Did your parents neglect you? You may be quick to say “no” if you were raised in a one- or two-parent household and all your physical needs were met. Maybe you weren’t dropped off at an orphanage and your parents never hit you. But neglect doesn’t always look like violence or abandonment. Cases of childhood emotional neglect (CEN) may appear normal and even healthy to those who have experienced it. But as you’ll see on this page, it’s anything but a “healthy” thing to go through.
This page will explain:
- What childhood emotional neglect is
- The signs and result of childhood emotional neglect
- How CEN affects relationships as an adult
- How to overcome childhood emotional neglect
What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Childhood emotional neglect occurs when a parent fails to meet their child’s emotional needs and disrupts the child’s emotional development. A parent may intentionally or unintentionally neglect the child’s needs, but the effects live with the child regardless. This is often passed down through multiple generations.
Emotional Neglect vs. Other Types of Neglect
Emotional neglect is one of many types of neglect a child might experience throughout their life. Other types of neglect include:
- Physical neglect: parents fail to meet the basic physical needs of the child (food, clean water, adequate clothing, a roof over their heads)
- Educational neglect: parents do not enroll the child in school or do not assist them with their education; parents do not offer mental stimulation for the child in terms of games, puzzles, etc.
- Medical neglect: parents fail to meet the child’s medical needs; they do not take the child to the doctor, deny the child’s physical pains, etc.
A parent may simply deny these things to a child because they are largely absent from the child’s life, do not have access to the resources necessary to provide these things, or intentionally want to take these things away from the child.
What Does Childhood Emotional Neglect Look Like?
Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect
CEN is not always dramatic. In fact, not all CEN is considered “active.” Parents can passively inflict CEN on a child, even though they have no intention of causing harm. An adult may not realize they’ve experienced childhood emotional neglect until they are much older and begin to see their parents in comparison to other parents.
A child does not have to be dropped off at an orphanage to experience childhood emotional neglect. A parent’s absence doesn’t have to be intentional, either! Let’s say a mother is raising four kids and working multiple jobs at once. She does not have much time to care for her children in between her two shifts a day. The children attend a before-school program, after-school program, and relatives check in on them whenever the mother cannot be around. By the time the mother gets home and sees her children, she is exhausted and does not have much space to hear about their days.
Denial of feelings
A child comes home from school one day after being bullied. Kids called them terrible names. From the moment they are picked up from school, they have a frown on their face, but they don’t know how to bring the subject up with their parents. Their mother asks them what’s wrong, and they say that they’re sad. The mother replies, “what do you have to be sad about” and continues to tell the child they should be happy they are going to a nice school and have nice friends. Even when the child tells their mother about the bullies, the mother rolls her eyes. “Don’t worry about them,” she says. “You can get over it. They’re just kid bullies. Everyone goes through that.”
Parents who emotionally neglect their child often have trouble regulating their own emotions. They may have experienced CEN themselves and never did the inner child work to overcome their experiences. So they parrot the things that their parents told them.
Let’s say a parent cannot attend their child’s soccer game once again. The child is sad and tells the parent they want them to see the child score goals. In response, the parent says, “my parents never came to anything I did. They used to tell me I would never be a winner.” The child feels guilty about complaining and their emotions are not heard by the parent.
Parents may even punish a child for expressing their emotions by sending them up to their room or yelling at them when the child cries.
Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
As you can imagine, the denial of these emotions can teach children certain lessons about emotions: that emotions are wrong to have, that their emotions are invalid, or that they should be punished for expressing emotions. The results of CEN vary, but generally stem from these unfortunate lessons.
Feelings of shame
If a child is taught that their emotions are invalid, they will believe it until they unlearn it and learn ways to validate their feelings. As the child grows up, they will continue to believe that their feelings are shameful and should not be expressed to others. When they experience sadness, anger, or despair, they will hold these feelings inside. Worse, they will tell themselves that they need to get over their feelings quickly. This leaves little time for the person to process their emotions.
Lack of emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, control, and appropriately express emotions. Children who experience CEN don’t have the opportunity to explore their emotions and usually do not develop emotional intelligence. This means that they may not understand the signs of anxiety or depression within themselves or others. Emotions might build up to a point where the person “explodes” or tries to soothe their emotions with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Destructive behaviors like alcohol abuse, drug use, or self-harm may be the result of a lack of emotional intelligence and a trauma response.
If a child cannot rely on anyone for emotional support, they begin to rely on themselves. As they grow up, they may also rely on themselves for everything. In extreme cases, a child may develop hyperindependence. They become responsible for everything in their life: their physical health, mental health, emotional health, etc. Humans are not solitary creatures. We are meant to live in community and rely on people in our community for help. Hyperindependence can feel safe to a person who experienced childhood emotional neglect, but that independence may one day become too much to bear.
