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As a child, how did adults react to you whenever you expressed your feelings? Did they validate your feelings or did they send a subtle message to you to zip up your emotions? Did your parents or caregivers deny you attention, interaction, or emotional support you needed to thrive? More importantly, do you even recall if they neglected your emotional needs?
Children cannot choose their parents. Unfortunately, many individuals grow up suffering the life-shaping adversities of having emotionally immature, neglectful parents. When people cannot connect, especially those living under the same roof and trying to live as a family, it’s a hallmark of trauma. Even if there are no other adverse childhood experiences in the home, emotional neglect represents a child’s unmet need for love, which is as much trauma as an unmet need for food or shelter.
What is emotional neglect?
Emotional neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver consistently disregards, ignores, invalidates, or overlooks a child’s need for affection. It can happen in any relationship, whether marital, familial, parental, friendship, or even workplace relationship.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study defines emotional neglect as often feeling that no one in your family loves you or thinks you are special or important. Also, feeling your family isn’t looking out for each other, feeling close to each other, or supporting each other.
Notably, this ACE is defined as “no one in your family,” not “everyone in your family.” Meaning that one emotionally available adult in a family can make a massive difference in the child’s life. While having all adults in the home healthy and emotionally available is ideal, having one who isn’t is not an ACE.
Emotional neglect isn’t necessarily the same as emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is often intentionally acting in a harmful way to your child. In contrast, emotional neglect can be an intentional disregard for your child’s feelings and a failure to act or notice your child’s emotional needs. An example of emotional neglect is when your child tells you they’re sad about a school friend. Instead of you listening and helping, you dismiss it as a childhood game. Over time, your child learns that their emotional needs are not important.
In this article, we’ll explain why childhood emotional neglect happens, what it looks like in a child who’s experiencing it and an adult who experienced it, plus how to deal with it as parents, caregivers, and teachers.
Understanding childhood emotional neglect
Emotional neglect is often communicated through behavior rather than stated directly. Emotionally neglectful parents may still provide care and necessities. However, they either miss out on or mishandle this one key area of support.
Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) usually happens in tiny, almost invisible moments when parents fail to validate or respond to their children’s feelings enough while raising them. What this communicates to children is that their emotions are invisible or unimportant.
It wasn’t that bad.
CEN is often overlooked as trauma because you can’t pinpoint precisely where and when the wounding happened. Our eyes can’t see things that fail to happen and our brains can’t record them. Unlike being physically hit or being deprived of food and shelter, emotional neglect doesn’t usually feel traumatic to children. As they grow into adults, they don’t recall it as traumatic or impactful either.
CEN is not only hard to remember in most cases, but it’s also hard to identify as wrong. To most people, it seems like nothing, so how do you find an explanation for it or even fix it? Unfortunately, this makes CEN so destructive and is the hardest form of neglect to prove, with cases often going unreported.
It’s not worth getting upset about.
Even though most CEN incidents seem small, the overall effect on the child once grown is profound. The absence of emotional support in their childhood can have harmful consequences right into adulthood. CEN children naturally wall off their feelings as a coping mechanism. This separation from their own emotions forms the basis for the many struggles throughout their adult lives. As a CEN adult, you wonder why you have anger towards your parents, why you’re not happier, or why you struggle with self-care.
Types of childhood emotional neglect
Childhood emotional neglect may take on two forms–active and passive CEN–both detrimental to your child’s health.
- Passive CEN occurs when you show a lack of care or validation regarding your child’s emotional needs. When you fail to notice when your child is angry, upset, hurt, or anxious, this subliminally tells him that his feelings are irrelevant or not welcome.
- Active CEN is more active, memorable, visible, and equally important. It occurs when you actively act in a way that dismisses or invalidates your child’s emotions. When you call your child dramatic for expressing feelings of sadness or disappointment, it passes the message that his behavior is unreasonable. Your child grows up hiding his feelings and ashamed of his own emotions. He believes that something is wrong with him.
Signs of emotional neglect in a child
When you don’t respond to your child’s emotions or invalidate their feelings, you’re unintentionally telling them their feelings don’t matter or there’s something wrong with the way they feel.
The signs of emotional neglect in a child do not end in childhood. Most adults who experienced emotional neglect as kids carry the pain into adulthood.
Here are signs you may have suffered from childhood emotional neglect:
- Feeling empty, numb, or cut off from your emotions, and you’re unable to express them or manage them.
- Blaming yourself, feeling guilty, getting angry, or ashamed whenever an adverse event occurs.
- Getting overwhelmed easily and giving up quickly.
- Lacking self-compassion and understanding but plenty for others.
- Fear of depending on others and rejecting offers of support or help.
- Having a hard time identifying your strengths, weaknesses, or life goals.
- Believing you’re fatally flawed and there’s something wrong with you despite not pinpointing what it is.
Causes of childhood emotional neglect
The causes of emotional neglect are often difficult to understand. Most parents try to be the best they can be and don’t mean to neglect their child’s emotions. They may have trouble understanding their children’s emotional needs, or they may feel too overwhelmed or powerless to meet these needs consistently.
