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Child Development

7 Behaviors That Might Indicate Childhood Emotional Neglect

6. Feeling the need to over-explain yourself or make excuses for feelings.

Key points

  • Childhood emotional neglect can lead to low self-worth, low self-esteem, or poor self-confidence.
  • Recognizing how one feels about oneself is especially difficult for those neglected emotionally in childhood.
  • Notice your behavior and the emotions that bubble up in various situations, and remind yourself that others' actions are not always intentional.
pixabay/Dana Tentis
Source: pixabay/Dana Tentis

Children who grow up in environments where their mental and emotional health is not supported sometimes struggle to develop self-esteem and self-confidence. Emotional neglect results from these things not being attended to over a long period of time, either due to abuse or neglect, dysfunction in the family of origin, or absent or unavailable caregivers.

Recognizing things that contribute to how one feels about themselves is difficult for people of all ages, especially those who were not supported in this way. Here are seven common reactions I notice in my practice:

1. Becoming upset when people do not notice important things to you, such as a haircut, a recent promotion or accomplishment at work, or your birthday. That feeling that “they don’t care” often results from not having these needs met in childhood. It brings up feelings of not being seen and not mattering.

How to combat this: Watch that you are not concluding what it must mean when someone doesn't notice something. Sometimes “they did not notice my haircut” means just that. Or maybe they did, but they forgot to comment on it, or did not know how you would feel if they made a comment. It does not necessarily mean they do not care or do not like you.

2. Feeling left out. That familiar feeling of not being included in conversations, social gatherings, or other events triggers the feeling of not feeling included in the family of origin. While sometimes this is a normal human experience, people who experienced childhood emotional neglect experience this as more painful, and sometimes as a hindrance to healthy friendships.

How to combat this: Focus on spending time with people who make you feel wanted and included. If you find that certain friends or family members do not include you in social events, acknowledge that feeling. Name it and call it out: "This feels painful," "I feel left out,” etc. Then text or call someone who is available. Remember, you do not have to spend time with someone just because they are family, part of your sorority, etc. You have the right to spend time with people who make you feel wanted and included.

3. Feeling the need to “fix” others. This can come from a history of wanting to help a parent or caregiver who may have struggled with mental illness or substance-use symptoms. Children often feel a great sense of responsibility to help protect their caregivers, even if they have experienced abuse by them. This can create the cycle often termed codependency in which an adult desires to fix someone they love and care about.

How to combat this: Identify the feeling that arises when you have a desire to help the other person. Is it a fear? Worries of abandonment? Do you feel useful or helpful, or perhaps that you would have more value to this person–or the world–if you are able to help others? Work on your boundaries, including remembering that you cannot work harder than the other person.

4. Comparing self to others constantly. Some of this is a normal part of being a human, especially if you are young. Society often influences young people to look and act a certain way to fit within their social groups' confines. But if you notice that you are doing this constantly—comparing your body, career choices, relationships, and family to everyone you see in person or on social media—it might be a sign that you have low self-esteem or lack self-confidence.

How to combat this: When you notice yourself comparing yourself to others, put the phone down, stop scrolling, and do something else. If you are in a social or work setting, shift your focus to another task. Remind yourself that things are not always as they seem, as we can only ever see one part of someone’s life. Your story is different, not better or worse.

5. Always feeling like people are not listening. I see this in people who have a history of not feeling heard in childhood.

How to combat this: Take a breath and look at the situation. What is going on? Is the other person looking at their phone or standing with their back to you? If so, then say, “It appears you are not listening. Should we start this conversation again later?” If they do not appear distracted, note the feeling. Explore it in therapy if it becomes bothersome.

6. Feeling the need to over-explain yourself or make excuses for feelings. This is often seen when one feels like others are not listening, but not always. If children are raised in environments where emotions or feelings were shamed or led to punishment, they grow up with the message that certain feelings or experiences are "bad." Many people who did not feel heard in childhood tend to over-explain due to a history of not feeling believed. This is also often seen in people who were constantly blamed in childhood or frequently in trouble; the desire to over-explain is a defense mechanism used to keep them “out of trouble.”

How to combat this: When you notice yourself over-explaining or making excuses for feelings, take a breath and remind yourself that you are not in trouble. You do not owe anyone excuses or explanations for how you feel.

7. Disordered eating or substance overuse. When children are emotionally neglected, they often turn to food or other substances to fill that void, sometimes leading to overeating or substance overuse.

How to combat this: Notice when you reach for food or substances. What are you feeling? Are you bored? Feeling empty? Working with a therapist specializing in disordered eating or substance use will help increase your self-awareness and understanding if you are self-medicating. Many people have been able to develop healthier coping skills while improving eating and substance use through therapy.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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