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Child Development

Why Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment

Each experience involves a desertion and betrayal of your deepest self.

Key points

  • Emotional abandonment can happen silently. It is not always easy to see.
  • Ultimately, childhood emotional neglect teaches you not only to abandon your emotions but also to abandon yourself.
  • Many emotionally abandoned adults describe feeling alone, flawed, or different from others.
kieferpix/Adobe stock images
kieferpix/Adobe stock images

A run-down building, an old car on the side of the road, or a father who hasn’t seen his child in years. These are things that typically come to mind when we think of the word abandonment.

But emotional abandonment is different. It’s not noticeable like a run-down building. To understand what emotional abandonment feels like, we must first talk about the inner workings of emotional neglect.

Childhood emotional neglect is far more common than you might think. It happens when parents fail to respond enough to their child’s emotional needs.

Even though it happens in a simple way, it’s not so simple to see. Childhood emotional neglect easily goes undetected. An outsider may see a child living in a nice home and attending a nice school. What they don’t see is an emotional void, creeping through every encounter and experience a child has with their parents.

Even though your emotions may be invisible, they are no less important than your basic needs for food and shelter. In fact, emotional connection is a basic human need. Everyone requires this to thrive in the world. Children need enough emotional response, emotional validation, and emotional education to grow into fulfilled adults.

Emotions are the biological essence of who you are. Your emotions send you important messages about what to do, when to do it, and why. They engage you, motivate you, connect you, and guide you to live your life aligned with who you are and what you value.

When you experience emotional neglect as a child, you are kept in the dark from this rich and engaging emotional world. You incorrectly learn that your feelings aren’t important.

Ultimately, childhood emotional neglect teaches you not only to abandon your emotions but also to abandon yourself.

3 Emotional Needs of Every Child and Adult

1. Emotional Response

“I noticed you got quiet. Are you sad?”

“I see you’re disappointed.”

“I understand you’re angry right now.”

It’s crucial that parents notice what their child is feeling and communicate it to them. This teaches a child that their emotions are important and that other people can notice them. Responding to a child’s emotions sends the message that their feelings are real and deserve attention. This sets a precedent for how your child responds to their own feelings in the future.

2. Emotional Validation

“That makes so much sense you’re sad. I’m here for you while you’re feeling this.”

“Of course you’re feeling disappointed. It’s such a bummer when things don’t work out the way we want them to.”

“I understand why you’re angry. It’s not fair this happened to you.”

Children need to know that their feelings make sense—that they’re valid. When you affirm a child’s emotional experience, you let them know that what they’re experiencing is understandable to others. Since emotions are the deepest, most personal expression of who a child is, validating their emotions confirms they are there to guide them and should be listened to.

3. Emotional Education

“You seem sad, I can tell by the look on your face. Let’s talk so I can better understand what’s going on. You might even feel better after talking this out.”

“I know you had your hopes up. It can feel so disappointing when things don’t work out the way we want them to. It’s OK to feel this way right now. Know that these hard feelings do pass, we just have to give it a little time.”

“I know you’re angry, I’d be angry if that happened to me, too. Anger often gives us energy to take action when something isn’t right. Let’s talk about what you want to do about this.”

Children are not born understanding emotions and how they work. Just like going to school and learning about anatomy or history, for example, we also need to learn about emotions. While the school system can be a great way to increase a child’s emotional knowledge, the best place for learning is in their own home, from the people they interact with every day, from their best models and teachers—their parents.

Emotional Abandonment

So how exactly does childhood emotional neglect feel like abandonment?

Many folks who experienced childhood emotional neglect say, “But I had everything as a kid!” They describe having things like a home, plenty of food, a desk and school supplies, the latest toys, or perhaps even a bike or eventually a car to drive. Their physical needs were met, perhaps well.

But, did your parents meet your emotional needs? Did they teach you how to identify, name, respond to, validate, and express your emotions? Were emotions talked about? Many times, the emotionally neglected folks that describe their physical needs as being well met have trouble remembering deep and meaningful memories from their childhood. They describe feeling alone or different from others as adults, even if they had positive childhood experiences.

Parents may be fine at fulfilling the physical needs of their children but, sometimes, without even knowing it, may fail to fulfill the emotional needs necessary for life.

Why Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment

1. Lack of Response

Children experience their emotions in an unfiltered, raw, and sometimes overwhelming sort of way. This is because they are new to developing their relationship with their feelings. They don’t yet understand that their feelings are there to tell them what they want and need, an essential tool for life. When your parents don’t respond to your emotions enough, their lack of response can feel like abandonment. You are left feeling alone and confused, without a chance to develop a healthy relationship with your emotions.

2. Lack of Validation

Children need their experiences normalized. When a child grows bigger, they receive confirmation from others around them: “You’re getting so big! Pretty soon you’ll be a big girl in middle school.” This child then understands it’s OK to grow, that it’s to be expected. If parents don’t communicate to their children that their feelings are normal and OK, these children might assume that their feelings don’t make sense. Holding the belief that your feelings are bad…perhaps even that you’re bad for having these feelings…sets you up to feel inferior to others.

3. Lack of Emotional Education

Children aren’t born with emotional knowledge. They need help understanding where their feelings come from, what they mean, how to identify them in their bodies, and how to interpret and express them to others. Without education and guidance from their parents, they aren’t equipped with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is something that can help you build healthy relationships with yourself and others in adulthood. The world of emotions to the emotionally neglected feels foreign and unsafe.

What to Do From Here

If you’re identifying with childhood emotional neglect and recognize the feeling of emotional abandonment, know that you’re not alone and recovery is well possible.

Start paying attention to your feelings. When you listen, you’ll soon hear that your feelings send you messages from your deepest self—messages that are incredibly useful.

These messages inform you about your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your ability to make decisions, what you want and need, and what makes you happy or hurt.

Even though it may be scary, when you turn your focus inward to your emotional world, your feelings of abandonment will diminish. You will no longer need to ignore or discredit yourself.

When you choose your feelings, you choose yourself. You won’t regret it.

© 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.

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