Children want to feel accepted by their parents. Emotionally neglectful parents may set high expectations for the child and only accept them when they are “perfect.” Flaws, negative emotions, and other imperfections may lead a neglectful parent to withdraw their love. This leads the child to believe they are only deserving of love when they are perfect. They strive for perfectionism in all they do. Adults may not understand how distressing this is until the pressure of perfectionism causes them to experience anxiety or depression. No person is perfect. No person is void of emotions. An adult must learn to accept these things about themselves to better move past their flaws, mistakes, or failures.
High Sensitivity to Rejection
Parents who reject a child for small things without balancing this rejection with love will lead their children to feel extra sensitive around rejection. Every rejection from future partners, authority figures, or society may bring them back to their childhood trauma. Rejection may lead a person who experienced CEN to handle this rejection using unhealthy coping mechanisms. A person may try to avoid rejection altogether by withdrawing themselves from others and avoiding any chance of rejection. Rejection, like feelings or flaws, is inevitable. All people experience it at one point or another. How we handle rejection may be caused by experiences learning what rejection is as a child.
Can Childhood Emotional Neglect Cause PTSD?
Absolutely! Complex PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs in children who experience the effects of PTSD and the inability to control their emotions. Whereas PTSD may be attributed to a singular incident (war, grief, sexual assault,) complex PTSD often develops due to many instances of abuse or neglect.
You may have PTSD from childhood emotional neglect if:
- It’s hard to connect to other people emotionally
- Partners feel like you can’t open up to them
- No one seems trustworthy
- You consistently experience feelings of guilt or shame
- It’s easy to feel overwhelmed
- You dissociate when you experience strong emotions
- It’s easier to numb your feelings than to experience or express them
- You experience anxiety or depression that keeps you from enjoying a happy, productive life
A child who has experienced CEN may have never been hit by their parents or assaulted by an adult in their life, but the consequences of the neglect are still very real. If you believe that your experiences as a child are holding you back in life, it may be time to admit that you’ve experienced CEN.
How Does Childhood Emotional Neglect Affect Relationships?
The relationship you have with your parents is the first relationship you experience. If this relationship is not healthy, you may not recognize healthy relationships as an adult. You may even run away from healthy relationships because you don’t trust a partner who genuinely acknowledges your feelings.
Psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby explored this idea as they created experiments around attachment styles. A child’s relationship with their parents creates a certain attachment style that may affect relationships later in life. If a child feels secure in their relationship and their needs are met appropriately, the child develops a secure attachment style. A child who experiences emotional neglect will likely not develop a secure attachment style.
Depending on how frequently the child experienced emotional neglect, they may develop an “insecure” attachment style:
- Anxious attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Disorganized attachment style
Consistency in neglect will determine what attachment style the child develops.
Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect
No one has invented a time machine yet. We cannot go back to our former selves and teach them the lessons that our parents neglected to teach us. It is possible, however, to overcome emotional neglect by understanding what you experienced and moving forward with information on how to identify your emotions and express them in healthy ways. This may require the help of a therapist. If you are struggling with any of the following, reach out to a mental health professional in your area.
Accept and Forgive Yourself.
Do you feel the need to be perfect? When you do make a mistake, do you find yourself “overreacting,” hiding, or lashing out? This is common among people who experienced CEN. It’s not easy to rewire your brain and tell yourself that it’s okay to be flawed, but this is a great step toward a happier, more emotionally intelligent life. It’s okay to make mistakes. No one is perfect. You have the ability to learn and grow, even if you have hurt others or yourself. Use your mistakes as opportunities to prove that you can grow.
Acceptance of yourself may require forgiveness of yourself, and that’s okay. Forgiveness feels freeing. It feels like a second chance that you maybe never got as a child. It’s not too late to have this second chance and start over in your career, in your love life, or on your self-love journey. As you forgive yourself, you might find it easier to forgive your caregivers for neglecting you. Maybe they didn’t mean to neglect you. Maybe they were neglected themselves. The reason may not matter. What matters is that you have identified the neglect you experienced, forgiven yourself and others, and grown from the experience. Isn’t that wonderful?
If you experience hyperindependence, trusting others with your emotions may feel distressing. Try trusting people in small ways first. Tell them when you are feeling sad. Ask for a day off work to heal your mental health. Set boundaries that must be respected. If the people in your life cannot respect your emotional health, they might not be the healthiest people to be around. This is common among people who grew up with unhealthy caregivers. You will know who to keep around because you can trust them with your emotions. Those people exist. You just have to find them and open up to them.
Tap Into Your Feelings.
When a parent denies you the chance to express and identify your emotions, you have to learn that yourself or from others. Start keeping track of your emotions with a journal or a mindfulness app. What are you feeling today? How do these feelings appear in your body? What is causing you to experience these sensations or emotions? The more you tap into your emotions, the easier it will be to identify things that trigger you and create a happier life for yourself.