Emotional Neglect is not about what happened to you but what did not happen. It is about your parents or caregivers not adequately responding to your emotional needs. This can happen from a parent having unrealistically high expectations and not listening attentively to invalidating a child’s emotional experiences to the point she/he feels self-doubt. Most of the time, it is not intentional. There are a lot of parents who do not adequately respond to their children’s emotional needs because their parents did not respond to their needs, trauma got in the way of their emotional development, or they got too busy or exhausted to be able to respond adequately to their children’s emotional needs.
In emotional neglect, children learn that their feelings are not important. With childhood emotional neglect the Amygdala (part of the brain that has a primary role in memory processing, decision making, and emotional responses) becomes bigger and more reactive. Emotional neglectful families often look normal, but members of the family may not receive the aspects of family that allow children to develop properly, this can result in:
- Insecure-avoidant or disorganized attachment patterns
- Failure to thrive; poor academic performance
- Low self-esteem, low self-compassion
- Hyperactivity; disruptive & impulsive behaviour
- Developmental delays
- Substance misuse and risky behaviour; suicide attempts
- Withdrawing from friends and family; anger towards parent; negativity during parent-child interactions
- Appearing uncaring or indifferent
- Shunning emotional closeness or intimacy; poor peer relationships and the avoidance of interaction with other children; significantly less positive social interaction
- Self-blame, shame, humiliation, feelings of worthlessness
- Less emotional knowledge; difficulty recognizing angry faces
Some effects of childhood neglect in adulthood include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Emotional unavailability, numbing out, or being cut off from one’s feelings; difficulty identifying or expressing feelings
- Shunning intimacy
- Feeling empty or hollow inside
- Poor self-discipline
- Anger and aggressive behaviours towards self or others
- Difficulty trusting others or relying upon anyone else; trouble asking for help or support
- Feeling deeply, personally flawed; hiding behind a mask; disconnected from self
- Guilt and shame; easily embarrassed
- Feeling like there’s something missing, but not sure what it is
- Easily overwhelmed or discouraged; frequent feelings of worry, excessive fears, and dissatisfaction
- Perfectionism with acute sensitivity to feelings of failure
- Pronounced sensitivity to rejection
- Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own expectations for yourself
- Feel the need to people please
- Lack of ability to empathize
- Blame, judgmental, and critical towards self or others
Please note that the effects of emotional neglect can range from mild to severe and you might only have some of the previously noted effects and symptoms.
What can you do to recover from Emotional Neglect?
- Work on emotional intelligence
- Become aware of your emotions as you are experiencing them
- Listen to music or watch TV shows/films that expose you to more emotions and become aware of how you feel watching/listening to the music/TV show/film
- Identify your needs and take steps to meet them.
- Check the Facts on any beliefs that you are not good enough, you don’t deserve to have your needs met, and/or you can’t trust anyone.
- Be gentle with yourself. Know that the patterns took years to establish so it will take time to change them.
- Know that you are a unique, beautiful person but you just cannot feel it because you have either not learned to connect with that part of you or you have not had that belief instilled in you.
Further Reading or Activities
Dr. Jonice Webb – Running on Empty
Running on Empty is a good book for describing how emotional neglect happens and what it is like. It can be a very validating book for people who have been emotionally neglected in childhood.
Summers, D. (2016). How to recognize and overcome childhood emotional neglect. https://westsidedbt.com/how-to-recognize-and-overcome-childhood-emotional-neglect/
Webb, J. (2012). Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect. Morgan James Publishing.