Ask the Therapist

Question: “I heard this in a Podcast recently and wanted to know a little bit more about it. I am trying to understand the difference between abuse and neglect and that sometimes the neglect can be hard to validate? “

Dear Reader, 

Before I dive into this question, I preface all of the readers to be mindful of the sensitive nature of this topic. Abuse and neglect are both delicate and intricate subjects. By no means will I be able to give full justice to the breadth of information that these topics truly require in this one small article. In the end, several resources will be referenced so you can access more information if desired. Please remember that the information provided is by no means offering advice related to pursuing decisions related to legal concerns or personal matters. 

To put it simply, the contrast between abuse and neglect is that one is an ACT, and the other is a LACK OF ACTING. Abuse is when something is done to a person, and neglect is when there is a lack of doing in regard to the care of someone that is dependent on another. In that way alone, neglect can be more challenging to acknowledge or even know about because (especially if you are very young) when the neglect is happening, you may not know that anything is abnormal or missing in how you are being cared for by someone. It may also be that there are varying degrees of neglect; including something called “Unintentional Neglect,” which I will not be able to go into for this particular subject but can be a more widespread and culturally normalized pattern of neglect that can be very challenging for caregivers to see and admit. 

Abuse is often thought of as physical, but there are other ways someone can be abused. These include financial, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse.  The impact of abuse is serious and detrimental. It’s easy to look at the definition of abuse and think of the gross and serious acts of it; but please note that just as we will explore neglect; parents, spouses, employers, etc. may be acting out more “normalized” forms of abuse (i.e., teasing, bullying, making someone uncomfortable sexually, etc.) and particularly if it is ongoing – can be just as detrimental to a person’s well-being.  In many ways, our nation has a history of abusive behavior related to power, and just because people in authority normalize it does not make it right. It continues to be pervasive and impacting.

Neglect is oftentimes more difficult to see. The Center for Disease Control describes neglect as “the failure to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs. These needs include housing, food, clothing, education, access to medical care, and having feelings validated and appropriately responded to.” The unmet emotional needs of children tend to be the primary form of neglect that is skimmed over in today’s overarching industrious culture. Other adults in children’s lives may not overtly see this neglect occurring. This makes it hard to identify. Forms of neglect include (but are not limited to); physical (i.e. failure to provide adequate shelter/food), medical (i.e. failure to seek medical, dental, or psychological care), supervisory (i.e. leaving the child unattended at an inappropriate age or leaving them with an unfit caregiver), environmental (i.e. exposing the child to toxins (including smoke and unsanitary conditions), educational (i.e. failing to give the child a proper education), emotional (i.e. when a caregiver is not giving the child the attention, love, care, and affection) that they need to develop. 

Due to the fact that one of the main effects of neglect on children is that they ultimately have a hard time recognizing, owning, accepting, and knowing how to cope with their feelings, it can be difficult for one to validate their experience of it. So, when they become adults, they do not trust their own perception or sense of what is/was “wrong.” They do not know how to identify, acknowledge, and assert their needs. In struggling to even recognize and accept their own feelings/desires (or even that they are worth the space to have them and be held in them) how can one validate their own experience of it? 

This is why we need others to heal. It took a relationship to create the fragmentation within and it will take a relationship to create the wholeness that is possible when one embarks on the healing journey. We need a healthy and supportive person who can help us acknowledge the pain and present themselves with us in feeling it. Attachment ruptures that happen due to neglect and abuse can be addressed with the right help. In the case of abuse and neglect on any level, accessing the right professional support is highly recommended, especially if you find that you are having trouble trusting or allowing yourself to be vulnerable in asking others for help. There is a way back to feeling safe and whole.

With love, 



If you are concerned about abuse or neglect of a child, you can contact our local MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center for guidance, support, and further resources: 


Or visit their website for more numbers related to reporting suspected child abuse to the right authority:


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, April 6). Fast facts: Preventing child abuse & neglect |violence prevention|injury Center|CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from 

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