- Highly sensitive people are born to experience deeper, more powerful emotional lives.
- Emotionally neglectful parents are prone to ignoring or discounting feelings in general, including their children's.
- The highly sensitive child experiences emotional neglect as a deeply personal and painful invalidation of their inner selves.
In the late 1990s, research conducted by psychologists and neuroscientists confirmed that some people were simply "wired" differently. (Aron and Aron, 1997).
Based on that research, Elaine Aron, Ph.D., wrote the classic book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1997. In her breakthrough book, she describes the highly sensitive person (HSP) as more sensitive to sounds, textures, and other outside stimulation than the average person. This is an adaptive survival mechanism found in hundreds of species, including fruit flies and fish.
It is also important to note that HSPs are born this way. In the classic debate of nature vs. nurture, scientific evidence shows HSPs fall firmly into the nature camp. This confirms that parents do not cause their children to be highly sensitive by the way they raise them.
If you’re an HSP, you think more about decisions and actions, and you process them deeply as a natural outcome. You also feel your feelings extra deeply and intensely. In some ways, having this genetic disposition can be almost like having a superpower. HSPs are capable of being more thoughtful and can feel empathy more deeply.
As a psychologist and specialist in childhood emotional neglect, this leads me to a question: Are HSPs shaped differently by emotionally neglectful parenting than non-HSPs? In other words, what happens when a highly emotionally sensitive child grows up in a family that discounts, ignores, or judges the child's emotions? And how do those effects play out throughout the child's lifetime?
Based on my own work with hundreds of emotionally neglected adults, Children and adults who are HSPs are indeed affected differently. In my experience, childhood emotional neglect has affected the child who is an HSP differently than those who are not HSPs.
The Emotionally Neglectful Family
An emotionally neglected child grows up experiencing a deep feeling of being alone, even if surrounded by family. They experience their emotions being ignored or unwanted, perhaps at times even thwarted or dismissed by their parents or other caretakers. This probably unspoken message may be delivered silently, by simply not being asked often enough:
Is anything wrong?
What would you like?
Do you need something?
What’s your preference?
Do you want to talk about what/how you’re feeling?
How can I help you?
In the emotionally neglectful home, it isn’t what your parents do to you, but what they don’t do for you when you need them to help you understand something you don’t yet know how to process: your own feelings.
You need their validation and responsiveness to your feelings. You need them to be there for you, and you need them to listen. You especially need them to allow you to accept your feelings without criticism, disregard, or judgment.
When, as a child, your parents don’t respond to your feelings and needs enough, it is quite confusing. To others, your family may look normal in every way. But you feel an unnamed indifference on a feeling level that outsiders will never see.
3 Damaging Lessons the HSP Learns From Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Your feelings are a useless burden. They just don’t matter.
- Your wishes and needs are not important.
- Help is rarely an option.
The Highly Sensitive Child and the Emotionally Neglectful Family
As I’ve highlighted, the child who is an HSP has special sensitivities right from birth. As deep thinkers and feelers, their nature is thoughtful and emotionally responsive. They are more overwhelmed by external stimulation than most. HSPs also have greater emotional reactions and more empathy for others.
Imagine what it’s like to be a deeply thoughtful child with intense feelings growing up in a family that doesn’t understand this powerful force within you. Your feelings are ignored and discouraged.
Instead of seeing you as thoughtful, you might be considered weak and perhaps slow, simply because it takes you longer to process feelings and interactions with others. It may seem as if the family around you operates on a much different level, almost as if they live on a different plane than you. They don’t "get" you and you don’t "get" them.
So, what can you do with your feelings of frustration and pain? How do you process and function with your deeply felt anger, sadness, hurt, or confusion held tightly inside?
Many adults who are HSPs have shared with me words they’ve heard over and over again from their parents and siblings:
You’re too emotional.
Stop being such a drama queen.
Grow up already.
Stop acting like it’s the end of the world.
You’re too sensitive.
You’re such a baby.
Get over yourself.
Some HSPs are chided or derided by their families, even laughed at and bullied because of their sensitive natures. They might be called weak, slow, or dreamers even—all of it due to their deep inner lives.
Their families most likely are not aware of the importance of emotions and expressing feelings. Most are also uncomfortable with emotions that emanate within their family structure and either passively or actively discourage expressing any feelings.
What if one member of the family exhibits deeper emotions than those of his siblings and parents? How will they learn that the expression of deep feelings is a valuable asset and that learning to understand and express their own feelings will help them grow into a more balanced and mature human being? Where can they turn to for help with their unexpressed feelings?
In the emotionally neglectful family, the HSP learns they are overly emotional. They don’t know that their emotions are personal expressions of who they are. Instead, they learn that they are different, damaged, weak, and wrong. They will probably grow up feeling, deep inside, a sense of shame about who they really are. Their superpower not only has been diminished but also, perhaps, is a source of secret shame.
Help and Hope
You can get the help you want, learn more about the emotional neglect you grew up with, and understand how it impacted your growth through the silent messages you received.
It is imperative to begin to understand, accept, and heal your childhood emotional neglect so that your HSP qualities can begin to shine. Your intense emotional energy can empower you when you value it. And your deep processing abilities will be a great advantage in your healing process.
You’ll see that being treated as different in your childhood doesn’t need to keep you set apart for life. Then you’ll be able to finally celebrate your sensitivity and depth, and all else that makes you powerful and unique.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Bricolage/Shutterstock
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.
The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aronson, Ph.D., 2020. The Citadel.