Affluent neglect – A hidden form of abuse

What is Neglect?

Neglect is the most common type of child abuse. It is defined by the NSPCC as “the ongoing failure to meet a child's basic needs.” Children who suffer neglect may be underfed and hungry, unwashed, or be left without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision, or healthcare. The impact of childhood neglect can put children and young people in danger and also have significant long-term effects on their wellbeing and physical health.

Neglect is a term that covers several different things and can be broken down into four main sub-categories:

  • Physical neglect
  • Educational neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Medical neglect

You can find out more about these types of neglect and learn how to spot the signs of neglect on the NSPCC website.

What is Affluent Neglect?

Affluent neglect refers to the neglect experienced by children in wealthy families. Often, neglect in wealthier families can be more difficult to spot, as the type of neglect experienced by children and young people in these circumstances is often emotional.

What Risks are Children from Wealthy Families Exposed to?

There are a huge number of risks that face children from all walks of life and being a child in an affluent family is often perceived to protect those children from some of these dangers. In reality, children from affluent families aren’t as sheltered from neglect as some of us may think.

Parental Emotional Neglect

In wealthy families, it can be the case that parents work long hours, leaving children in the care of paid carers. This can create an emotional disconnect and leave children feeling lonely, with their emotional needs unfulfilled by their parents.

It has also been suggested that as well as not spending quality time with their children, affluent parents may put a high amount of pressure on their children to succeed academically, which can sometimes lead to psychological and emotional problems for children.

Parental Alcohol and Substance abuse, Domestic violence, and Parental Mental Illness

These three factors (also known as the toxic trio) are often considered as problems that only occur in poorer families; however, this is not the case. These same issues are also found in affluent families and have lasting effects on the children in the home.

More Relaxed Attitude to Drug Use and Sexual Activity

It can sometimes be the case that due to a lack of parental supervision and guidance, wealthy parents may have a more relaxed attitude to the risks their children take, or in many cases aren’t sufficiently present or available to know about what their children are doing. This can lead to increased risks for their children, who may have the financial means to facilitate drug abuse and the independence to engage in harmful sexual activity.

Why is Affluent Neglect Often Overlooked?

There are several barriers that may prevent children, from more affluent homes, who are experiencing these types of neglect from accessing the support they need. Firstly, their symptoms of neglect may be harder to spot. The nature of emotional neglect can make it much harder to identify than other types of neglect. For example, due to the family having hired help to care for the children they may present as clean, tidy, well-dressed, and properly fed when they are actually experiencing emotional neglect.

Also, staff training often focuses on case studies looking at children from poor or working-class families, so staff in educational settings may not be adequately trained to identify and intervene with cases of neglect among their wealthier families.

It is also often the case when working with poorer families that they are already known to social services, so it is easier to know who to look out for. The same cannot be said for wealthy families, as often they are not ‘on the radar’ of protective services. There may also be increased hostility towards agencies such as social services from more affluent families, making it more difficult to improve outcomes for children in these circumstances.

There is also a case to be made for the role of unconscious bias when working with children from wealthier families. Schools and school staff may miss important pieces of the puzzle when they assume that children from wealthy families are less at risk than those from poorer backgrounds. These children may be coming in with new clothes and fancy designer labels – not signs you would usually associate with a case of parental neglect.

It can be even harder to identify and intervene in neglect cases when a child is attending boarding school, or their parents are living out of the area or even overseas. This adds another layer of complexity and can prove challenging, not only for identifying home issues but also for communicating with parents to improve outcomes for the child.

What is the Impact?

The emotional neglect, exposure to the toxic trio, and lack of supervision sometimes faced by children from affluent families are considered to be adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs can affect brain development and change how a person’s body will respond to stress. They have a lasting impact on an individual and the consequences of these adverse experiences can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems, as well as substance misuse and addiction in adulthood.

Support and Intervention

ACEs are preventable and by ensuring staff in your organisation are trained to spot affluent neglect, and have the appropriate tools to report, record, and manage these concerns, your organisation can be proactive in improving outcomes for this often-overlooked group of young people.

By preventing ACEs from occurring, your organisation will be able to lower the risk for serious and long-term health conditions such as depression and cancer in adulthood. They will also be able to intervene and reduce behaviours like smoking and heavy drinking, improve a child’s ability to thrive at school, and ultimately prevent ACEs from being passed from one generation to the next.

Some fundamental steps for ensuring no child (no matter what their background) goes unseen:

  • Ensure staff regularly receive up-to-date, good quality, and thorough safeguarding training
  • Encourage staff to identify and question their own unconscious biases
  • Put in place robust and easy-to-use safeguarding reporting systems
  • Create a culture in your organisation that puts safeguarding first

Further reading

 

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