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Family Dynamics

Emotional Neglect Can Affect Siblings Completely Differently

One child can grow up profoundly affected while their siblings are not.

Key points

  • Childhood emotional neglect happens when parents are unable to respond enough to their children's feelings and emotional needs.
  • It comes down to 6 variables, which take the same ingredients and make different recipes.
  • Having siblings who seem unaffected causes many emotionally neglected adults to doubt their own experience.
Nastya/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Nastya/Adobe Stock Images

Edward

Edward has always felt like the odd one out in his family. He recently discovered in therapy that he has childhood emotional neglect and, in turn, realized he’s always been disconnected from his emotions. He’s learned that the emotional neglect has resulted in his difficulty understanding himself and others. He dreads when his family gets together. He sees his sisters laughing and seemingly connecting with their parents in a way he’s never been able to do. He longs for their bond but also feels shame for seemingly being the only one so disconnected and alone in the family. “We grew up in the same family, so why are my sisters fine? Maybe the problem is me,” Edward thinks to himself.

Jacqueline

Jacqueline and her brother are a lot alike. They bond by talking about their dysfunctional family and their parents’ clear emotional absence throughout their lives. They see a long line of emotional neglect in their parents’ families and know that it’s greatly impacted how their parents have always treated them. But their oldest sibling, Bill, seems completely unaffected by childhood emotional neglect. This baffles Jacqueline and her brother. How can emotional neglect be so prominent in their family and yet their brother has seemingly come out unscathed?

Understanding Childhood Emotional Neglect

When a child is emotionally neglected, this means that their parents failed to attend enough to their emotional needs. Emotions are our guide for self-awareness, connection, and effective communication. Without enough emotional attention, children are unable to learn how to understand and express themselves. These children miss out on learning how essential their emotions are and can ultimately develop the belief that their feelings are burdensome and unnecessary.

Both Edward and Jacqueline are beginning to explore the impact of their childhood emotional neglect. They witness emotional avoidance in their family systems and feel walls blocking them from themselves and others. They both feel alone and disconnected and worry that something may be wrong with them.

Edward, Jacqueline, and many others who experience childhood emotional neglect can learn how to recover from a lifetime of emotional neglect from their parents and from themselves. The more they increase their knowledge and understanding, the more they will learn that their emotions are not only normal but also necessary to become happy, healthy, and thriving adults.

One of the most common questions I get when working with people affected by childhood emotional neglect is this: Why do I have childhood emotional neglect and my sibling seemingly doesn’t? The same parents raised us!

6 Reasons Childhood Emotional Neglect May Affect You Differently Than Your Siblings

  1. Birth order: Are you the firstborn, middle, or youngest child? How many years apart are you? How many siblings do you have? What your parents were going through when you were a child is important here. Researchers have found that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention from their parents. So, perhaps middle children are more likely to be impacted by emotional neglect. Or perhaps your parents were fatigued from parenting if you’re the last child or one of many.
  2. Gender: Parents can react differently to their children based on their gender. For example, it may be easier for a mom to empathize with or validate her daughter than her son, or vice-versa. This is usually based on the experiences of the parent and has nothing at all to do with the child, but it nevertheless has a significant impact on the children. One child may grow up emotionally neglected and the other not, based simply on their gender.
  3. The favorite: You and your siblings may have joked over who was “the favorite child” growing up. But if your parents truly did have a favorite, this could be greatly damaging. Maybe your sibling had a special talent, received better grades, was more athletic, or just bonded in a different way to your parent. The favored child may seem to benefit here, but most suffer from childhood emotional neglect as well, as they may feel that their parent’s love is conditional.
  4. Temperament and personality: All children are born with a specific, unique temperament. The more similar you are to your parent, the more easily they will understand you. If you have a very different personality than your parent, they may struggle to understand your feelings and needs. If your parents better understood your sibling due to similar personalities or interests, they most likely received more emotional attention than you did.
  5. Being a highly sensitive person (HSP): Being a highly sensitive person is an inborn trait. An HSP has wonderful strengths that can be supported and activated in an environment that is emotionally aware. However, if you grow up with childhood emotional neglect and are an HSP, you may be deeply affected since your strengths are housed in your emotions. Without parents tending to your emotional landscape, you may feel lost, overly sensitive, and a great deal of shame. And you may be affected more intensely than your siblings by emotional neglect.
  6. Significant life events: Oftentimes, childhood emotional neglect may be the result of your parents struggling with external circumstances that take their attention away from the needs of their children. Examples include moving, job loss or a high-intensity job, financial struggles, death, illnesses, and divorce or remarriage. Your age and specific emotional needs become affected by these events. An older or younger sibling might be less affected, for example.

Same Ingredients, Different Recipes

While most children receive attention from their parents, it’s vital to identify if it is emotional attention and if it is enough. While you may have the same two parents as your sibling, your parents may not have had the capacity at the time, for a variety of reasons, to give you the same emotional attention your sibling received.

Think about it in this way: You and your siblings are together in a car and get into an accident. You all were involved in the accident; that’s something that’s true for all of you. But your injuries are quite different depending on an array of factors like wearing your seatbelt or your position in the car. So, while you may have had similar childhoods with the same two parents, your experiences may be starkly different.

If you are affected by childhood emotional neglect, it’s imperative that you learn to accept, validate, and believe your truth even if that truth is different from your sibling’s. Your experience is yours alone, and your truth belongs to you. No one can weaken it or take it away without your permission.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

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.

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