the definition can also include not providing a child with education as the state requires.

In contrast, other types of abuse involve actively doing something to cause harm, such as physically hurting someone.

Both neglect and abuse can be visible or invisible. A person may notice marks or bruises or that someone looks disheveled or unwell, but this is not always the case.

Neglect and abuse can come in many forms. Grouping them into categories can help make sense of them.

For instance, the Department of Health & Human Services lists the following types of neglect:

  • Physical neglect: This means a person is not caring for someone’s physical needs, such as the need for food, water, or shelter.
  • Emotional neglect: This is when someone does not provide love, emotional support, or guidance.
  • Educational neglect: This is when a caregiver does not enroll a child at school or make arrangements to homeschool them.
  • Medical neglect: This is when a person does not look after another’s health adequately. They might also avoid seeking medical attention on their behalf when they need it.

Self-neglect is also possible. This is when a person does not take care of their basic needs to the detriment of their health. However, unlike other types of neglect, this is not a potentially criminal act.

Some types of abuse include:

  • physical violence, such as hitting, kicking, burning, pinching, or corporal punishment
  • emotional abuse, which could include insults, intentional humiliation, manipulation, gaslighting, or coercive control
  • sexual abuse, such as assault, coercion, or trafficking
  • financial abuse, which can involve stealing someone’s money, seizing control of it, or preventing them from having their own
  • spiritual abuse, which involves using a person’s religion against them

Some potential examples of neglect include:

  • a parent or caregiver not buying or preparing food for their child
  • a person ignoring their partner when they are upset
  • a landlord not acting on reports of leaks, mold, or other issues from their tenant
  • a care worker leaving someone with dementia alone for long periods of time
  • a doctor not investigating a patient’s symptoms, even though there is cause for concern
  • an employer making no effort to protect workers from dangerous machinery

Some examples of abuse include:

  • a parent or caregiver hitting their child
  • someone trying to control everything their partner does
  • a teacher using public humiliation or insults to punish students
  • a family member seizing control of a relative’s money without their consent
  • a care worker gaslighting the person they look after
  • a religious leader using a person’s spirituality to manipulate them

Data from 2020 suggests that neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the United States.

Of the confirmed cases of child abuse for that year:

  • 76.1% were cases of neglect
  • 16.5% were physical abuse
  • 9.4% were sexual abuse

That said, many children who experience abuse are subject to multiple types.

The data adds that abuse affects more girls than boys, and that the younger the age, the higher the prevalence. Additionally, 80.6% of all perpetrators of child fatalities are parents, either acting alone or with others.

In the context of elder abuse, a 2020 study reports that 21% of older adults self-reported experiencing at least one form, with 12% reporting multiple types. A 2017 review of data from 28 countries suggests that in community care settings, psychological abuse may be the most common type.

However, because many cases of abuse and neglect go without detection, it is difficult to know if these figures are accurate.

The potential signs of neglect can include:

  • frequent complaints of hunger or thirst
  • signs of malnourishment, such as a low body weight
  • hygiene issues, such as unwashed skin, hair, or clothing
  • skin conditions, such as sores or nappy rash in babies
  • untreated wounds, dental issues, or medical conditions

Signs of other types of abuse could include:

  • visible injuries, such as bruises, cigarette burns, cuts, or lash marks
  • jumpiness or fearful behavior
  • low self-worth
  • emotional outbursts
  • difficulty making friends
  • behaving in a way that is inappropriate for their age

In either case, a person might also:

  • miss school or work
  • not turn up for important medical appointments or vaccinations
  • become clingy, anxious, or depressed
  • behave in defensive or aggressive ways
  • withdraw or isolate themselves from others

If someone notices that a caregiver seems distant, cold, uncaring, or hostile, this could also be an indication. They also may not want to allow others to see the person they care for alone.

People can experience neglect and other types of abuse at the same time, so some individuals may have a mixture of the above signs.

It is difficult to compare neglect and abuse because, at their most extreme, both can cause serious harm or death. Even when they do not, either could have a profound effect on a person’s:

  • mental health
  • brain development
  • ability to form healthy relationships
  • ability or willingness to care for themselves or others
  • educational attainment
  • opportunities for employment
  • risk of experiencing further abuse

This can have wide-ranging consequences on both individuals and their communities and potentially affect future generations.

Learn more about the short- and long-term effects of emotional abuse.

If a person suspects that they or someone they know is experiencing neglect or abuse, it is important to seek help as soon as possible.

If they are in immediate danger, they can call 911 or the number of the nearest police department right away. If it is not an emergency, people can contact a helpline or organization for advice and support, as soon as it is safe to do so.

Depending on the situation, this could be:

If a person is unsure, it is still advisable to contact a support organization. They can provide insight and tell someone what to do if there is reason to suspect abuse.

Neglect is when a person does not look after the needs of someone under their care. It is a passive act, while other types of abuse, such as violence, are active.

However, neglect and abuse are not mutually exclusive. Neglect is a type of abuse, and it is not uncommon for people to experience multiple types at the same time.

The effects of any type of abuse can be severe, and it can affect multiple generations and whole communities. Anyone with concerns about neglect or abuse needs to seek expert advice.