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Child Development

The Lasting Effect of a Parent's Unspoken Words

Pain and anger that reverberate well into adulthood.

Key points

  • Our human brains are set up to record what happens. We don't often notice or recall what fails to happen.
  • Every child's developing brain needs to hear certain things from their parents. Not receiving them hurts.
  • Once we grow up, the impact of what our parents failed to say stays with us, causing lasting harm.
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Caroline sits in my therapy office, teary-eyed and angry. “I wish my dad didn’t have to be such a jerk,” she exclaimed. We were processing yet another instance of Caroline’s father making a tasteless comment about her appearance. “Each and every time he sees me, he says something so incredibly hurtful. I want it to stop.”

I took a second, absorbing Caroline’s feelings of hurt and recognizing her deep longing for something her father was seemingly unable to give her. “What do you wish your dad had said to you instead?” I asked gently.

“That he loves me. That I’m enough. That he’s proud of me,” Caroline said.

Identifying What Didn’t Happen

In my 20-plus years working as a psychologist, I’ve noticed that people are focused on identifying words or actions their parents have said or done to them in the past. I’ve heard clients say,

My life would be so much better if my dad never hit me.

My mom told me I won’t find a partner if I don’t work out.

My parents have only told me they love me a handful of times in my life.

It’s easier to remember things that have happened to us in life. We can pinpoint a specific memory—who said what, where we were when it happened, how we felt as it was happening, and so on. When a parent hits their child, this is a clear event, something that happened. But what about the things that don’t happen? Like when a parent doesn’t acknowledge their child at all, or even just enough.

While things that did happen to us are important to address, things that did not happen are rarely identified, and therefore rarely addressed. Something like abuse is detrimental to a child… and so is neglect, just in their different ways. Abused children might feel hurt physically, emotionally, and verbally while a neglected child might feel alone, empty, flawed, and unimportant.

For the sake of redirecting the focus on what didn’t happen, here are some of the responses I’ve received from clients just like Caroline when I ask: What do you wish your parents had said to you?

Your feelings are important and deserve to be heard.

I believe you.

How are you feeling? What do you need?

I’m here for you if you’d like to talk about it.

I’m so sorry.

You are beautiful, inside and out.

I notice who you are, and I love what I see.

You look upset. Are you OK?

You don’t have to be perfect. You’re allowed to make mistakes.

I’m here for you when you’re scared.

It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be sad.

I love you no matter what.

I’m proud of you.

You can do whatever you set your mind to. I support you.

I’ve also received responses like the following:

I wish they said anything at all. We never talked much in our family.

I wish they meant the things they said to me. Their words and actions never matched.

I wish they said things that made me feel loved instead of unlovable.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood emotional neglect is what didn’t happen throughout your upbringing. It’s when a child doesn’t receive enough emotional attention, acknowledgment, validation, or response from their parents in their day-to-day lives. It’s invisible and unmemorable, and that’s why it’s rarely identified.

This poses quite a risk for myriads of people. The insidious nature of childhood emotional neglect gives it undeserving power. So many adults have not received emotionally attentive responses like the ones imagined above. So many adults do not understand the colossal impact of being excluded from the world of emotions for so long.

I know it might seem unrealistic to change the pain and struggle that comes with experiencing childhood emotional neglect if you cannot change the past or your parents. But what if you can give yourself the attention, validation, and understanding that you didn’t get in childhood? I know firsthand that this is possible because I’ve witnessed countless people take strides toward healing their childhood emotional neglect, right in the four walls of my counseling office.

I want you to take a second and answer this question for yourself: What do you wish your parents had said to you?

Once you have your answer, know that you’re holding the key to fulfilling your needs. The key to giving yourself what your parents couldn’t.

How to Give Yourself What Your Parents Couldn’t

  1. Listen to your feelings. Your feelings were likely missed if you grew up with childhood emotional neglect. Give yourself the gift of noticing what you feel, naming it, accepting it, and expressing it.
  2. Acknowledge your worth. If you felt as though you were unworthy or unlovable as you were raised, it’s imperative you do the work toward discovering your sense of worth. Challenge when you become hard on yourself, and learn to give yourself compassion.
  3. Talk openly with others. Talking about things with depth is uncharted territory in an emotionally neglectful household. Put yourself in situations where you can practice being open and vulnerable with people you deem trustworthy.
  4. Check in with yourself often. It’s easy to fall into old patterns of pushing your feelings to the side and treating them as unimportant. Reverse this by asking yourself how you are doing and if there’s something you need to make your situation better.

Just because your parents were emotionally unaware doesn’t mean you have to be. Little by little, you can learn more and more about yourself and develop your sense of self-awareness.

Herein marks the beginning of a new generational pattern to gift to your children. Reflect on what you didn’t get and this will lead you toward what you need. And once you identify what you need, this will lead you toward fighting for and receiving what you wish you had. And once you have it, you can give it to the people you love around you, including your own children. You all deserve it.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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LinkedIn image: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock


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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