Parents could face prosecution if they starve their children of love and affection.
Ministers are planning to bring in a 'Cinderella Law' which would make it a crime to do anything that deliberately harmed a child's 'physical intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development'.
This could include deliberately ignoring a child, or not showing them any love, over prolonged periods, damaging a child's emotional development.
Parents found guilty under the law change could face up to 10 years in prison, the maximum term in child neglect cases.
The proposals, to be introduced in the Queen's Speech in June, will make 'emotional cruelty' a crime for the first time, alongside physical or sexual abuse.
However, it has not been revealed how the new crime will be policed, and callers to radio phone-ins said they were concerned that although the proposal was noble, police and social workers were inadequately resourced to implement it.
One social worker said: "We need more properly trained social workers, not more laws. It's difficult enough spotting physical abuse, let alone emotional neglect."
The change will update existing laws in England and Wales which only allow an adult responsible for a child to be prosecuted if they have deliberately assaulted, abandoned or exposed a child to suffering or injury to their health.
Other new offences could include forcing a child to witness domestic violence, making a child a scapegoat or forcing degrading punishments upon them.
As many as 1.5 million children are believed to suffer from neglect in the UK.
The legal changes will allow police to intervene earlier and build a criminal case before children are physically or sexually abused.
Currently civil intervention by social workers is only possible when abuse is classed as emotional neglect.
Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP and part-time judge who has been campaigning on the issue, said 'the time for change is long overdue'.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph he said: "Not too many years after the Brothers Grimm popularised the story of Cinderella, the offence of child neglect was introduced.
"Our criminal law has never reflected the full range of emotional suffering experienced by children who are abused by their parents or carers. The sad truth is that, until now, the Wicked Stepmother would have got away scot-free."
Mr Buckland added: "We need a clear, concise and workable definition of child maltreatment - an alternative code that reflects the range of harm of done to children and which provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases.
"Emotional neglect must be outlawed, the term 'wilful' should be replaced and the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart."
A spokesman for the charity Action for Children said the change was a 'monumental step' towards protecting vulnerable children. It said that between 200 and 300 children were abused through neglect but their abusers were not brought before the courts.
Sir Tony Hawkhead, the charity's chief executive, said the law would be a major improvement for thousands of children who suffered from emotional abuse and countless others whose desperate situations had yet to come to light.
He said: "I've met children who have been scapegoated in their families, constantly humiliated and made to feel unloved.
"The impact is devastating and can lead to lifelong mental health problems and, in some cases, suicide.
"We are one of the last countries in the West to recognise all forms of child abuse as a crime. Years of campaigning have been rewarded. The Government has listened."
And the NSPCC said the changes were 'long overdue'.
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