Adults who neglect their children could be experiencing:
- Personal lack of emotional fulfillment
- Substance abuse or behavioral addiction
- Mental health disorders
- Lack of healthy parenting skills
- Anger or resentment toward their child, causing them to ignore their child’s pleas and questions
- Have a history of neglect by their own parents
Neglectful parents often come from households where they were emotionally neglected and disconnected as a child themselves. Because they didn’t have good role models, they lack the necessary parenting skills to deal with their children’s feelings and needs. Even if they try to correct their parents’ mistakes, they might still come up short.
If your parents had a blind spot to your emotions as they raised you, you might grow up to have a blind spot as well. You are not only blind to your own emotions but your children’s feelings as well. It’s how emotional neglect silently transfers between generations. Factors such as physical illness, divorce, death, or job loss can also cause emotional neglect because your parents may not have the ability to respond to your emotional needs.
Closer to home, my folks passing on in my early teen years meant I had to figure out how to rely on myself for support at a very young age. I came from a loving home, but that emotional connection was surface-level at best. There’s only so much your relatives can do when tasked with the responsibility of taking care of you. You take the little they can offer and cater to your own emotional needs.
As a result, I sought connections elsewhere with little success. Children who don’t feel an emotional connection with their family may find that connection with someone else, making them very vulnerable to exploitative relationships.
Growing up without full access to your emotions can quietly kill your joy, affect your friendships, marriage, and parenting in subtle yet harmful ways. Caregivers who don’t have strong, emotionally satisfying relationships with adults in their own lives may not respond appropriately to their children.
Dr. Jonice Webb, in Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect, removes the blame from neglectful parents and offers compassion to all parents who can’t give their kids what they didn’t receive themselves. For me, it informs my need to break the cycle. I want my “little explorer” to have a wonderful life experience devoid of the adversities and emotional struggles I may cope with now.
How emotional neglect affects children and adults
CEN symptoms can be subtle or obvious in children, but the damaging effects begin to show with time. The common effects of emotional neglect in childhood include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Failure to thrive
- Developmental delays
- Substance misuse
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Running away from home
Adults who were emotionally neglected as children grow up to deal with the consequences. The most common childhood emotional neglect effects are:
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder making them more likely to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, overeating, and hypersexuality
- Becoming emotionally neglectful parents
- Developing dysfunctional patterns of emotional closeness, intimacy, building trust in romantic relationships
- Feeling jealous or resentful of their children
Healing childhood emotional neglect
Healing childhood emotional neglect is similar whether it’s experienced as a child or faced as an adult neglected as a child. While many adults fail to recognize the subtle impacts of CEN, we must get ourselves back on track to heal relationships with ourselves, partners, parents, and children.
You may have grown up without recognizing your own emotions. Still, it would help if you realized that facing them head-on will help you cope with life events and regain true happiness and greater self-esteem. Once you understand that you missed out on a critical element of childhood, it’s time to fix the problem.
- Acknowledge the way CEN happened in your family. Understand on a deeper level why your parent(s) failed to respond to your emotional needs. Learn how it affected you as a child and how it affects you now. This will free you from self-blame and shame and validate your experience.
- Identify your needs and ask for help. When challenges seem overwhelming, don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out to your friends and family for help either. Telling someone about your emotional struggles will help you feel less burdened and alone. Asking for a hug from a loved one when you’re sad for a few moments of comfort is a good start.
- Seek therapy. A therapist will help your child learn how to identify and cope with emotions healthily. Therapy will help you understand the vital coping skills you never got as a child and help you come to terms with the suppressed emotions. Early intervention in family therapy can help both neglectful parents and neglected children correct the behaviors that lead to neglect and possible consequences.
- Learn to recognize and connect with your own emotions. This is powerful because it does the opposite of what your parents taught you. Paying attention to what you feel in certain situations and embracing those emotions will be a good step towards using them to cope with your environment and daily life.
- Develop compassion for yourself. Self-compassion builds self love so be more kind to yourself. Try to accept that you have the same rights as the people you’re kinder to. You will make mistakes, you will make poor decisions, and you will fail. Practicing self-compassion will build your self-love.
- Look for effects of CEN on your primary relationships. Ask yourself whether your CEN played out in your marriage or relationships. Find out how it’s affected the way you’ve parented your child(ren). Has it made you uncomfortable with your parents? Looking for the effects of childhood emotional neglect in your relationships and applying social-emotional skills will open the door to the people you love.
- Go for parenting classes. Neglectful parents could benefit from parenting classes that help parents and caregivers learn the skills necessary to identify, listen to, and respond to a child’s emotions. They can also help you make more emotionally validating parental connections with your child.
Becoming aware of the childhood emotional neglect you grew up with is a crucial step in your life. As Dr. Webb rightly mentions, this invisible force from your childhood and the things you didn’t experience can shape your adulthood and affect you profoundly to this day.
Befriend your emotions and use them as the connectors and guides that they are meant to be. Treatment for CEN will help a neglected child handle his emotions better to thrive and a neglectful parent to relate better with his child and end the pattern of emotional neglect.