- Because emotional neglect happens in the background of a family, it can be hard to see it and understand it.
- Many people confuse emotional neglect with physical neglect, emotional abuse, or personality disorders.
- Since emotional neglect is so common, it's important to recognize what it is and what it's not.
Some things are best understood by describing what they are not.
For instance, when describing which house is yours, you might say that it’s not the one with the red door. When discussing the weather, you might remark that it’s not sunny outside. Explaining what you don’t observe, want, need, or feel can be quite an effective way to communicate what it is that you do observe, want, need, or feel.
As a psychologist and expert in childhood emotional neglect, it’s important to me that everyone I am able to reach understands childhood emotional neglect thoroughly. Let’s first talk about what it is before outlining the important things that it’s not.
Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents fail to include emotions in your childhood home. They didn’t notice, respond to, or validate your feelings enough in day-to-day interactions throughout your upbringing.
Living in an emotion-intolerant environment sends a silent yet incredibly powerful message: Your feelings don’t matter or are an unwelcome burden. The children, quite remarkably, inherently push down their emotions to adapt. Walling off emotions offers a solution to these children—they will not have to inconvenience, bother, or burden their parents with their feelings.
While this solution may have been helpful in childhood, it’s not an apt solution today. I have hundreds of blog posts explaining why this is so, but I want to keep the focus on what childhood emotional neglect is and isn’t.
Understanding childhood emotional neglect is the first step toward healing, and it’s a major one. So, I want you to feel confident in your knowledge of this gray cloud that lives under the surface of your life, the one that can be so difficult to spot but can affect your choices, your relationships, your parenting, and your happiness.
10 Common Misperceptions About Childhood Emotional Neglect
- It's an illness. Childhood emotional neglect is not a disease that you’ve contracted. You don’t need medication to help you beat it. It’s just something you didn’t get from your parents growing up. You were simply deprived of emotional validation and acknowledgment and are still in need of it now.
- It's permanent. Childhood emotional neglect is not a life sentence. It may very well follow you throughout your lifetime if you allow it to, especially if you are unaware of it. Gaining awareness and taking steps toward recovery allows you to become unshackled from your childhood emotional neglect.
- It's a choice. A common misconception among those who experienced childhood emotional neglect is that they are to blame for their hardships in adulthood. This is simply incorrect. Not one child that has been emotionally neglected by their parents has chosen to have their feelings ignored or minimized. You are not to blame for this—for having unmet needs in childhood impacting who you are today. There’s not anything you could have done differently to get these needs met. Your parents just didn’t have it to give.
- It's an event. Emotional neglect is not something that happened to you—it’s something that didn’t happen for you. You didn’t have parents who noticed your feelings, asked about them, used words to describe them, or validate them in times when you needed them to. It’s not a one-time thing, it’s a repeated failure to act that leaves its mark.
- It's memorable. Because emotional neglect is a non-event, our brains have nothing to record as memories. Non-events are not seen or remembered. Scores of people affected by childhood emotional neglect remember feelings of loneliness or emptiness but have trouble pinpointing exactly what was wrong. Without having an answer, or an event, to look back upon, the emotionally neglected end up believing something must be wrong with them. Feeling different and flawed is the resounding consequence of childhood emotional neglect.
- It's a personality disorder. There are certain factors, like abuse, genetics, and trauma, that can lead to the development of a personality disorder. Emotional neglect is one of the many factors that can potentially play a role; however, childhood emotional neglect does not stand alone as the sole cause of a personality disorder. Most people who have experienced childhood emotional neglect have no personality disorder at all.
- It's physical neglect. A shortage of food, shelter, clothing, or parental presence are hallmarks of physical neglect. Children who are sent to school with no lunch or lunch money, no winter coat, and no signed permission slips are the ones experiencing physical neglect. Most physically neglected children are also emotionally neglected. But, when talking about pure childhood emotional neglect, many times physical neglect is not present. Emotionally neglected children can have everything—a nice home and their own room, all the latest toys, and a stay-at-home parent that makes them meals and takes them to sporting events. Even with all of these things, if there is a lack of emotional attention, the child will experience the imprint of emotional neglect.
- It's a kind of abuse. Abuse is something that does happen. It’s an event. It’s memorable. Abuse has very different effects on children than emotional neglect. We can highlight the difference between the two by thinking of a glass of water. Abuse is knocking it over, breaking the glass without an opportunity to have a drink. Emotional neglect is having the glass in front of you but it’s not filled up enough to quench your thirst.
- It's less damaging than abuse. While both abuse and emotional neglect are extremely painful in their own way, abuse is something that may seem more poignant due to the clear and visual way of mistreating a child. But emotional neglect happens internally just the same. The marks are there, just for no one to see, which makes it all the more insidious.
- It's untreatable. I’ve heard countless times from my emotionally neglected clients that being walled off is just “who I am.” But, in working to chip away at the wall standing between them and their emotions, they learn instead that their deepest self has been blocked off and stifled by a lifetime of blocked-off emotions. They realize that emotions are the very things that offer them depth, color, and connection in their lives. They end up using their emotions to guide them, protect them, and motivate them to live an authentic life. Time and time again, this is what happens when the emotionally neglected begin to give themselves what they didn’t get in childhood.
Your childhood emotional neglect isn't permanent. There are answers. There is a way forward to a more connected, more authentic, and more fulfilling life. You can now gain for yourself what you sadly did not get in childhood—emotional awareness, emotional validation, and emotional support.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
To determine if 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.