Neglect and Play Therapy

Child neglect happens when someone does not provide the necessities of life to a child, either intentionally or with reckless disregard to the child’s wellbeing, This can include physical neglect, such as withholding food, clothing, shelter or other necessities. Emotional neglect includes withholding love, comfort or affection. Medical neglect occurs when medical care is withheld (Psychology Today, 2017).

Neglect can impact a child’s brain development, how they feel and think about themselves, how successful they are at school, even their physical development and skills.


  • Failure to gain weight (especially in infants)

  • Untreated or unexplained injuries and dental issues

  • .Appearing disheveled, unwashed, or wearing dirty or inadequate clothes (including unchanged nappies)

  • Desperately affectionate behaviour

  • Voracious appetite and stealing food.

If you become aware that a child is being neglected:

  • Be alert to any warning signs that the child is experiencing

  • Observe the child and make written notes as soon as you begin to have concerns – pay attention to changes in their behaviour, ideas, feelings and the words they use

  • Have gentle, non-judgmental discussions with the child – expressing your concern that a child looks sad or unwell can result in disclosures

  • Do not pressure the child to respond and do not ask questions that put words into a child’s mouth.

  • Assure the child that they can come and talk to you when they need to, and listen to them when they do (Department of Child Safety, 2017)

  • Report your concerns to Child Protection.

How Play Therapy can help

  • Play is the way that children learn, make sense of their world, relive and work through vital aspects of their lives, and communicate to others. Children’s ability to communicate their pain through their play makes it one of the most effective means available (White, Draper and Jones, in Landreth, 2001).

  • Stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain, which responds to non-verbal modalities such as play, art, music and sandplay therapy, assists in the processing of trauma (Gil, 2006).

  • Through using play to express their abuse, children can stay emotionally safe by, for example, making the toy feel the emotional pain rather than themselves, or by making a toy the abuser (Ater, in Landreth, 2001).

Christine Harkin
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