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Features of the parent-child interaction (neglect / emotional abuse)

The following is a summary of the systematic review findings up to the date of our most recent literature search. If you have a specific clinical case, we strongly recommend you read all of the relevant references as cited and look for additional material published outside our search dates.


 Mean age 0-17 months

  • The parents of the youngest children were not attuned to the infants and provided inconsistent attention
  • The mothers used fewer commands and gave less positive feedback to their babies 4
  • The mothers lacked sensitivity 5 and were uninvolved with the infants 7,8, providing little in the way of stimulation or positive interactions 6,9
  • In response to the infant cues, mothers were either unpredictable and inconsistent 19 or became extremely wound up by infant crying 14
  • The mothers perceived their infants as being irritating and demanding 5


Mean age 18 months – 3 years

  • Amongst the toddlers, the mothers remain withdrawn and uninvolved 4,5 or lacking attunement or competence interacting with the children 13,21
  • They may either ignore the child’s cues for help or criticize the child 18,22 or may in fact make no effort to relieve their child’s distress 20
  • Parenting style within this age group was lacking in affection 23, empathy 24 or was controlling and hostile 25,26
  • On measuring regulatory capacity in the form of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) the neglected child showed lower RSA levels while interacting with their mothers to complete a challenging task compared to controls 26
  • The mothers were unresponsive to changes in the babies facial expressions 24
  • Neglected children did not show any more negative reactivity than non-maltreated controls 28


 Mean age 4-5 years

  • In one study there was no difference between neglected children and controls in a structured play task 1
  • The mother-child interaction in this age group is characterized by a low level of utterances between mother and child 2,11,15
  • The parents are verbally aggressive in their disciplining of the child 12,15
  • The neglectful mothers showed less positive parenting and more strict hostile control than non-maltreating mothers. The neglectful mothers showed a greater variation in positive parenting over time 25
  • The children’s perception is that their parents are unlikely to relieve their distress 20, and are not perceived as loving by the child 27


Mean age 6-14 years

  • Mothers self-reported that they were so caught up in themselves, they were unable to show or tell their child that they loved him / her 21
  • The neglectful parents are more negative towards their children, demonstrating fewer positive behaviours with the child and giving more commands in comparison to controls 3
  • In a comparison of two-parent and single-mother households, there was no difference in the level of positive interaction between neglectful mothers and their children 17
  • The neglectful single mothers showed more negative interaction than neglectful mothers in two-parent households 17
  • Neglectful mothers are less likely to talk to their children about emotional experiences in an appropriate way 10
  • The children perceived their mothers as less likely to be supportive when they express emotions, particularly anger 10
  • An evaluation of emotionally neglectful parents demonstrated that they were lacking in mutual attunement. In addition, these parents were more demanding and showed less support or involvement with their children 16

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  1. Bennett DS, Sullivan MW, Lewis M. Relations of parental report and observation of parenting to maltreatment history. Child Maltreatment. 2006;11(1):63–75 [Pubmed]

  2. Bousha DM, Twentyman CT. Mother-child interactional style in abuse, neglect, and control groups: naturalistic observations in the home. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1984;93(1):106-14 [Pubmed citation only]

  3. Burgess RL, Conger RD. Family interaction in abusive, neglectful, and normal families. Child Development. 1978;49(4):1163-73 [Pubmed]

  4. Christopoulos C, Bonvillian JD, Crittenden PM. Maternal language input and child maltreatment. Infant Mental Health Journal. 1988;9(4):272-286 [Abstract provided by Wiley Online]
  5. Cicchetti D, Rogosch FA, Toth SL. Fostering secure attachment in infants in maltreating families through preventive interventions. Development and psychopathology. 2006;18(3):623-649 [Pubmed]
  6. Crittenden PM. Abusing, neglecting, problematic, and adequate dyads: Differentiating by patterns of interaction. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 1981;27(3):201-218 [Abstract available from JSTOR]

  7. Crittenden PM, Bonvillian JD. The relationship between maternal risk status and maternal sensitivity. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 1984;54(2):250-262 [Pubmed]
  8. Crittenden PM, DiLalla DL. Compulsive compliance: the development of an inhibitory coping strategy in infancy. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 1988;16(5):585-599 [Pubmed]
  9. DiLalla DL, Crittenden PM. Dimensions of maltreated children's home behavior: A factor analytic approach. Infant Behavior and Development. 1990;13(4):439-460 [Abstract provided by Science Direct]
  10. Edwards A, Shipman K, Brown A. The socialization of emotional understanding: a comparison of neglectful and nonneglectful mothers and their children. Child Maltreatment. 2005;10(3):293-304 [Pubmed]

