A child’s relationship with their parent or caregiver, especially during formative years, plays a significant role in shaping the child, their behaviours, world-view, attitudes and emotions. There are a lot of ways that parenting can go wrong, both, intentionally and unintentionally, which can lead to emotional neglect.
When our parents are attuned to our needs, mirror and respond appropriately and consistently when emotions are expressed, we feel worthy and valued. In adults, this may manifest as higher self esteem, healthier relationships and adequate emotional regulation. If the response we get from parents is negative or absent- identity formation, brain development and emotional regulation may be hampered. In adulthood, feelings of emptiness, insecurity and shame may be seen.
Emotional neglect by parents, during childhood, may continue to affect aspects of our lives years after it may have occurred. We may not realise that the behaviours we are exhibiting are remnants of the effect the neglect had on us as a child. These may manifest in a number of ways and create dysfunction and distress in our subsequent relationships.
Childhood emotional neglect occurs when a parent displays an inadequate response to their child’s emotional needs. Emotional neglect is not necessarily emotional abuse. Abuse is often intentional- purposefully executed to be harmful. Neglect may be an intentional or unintentional disregard for a child’s feelings.
Let’s see the example of Jake to understand this better. Jake is eight years old and comes home from school looking sad. On being asked what’s wrong, he tearfully replies that he lost his lunch money while playing.
The pattern of responses Jake receives during such situations could determine how Jake manages his emotions in the present as well as in adulthood.
“I have told you to be careful about this. How can you be so irresponsible? Go to your room!”
“Oh, no! You must be starving. I will get you something to eat and you can tell me what happened.”
In the first example, Jake learns that it’s probably best to internalise his emotions. He may begin to avoid expressing himself and bottle up his emotions. In the second example, Jake feels acknowledged and validated. He learns to share what troubles him and formulates a healthier view of the world, himself and his place in it.
Emotional neglect is an invisible, unmemorable childhood experience when your parents fail to notice or respond to our feelings enough. It is not something that happens to you as a child. Rather, it is something that fails to happen for you as a child. We may not be able to acknowledge this because we cannot understand and process things that don’t happen.
The Impact of Childhood Emotional Neglect
In a household where feelings are not acknowledged, a child copes by pushing their feelings down to keep them from becoming a “problem”. This means that as an adult, you learn to live without access to your emotions. Our emotions enrich us by guiding, informing and connecting us to our internal and external world. They tell us who and what matters to us, who we are, how we feel, what we want.
Signs that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful environment may include:
Feelings of emptiness- Emptiness may feel different for different people. It is the feeling of having something missing in life. It can also be experienced as numbness
Feeling deeply flawed- You feel there is something wrong in your life but can’t put a finger on it- feeling that you are not likeable, you are different from others or that something is wrong with you.
Inability to rely on others- when you grow up learning that you cannot rely on your parents, you also start believing that you can’t rely on anyone. Cue extreme self-reliance and building up of walls to protect yourself.
Unrealistic self-appraisal- When you can’t get in touch with your emotions, you can’t get in touch with yourself. This leads to a difficulty in recognising your own strengths and weaknesses. Not knowing what you want- Knowing what you want is a feeling, not a thought
Compassion for others but not for self – A lack of connection and compassion in childhood translates into a struggle to extend that compassion for yourself in adulthood
Guilt, shame, blame and anger directed at self – Having needs, making mistakes, expressing feelings instill feelings of shame and guilt.
Difficulty feeling, identifying, managing and expressing emotions- Do you often feel tongue-tied? Do you feel confused about why you’re acting or feeling the way you are? Being oversensitive, easily overwhelmed or experiencing emotional numbness are common experiences for individuals who grow up with the internal narrative: “your feelings don’t matter”
Hiding your light- Putting yourself on the sidelines or trying to stay invisible; avoiding conflict and being afraid to “rock the boat” are all ways to hide your light.
These are all self-destructive patterns and behaviours that inevitably break down and lead to psychological distress, depression or anxiety, among other dysfunctions in various spheres of life. Unaddressed emotions may emerge at times but alternatively, they may seldom manifest in behaviours but rather present themselves in the form of health problems like headaches or back pains. Adults who have unresolved emotional neglect may also become emotionally-neglectful parents, never having learned how to nurture emotions in their children.
If you would like to explore whether Childhood Emotional Neglect has impacted your life, you can take the CEN Questionnaire to get an idea. You may ask whether recovering from and overcoming the consequences of emotional neglect is possible. The answer is yes.
The Healing Process
Understanding your own experiences is the first step to identifying the impact and manifestations of emotional neglect in subsequent behaviours and consequently, the first step to overcoming these effects.
1. Understand your experience- Being able to contextualise the emotional neglect by your parents or caregivers can be the starting point of the healing journey
Types of emotionally neglectful parents:
The well meaner- The struggling parent who doesn’t have the time. These parents may be working hard to provide but fail to take care of themselves and understand the ramifications of what they’re teaching their children with their own actions. They may struggle to set boundaries or may overemphasise success.
The struggler- Parents who are dealing with their own pressures and trauma or handling a special needs family member may not be around emotionally because they are distracted elsewhere.
The self-involved- Such parents may be narcissistic, authoritarian, addicted or sociopathic. They are motivated only by their own greed, benefit or convenience.
2. Recognise your emotions- Learning to identify and differentiate emotions validates them and allows the creation of a sense of congruence between behaviour and feelings. Emotions tell us how we feel about the world, guide decision-making and provide clarity. Negative emotions can be confronted and de-escalated after they are recognised. Managing emotions requires knowing which emotions are being experienced.
3. Identify and communicate your needs- You deserve to have your needs met just like everyone else. You can start by asking for small, achievable things like a hug from your partner when you are sad or a few moments of silence after a hard day. Mindful journaling, keeping a mood chart and spending time alone can also be beneficial.
4. Find and establish boundaries- This is an important step to continue and maintain the healing process. Introspect and recognise the situations and people that bring out the best in you, that push you to be better and the ones that keep the unhealthy patterns going, that invalidate your feelings. Lean into your support networks and if required, cut ties with things that hold you back
5. Seek professional help- The journey of overcoming years of experience may be difficult and have frequent setbacks. Having the support of a professional through it can be effective. A good therapist can provide you the resources you require to help you identify your emotions, ask for what you need, learn to trust others, build self-esteem, develop self-compassion and more.
There are a number of ways even well-meaning parents may wound us. Early experiences of emotional neglect result in deep-seated issues which may cause problems in our adult lives. Recognising and dealing with this pain is important as it can follow us for a long time but these shackles of childhood don’t have to be the prison of your future. Healing is possible.