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How to Build Boundaries With Emotionally Neglectful Parents

3 steps to take your own needs more seriously.

Key points

  • If parents don't see or respond enough to their child's emotions, it can cause complex feelings of disappointment and confusion for the child.
  • A child may frequently feel let down when their parents under-react, under-respond, or fail to remember what's important to them.
  • Adult children of emotionally neglectful parents need to first recognize their emotional needs are not bad; they are simply human.
marjan4782/Adobe Stock Images
Source: marjan4782/Adobe Stock Images

Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up with childhood emotional neglect, I have a unique window into how it plays out in people's adult lives and relationships.

If your parents were not able to form a deeply personal emotional connection with you in your childhood (emotional neglect), chances are high that they still are not able to now.

The sad reality is that growing up in an emotionally neglectful family with your feelings ignored or discounted, has profound effects on how you feel in your adult life, the choices you make, and your perceptions of yourself.

The emotional neglect you experienced as a child stays with you throughout the decades of your life. It hangs over your relationships, holding them back from developing the depth and resilience that you deserve to have.

But there is one relationship that is uniquely influenced by emotional neglect from childhood. It’s affected relentlessly, even if silently, from day one of your life. It’s your first and primary relationship, the one with your parents.

3 Common Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  • You have spent your life feeling emotionally let down by your parents. This makes it hard for you to have full trust and love for them. You may have always blamed your lack of positive feelings on yourself and/or felt guilty about it.
  • Your parents are the ones who birthed and raised you, so they should be the ones who know you best. But since they have overlooked your emotions all this time, they have overlooked the deepest, most personal expression of who you are. So sadly, they may not actually know you in any kind of deep or meaningful way. This is painful.
  • Once you realize your parents emotionally neglected you, it can be hard to be around them. It’s like going to a well for water over and over again, only to find that it’s still dry. To cope with the letdown and disappointment, you may try to convince yourself that you don’t want or need their love or approval anymore.

“I’ve given up on my parents. They mean nothing to me now.”

“My parents are incapable of giving me anything. I’m done.”

“I simply don’t care anymore.”

Such pronouncements feel good while you are saying them, and they may be partially true. But our human brains are built to need and seek emotional connection from our parents. This requires you to actively take steps to cope and heal yourself.

3 Steps to Take in Your Relationship With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  1. Stop viewing your emotional needs as a sign of weakness. Your need for emotional connection and approval from your parents is a sign of only one thing: your humanity. It’s neither bad nor good; it’s built into your nervous system. It just is.
  2. Accept that, no matter what you feel toward your parents, it’s okay. Since you can’t choose your feelings, you are not allowed to judge yourself for any feeling you have, no matter what it is. Acknowledge and accept your feelings as they are, because managing any feeling begins with accepting it.
  3. Shift into self-protection mode. No one wants to think that they need to protect themselves from their parents, but, in this case, it is necessary. Consider the type of parents you have. Do they seem to hurt you on purpose? Are they too absorbed in their own needs and pursuits to notice yours? Or are they simply unaware of feelings in general and are therefore incapable of noticing or responding to yours? Taking into account the type of parents you have will help you build boundaries to protect yourself.

How to Set Up Protective Boundaries

  • Take control of the time you spend with your parents. You may need to alter your patterns of phone calls and visits, keeping them shorter or more structured. You may need to say “no” to some of their invitations, see them only on your own home turf, or meet in neutral territory. Start taking charge of the plans, and do so without guilt, since your first responsibility is to protect yourself.
  • Create an internal boundary. Become much more mindful of what you expect from them or ask of them. Share less personal information with them as needed in order to make yourself less vulnerable. Lower your expectations for understanding and emotional support so that you will not set yourself up to be disappointed by what they are unable to give you.
  • Consider talking with your parents about emotional neglect. Some parents, especially those who mean well but simply don’t understand emotions well enough to respond to you on a feeling level, will at least try to understand.

When you take your own needs and feelings seriously and begin to actively build your boundaries you have made a good start. Your first responsibility is to yourself.

It is your biological imperative to protect yourself. Yes, even if it is from your own parents.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.