Emotional neglect

May 14, 2008

Today I was supervising a visit between a mother, her 1 year old son and her 6 year old daughter at her drug treatment facility. I first pick up the daughter from school who is quiet as we walk to the car, then is a chatterbox for 20 minutes, before falling asleep to pick up her (half) brother at his foster home. And it is so clear that this foster mother just adores this little boy and is sad that he goes on these visits (because she would love Mom to be out of the picture so that she can adopt him).

Anyway, Mom is happy and prepared for the visit, greeting us at the front desk and bringing toys and a diaper bag. We go and sit in a room, which yes, is awkward, because I am just there watching, what should be (and probably is) a very intimate experience for this family. But, I am needed (as evident later in the visit when Mom was not paying attention to the baby and he attempted to eat rocks, prompting me to intervene). For the most part, Mom is very appropriate in many ways. She sits on the floor, she has appropriate toys, she is attentive to his dirty diapers. My problem is I believe she is emotionally neglectful (and therefore, maybe abusive?) to her daughter. Repeatedly, the daughter attempts to engage Mom. (Today it was asking Mom twice to help her build a sand castle – first time she was ignored, second time Mom pointed out an unrelated item). Yet, Mom is solely focused on her son. And yes, a 1 year old needs more attention than a 6 year old, but she is so different at the visits. She hardly speaks at all, save attempts at engaging her mother by asking questions or making comments about the brother. Then when we get back into the car to go back home, she is a chatterbox again, making comments about everything and asking numerous questions.

I wonder what the long-term effects of this will be. I can imagine that there is a large amount of resentment building within her. It makes sense that she is never excited when we pick him up from his foster home. But it also makes me wonder what is going to happen when Mom has her next baby (she is 7 months pregnant). Will both children be neglected in favor of the baby. Out with the old, in with the new?

And what does this all mean from a child protection point of view? While this is obviously harmful to the children, should it prevent Mom from parenting them? Where is the line? And who decides? Of course, this case is not limited to just Mom emotionally neglecting her daughter – her long-term substance abuse is of prime concern. But where does this emotional neglect fall? And how can it be addressed, if at all?

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