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Child Development

The Harm That Lingers From Childhood Emotional Neglect

4. A sense of being different from others in an unnamable way.

Key points

  • Emotional neglect from childhood teaches people to ignore, minimize, or even be ashamed of their feelings as adults.
  • Current research establishes the importance of feelings when used effectively.
  • People can overcome the effects of childhood emotional neglect. One strategy is to give themselves what their parents did not.
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In the life of an adult, emotional neglect from childhood can feel like a cloud hanging over you, coloring your world gray.

But in a child's life, when emotional neglect is actively happening, it can feel like an ordinary, everyday experience.

I know this because I have talked with scores of people who grew up in emotionally neglectful households. I have listened as they describe what they struggle with today, and I have also heard them describe their childhoods.

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

What exactly is childhood emotional neglect? It happens when your parents do not respond enough to your feelings as they raise you. So, in this way, childhood emotional neglect is actually an absence of response. It’s not an action that your parents commit, it’s something your parents (often unknowingly) omit. Childhood emotional neglect does not happen to the child, like abuse or trauma. Instead, it’s something that fails to happen for the child, like emotional awareness, emotional validation, and emotional discussion.

So what does emotional neglect look like in the life of a child? I often describe it as the background in the family picture. It flies under the radar to the outside observer, the family, and probably the child. It might look like absolutely nothing. How can you possibly know that something is missing if you are a child?

How can you know that your parents are supposed to:

  1. Notice that you are feeling something.
  2. Make an effort to identify what you are feeling.
  3. Show interest and concern about your feelings.
  4. Talk with you about your feelings.

When parents take these steps with their children, they teach their children how to notice when they feel something and identify what that feeling is. They teach the child to be interested and concerned about their feelings and how to talk about those feelings. So they teach their child vital life skills that set the child up to live an emotionally aware, emotionally enriched, emotionally connected life.

But, sadly, the opposite is also true. If your parents don’t notice, name, show interest in, or talk with you about your feelings, you don’t get that emotional training course that every child needs. And, in addition, an even more harmful thing occurs.

Growing up with your emotional life ignored teaches you to ignore your own emotions. This sets you up to disregard, minimize, or even be ashamed of one of the most authentic, helpful, grounding, connecting resources: your feelings. From working with hundreds of emotionally neglected people, I have seen firsthand the harm that comes from this.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Adults who have learned in childhood to block, ignore or minimize their feelings encounter some particular challenges through their adulthoods, all of which can be addressed and changed.

As a psychologist who specializes in childhood emotional neglect, here are a few of the ones I have noticed and helped many clients overcome.

  • Deep discomfort or awkwardness with the expression of feelings from others or self which may apply to positive or negative feelings or both.
  • A chronic sense of emptiness or emotional numbness that comes and goes.
  • A secret belief that they are somehow inexplicably flawed.
  • A sense of being different from other people in some unnamable way.
  • A tendency toward guilt and shame.
  • Lack of understanding of feelings and how they work.

Even if seeing these traits is uncomfortable, there are answers. They can all be changed and there are some very important reasons to do so.

Why You Need Your Emotions

Human beings are born with the ability to feel for a reason. Your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expressions of who you are. Your feelings carry messages between your body and brain. They are your body’s way of telling you, for example, when you are losing something (grief), what to avoid (fear), and when to protect yourself (hurt or anger).

In the last ten years, the field of neuroscience has exploded with studies identifying the value and power of our emotions, and how we handle them, in shaping our happiness, wellness, and overall life choices.

For example, a 2019 study by Barlow et al. found that anger is linked to increased inflammation in the body, which is known to be associated with many chronic health problems like arthritis, heart disease, and even cancer.

A 2020 study by Keshavarz et al. found that the feeling of hope prevents people from developing addictions.

A 2016 study by Dickens and DeSteno found that the feeling of gratitude reduces people’s impulsiveness.

Three Things You Can Do Now

  1. Rest assured, you have the power to change this. In fact, many emotionally neglected people have already taken the steps to become more emotionally aware, connected, and enriched.
  2. You can begin by learning more about how childhood emotional neglect happens, how it affects you in adulthood, and how to heal its effects by following this blog or visiting my website for information and helpful resources.
  3. The single, most powerful beginning step you can take is to make a concerted effort to pay attention to what you are feeling. Once you are regularly paying more attention, you are well-positioned to start learning the emotion skills you’ll need to manage and use them.

The more you learn about childhood emotional neglect, the better armed you are to start reversing it. When you understand what’s wrong you can become curious about your feelings instead of minimizing, avoiding, or rejecting them.

The process of overcoming emotional neglect boils down to giving yourself what your parents could not: emotional attention, validation, and care.

Are you ready to begin?

Facebook/LinkedIn image: tommaso79/Shutterstock

References

Barlow, M. A., Wrosch, C., Gouin, J.-P., & Kunzmann, U. (2019). Is anger, but not sadness, associated with chronic inflammation and illness in older adulthood? Psychology and Aging, 34(3), 330–340

Keshavarz, S., Coventry, K.R. & Fleming, P. Relative Deprivation and Hope: Predictors of Risk Behavior. J Gambl Stud 37, 817–835 (2021).

Dickens, L., DeSteno, D. The Grateful are Patient. Emotion (2016) Jun;16(4):421-5.

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