Exploring how neglect might interact with forms of sexual harm

Posted by Guest blogger / Friday 12 August 2016 / Child neglect Safeguarding

Neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment so understanding its impacts better is vital to improving prevention and intervention. With increasing attention rightly being paid to child sexual exploitation (CSE) and harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) as well as intrafamilial sexual abuse (IFCSA), it is important to consider how neglect might – for some children - exacerbate vulnerability.

Research in Practice was asked by Action for Children and NSPCC to produce three linked evidence scopes exploring whether and how neglect might interact with these forms of sexual harm. The evidence scopes and a summary can be found here.

"The first thing to say is that the relationship is neither simple nor causal. Not all children who experience neglect will also experience these forms of sexual harm, to suggest otherwise is misleading and even dangerous. This requires some careful thinking – and the scopes aim to encourage this."


Where children/young people do experience these forms of sexual harm and also have experience of neglect, the relationship between these is complex. 

The available evidence is often speculative; it invites hypotheses rather than providing simple answers. The authors (each respected researchers in their field) have worked hard to help the reader to avoid simplistic assumptions.

All three scopes try to avoid blaming parents (in particular mothers, who can often be the focus of discourse around neglect) and underline the dangers in failing to recognise the impact of ‘societal neglect’ on parenting capacity. This too required a thoughtful approach.

Some of the evidence is strong. For example, research shows that childhood neglect is a predictor of running away in adolescence and also shows the links between running away and homelessness to CSE. There is also robust evidence for a relationship between childhood neglect and later drug misuse and strong evidence that substance misuse in adolescence raises risk for CSE.

We offer some ideas about how these things might be connected: without responsive caregiving, children may not develop effective emotion regulation skills and may therefore turn to drugs to manage difficult emotions. Earlier experiences of neglect may also increase some young people’s susceptibility to manipulative techniques of perpetrators to encourage drug addiction. Once young people have become dependent on drugs, ‘trading sex’ may become a way of continuing to obtain them; equally a young person may manage the trauma of CSE by using drugs.

Another robust finding is the impact of neglect on cognitive and language functioning. Neglect causes more damage to cognitive functioning than other forms of maltreatment and children with learning difficulties are at heightened risk of sexual victimisation. These children/young people may be less able to detect perpetrators’ grooming strategies; perpetrators may specifically target them as being easier to exploit; and if carers (and practitioners) are not sensitive to these cognitive difficulties, these children can find it even harder to seek help and be heard. This invites us to think about how the impacts of neglect are understood and addressed – and how to explain this to parents.

A mother and child finger painting

In terms of CSA within the family context, again there is evidence to suggest a relationship with neglect. Some of the well-evidenced impacts of neglect (such as delayed cognitive and language development; low self-esteem; difficulties with relationships and psychological difficulties) may increase a child’s vulnerability to the strategies of perpetrators. One example might be that a child experiencing material neglect would be more vulnerable to a perpetrator offering bribes and gifts.

There are other hypothetical connections: a neglected child who is lonely and has low self-worth may be particularly vulnerable to a perpetrator’s strategy of cultivating a so-called ‘special relationship’.

The child’s isolation may also mean they do not easily recognise their experiences as abusive because they have no wider reference point.

Single parenthood is not a risk factor for neglect, but where single parenthood combines with social isolation and poverty, this may make families especially vulnerable to manipulation by perpetrators who may target stressed and lonely mothers in order to access their children. There is emerging evidence that some perpetrators may develop ‘cognitive distortions’ which can serve to ‘justify’ their abuse. Where a child is neglected and appears uncared for, perpetrators may convince themselves they are providing the love and attention the child needs. This challenging idea demands careful thought and reflection from those supporting families in this situation.

A significant proportion of children and young people with HSB have experienced maltreatment, including neglect. Some of the impacts of neglect (such as social isolation, inhibited social competency and disrupted attachments) are often noted amongst young people with HSB, in particular those who victimise younger children. Neglect is associated with an increased risk of negative responses in adolescence, including criminality and aggression, sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Lack of parental supervision and association with ‘deviant’ peer groups has been closely linked with peer-on-peer HSB, whereas psychological control and social isolation have been more often associated with HSB involving the abuse of children. These conceptual pathways compel us to think long and hard about whether responses to HSB are adequately addressing underlying vulnerability.

"There is no straightforward link between neglect and CSE, IFCSA or HSB. However, the evidence does suggest ways in which the impacts of neglect may interact with other adversities to increase vulnerability to sexual harm. Addressing the impacts of neglect, and doing so earlier, might help to keep children and young people safe."

There are a number of tensions to manage: it requires families to feel able to access help as early as possible but stigma and shame are key barriers to this – and the child protection process (or families’ perceptions of social care) can exacerbate these feelings. Support needs to be provided earlier, whilst also avoiding ‘over intervention’. Practitioners must operate in genuine partnership with parents, while keeping the child in mind at all times.

Addressing these tensions requires all of us to engage thoughtfully with the evidence base, exercising professional curiosity and avoiding simplistic assumptions. The complexity of these issues means there are no ‘silver bullets’ and these scopes raise as many questions as they do answers. The intention here is to support practitioners to engage with this complex evidence in a thoughtful way, so that we can begin to think about how we might further explore and assess the relationships between these issues.

Children taking part in musical activities

About the author

Dez Holmes is the Director of Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults.


For a full list of references and supporting evidence, please see here.