  11. Eigsti IM, Cicchetti D. The impact of child maltreatment on expressive syntax at 60 months. Developmental Science. 2004;7(1):88-102 [Pubmed]
  12. English DJ, Thompson R, Graham JC, Briggs EC. Toward a definition of neglect in young children. Child Maltreatment. 2005;10(2):190-206 [Pubmed]
  13. Fagan J, Dore MM. Mother-child play interaction in neglecting and non-neglecting mothers. Early Child Development and Care. 1993;87:59-68 [Abstract provided by American Psychological Association PsycNET]
  14. Friedrich WN, Tyler JD, Clark JA. Personality and psychophysiological variables in abusive, neglectful, and low-income control mothers. The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 1985;173(8):449-60. [Pubmed]

  15. Herrenkohl EC, Herrenkohl RC, Toedter L, Yanushefski AM. Parent-child interactions in abusive and nonabusive families. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. 1984;23(6):641-648. [Abstract available from Science Direct]

  16. Jacobsen SL, McKinney CH. A music therapy tool for assessing parent–child interaction in cases of emotional neglect. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 2014 [Abstract available from Springer Link]

  17. Kimball W, Stewart R, Conger R, Burgess RL. A comparison of family interaction in single versus two parent abusive, neglectful and control families. In T Field, S Goldberg, D Stern, A Sostek (Eds), High Risk Infants and Children: Adult and Peer Interactions. New York: Academic Press 1980 43-59.

  18. Koenig AL, Cicchetti D, Rogosch FA. Child compliance / noncompliance and maternal contributors to internalization in maltreating and nonmaltreating dyads. Child Development. 2000;71(4):1018-1032 [Pubmed]

  19. Lindhiem O, Bernard K, Dozier M. Maternal sensitivity: within-person variability and the utility of multiple assessments. Child Maltreatment. 2011;16(1):41-50 [Pubmed]

  20. Macfie J, Toth SL, Rogosch FA, Robinson J, Emde RN, Cicchetti D. Effect of maltreatment on preschoolers' narrative representations of responses to relieve distress and of role reversal. Developmental Psychology. 1999;35(2):460-465 [Pubmed]
  21. Mustillo SA, Dorsey S, Conover K, Burns BJ. Parental depression and child outcomes: the mediating effects of abuse and neglect. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2011;73(1):164-180 [Abstract provided by Wiley Online]
  22. Pianta R, Egeland B, Erickson MF. The antecedents of maltreatment: Results of the Mother-Child Interaction Research Project. In: Cicchetti D, Carlson V, editors. Child maltreatment: Theory and research on the causes and consequences of child abuse and neglect. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1989. p.203-253 [Abstract provided by Cambridge Books Online]
  23. Pollitt E, Eichler AW, Chan CK. Psychosocial development and behavior of mothers of failure-to-thrive children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 1975;45(4):525-537 [Pubmed]
  24. Rodrigo MJ, Leon I, Quinones I, Lage A, Byrne S, Bobes MA. Brain and personality bases of insensitivity to infant cues in neglectful mothers: an event-related potential study. Development & Psychopathology. 2011;23(1):163-176 [Pubmed]

  25. Skowron EA, Cipriano-Essel E, Benjamin LS, Pincus AL, Van Ryzin MJ. Cardiac vagal tone and quality of parenting show concurrent and time-ordered associations that diverge in abusive, neglectful, and non-maltreating mothers. Couple & Family Psychology. 2013;2(2):95-115 [Pubmed]

  26. Skowron EA, Loken E, Gatzke-Kopp LM, Cipriano-Essel EA, Woehrle PL, Van Epps JJ, Gowda A, Ammerman RT. Mapping cardiac physiology and parenting processes in maltreating mother-child dyads. Journal of Family Psychology. 2011;25(5):663-674 [Pubmed]

  27. Toth SL, Cicchetti D, Macfie J, Emde RN. Representations of self and other in the narratives of neglected, physically abused, and sexually abused preschoolers. Development and Psychopathology. 1997;9(4):781-796 [Pubmed]
  28. Valentino K, Cicchetti D, Toth SL, Rogosch FA. Mother-child play and maltreatment: a longitudinal analysis of emerging social behavior from infancy to toddlerhood. Developmental Psychology. 2011;47(5):1280-1294 [Pubmed]


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