Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

6 Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect in a Loved One

1. They never talk about themselves.

Key points

  • Those who grew up in emotionally neglectful homes show certain characteristics that affect friendships and relationships.
  • Most emotionally neglected people are very giving and caring, but they're not great at self-disclosure or dealing with conflict.
  • A person who sees the emotional neglect in someone else can treat them slightly differently to draw them out and counter their childhood neglect.
JustLife/Adobe Stock Images
Source: JustLife/Adobe Stock Images

If you’ve seen Disney’s film "Encanto," you most likely remember how important the family house, Casita, was to the storyline. Casita’s foundation was cracking and each family member felt the impact in different ways. Without a solid base, relationships were rupturing and each individual within the home felt as if something very important was missing from their lives. The more these cracks were ignored, the more prominent and disruptive things grew.

Just like the film suggested, think of a house’s foundation as where you come from. Your foundation includes your childhood, your family values and ideals, and how you were treated and taught to operate in the world.

Below are some examples of people who have cracks in their foundations:

  • Lauren and Rachel are good friends and have known one another for years. Lauren feels like she can go to her friend for advice and often remarks on how Rachel is such a good listener. But recently, Lauren has noticed she shares quite a bit more than Rachel and actually doesn’t know much about Rachel’s personal life. She begins to question their friendship.
  • Mike is a competent project manager who gets along well with the employees that work below him. He is respected for his hard work ethic and dedication to his projects. Recently, his supervisor has noticed that Mike has difficulty when conflicts arise among his team. Mike grows extremely uncomfortable when issues are brought to his attention. As a result, there are multiple unresolved conflicts that are interfering with the workplace environment.
  • Antonio is growing frustrated with his girlfriend when it comes to making decisions. Claudia often deflects when he asks her what she wants and Antonio is left to pick the meals, plan outings, or even choose what shows they watch together. He finds himself attempting to mindread since Claudia seldom shares how she feels.

What do Rachel, Mike, and Claudia have in common? On the outside, they seem to have it all together, but the people around them slowly uncover areas in which they struggle. These cracks in their foundations stem from childhood emotional neglect.

When emotional needs go unmet in a child’s upbringing, that child is denied vital ingredients to live a vibrant, wholehearted, and connected adult life. Perhaps without even knowing it, they built their life atop a cracked, crooked, or unstable foundation.

Equipping yourself with knowledge on childhood emotional neglect can be life-changing for you and your loved one. If someone you know has emotional neglect cracks in their foundation, it is possible to better understand them, learn how to effectively communicate, or even share some information you know about childhood emotional neglect and the mark it leaves.

6 Traits to Look for in Adults With Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. The topic of conversation is seldom about them. Perhaps you ask your friend or family member questions about themselves and they respond with brief answers or change the topic. You may notice you do most of the talking.
  2. They minimize their own needs. They are attentive to the needs of others but seem to neglect themselves. Self-care may be a struggle.
  3. They have trouble showing and communicating how they feel. You often wonder what they’re thinking or feeling and find yourself attempting to guess. It may sometimes seem impossible to know if they’re angry or hurt.
  4. They don’t share their preferences, likes, or dislikes. You may feel like you don’t know this basic information about your loved one.
  5. They’re conflict avoiders. They rarely disclose issues they’re having. Or, if a problem arises in your relationship with them, they have difficulty talking about it so issues go unaddressed.
  6. When people around them openly express their feelings, they grow uncomfortable. They may freeze up, apologize unnecessarily, or leave altogether.

When parents ignore or reject emotions, the child learns that their feelings don’t matter. So, they do what they need to do to survive: wall off their emotions so they are not a burden to themselves or others.

While this may have been helpful in childhood and the environment they lived in, they now live a life out of touch with the emotional world. They have difficulty identifying and understanding their feelings, their preferences, and what they need. Deep down, it feels like they don’t matter and are less valid than everyone else.

When folks with emotional neglect wall off their emotions, they unintentionally wall off essential aspects of who they are. They are then separated from their emotion, the deepest, most personal expression of who they are. They may appear fine to everyone else. But it’s just a matter of time before someone comes inside their house and notices the cracks.

What to Do if You Think Someone Has Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. Take an interest in who they are and validate what they have to say. Ask them questions and give them a chance to think about themselves for a change. This can guide them toward reflecting upon their own feelings, desires, and needs.
  2. Offer support and compassion when there’s conflict. Remember that conflict is especially difficult for someone with emotional neglect. Use your best communication skills and acknowledge their discomfort.
  3. If you feel it’s right, talk to your loved one about emotional neglect. You can kindly share information you have learned or guide them to helpful resources.
  4. Use caution. Your job is to be a supportive friend or family member, not to take on the job of repairing cracks in their foundation yourself. They need to do this work on their own time and when they are ready.

Your friend or family member with childhood emotional neglect did not receive emotional education or emotional validation or feel it was safe to be in touch with their emotions growing up. You are able to give them something they never had before: emotional acceptance and safety.

Just like in "Encanto," what helped Casita form a new, solid, and structurally sound foundation was the love and connection among the family members inside the home. With some attention and compassion, a new foundation can be built.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: tommaso79/Shutterstock

More from Jonice Webb Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today