One of the saddest things I’ve experienced in nearly three decades as a psychotherapist is the client who’s been neglected who says, “I wish I’d been overtly abused—beaten, sexualized, berated, abandoned, whatever.” They say this because overt physical and sexual abuse is a lot easier to identify and reflect on than neglect.
Neglect is the absence of something happening. How do you identify and reflect on something that never happened? Such clients think: “If nothing overtly abusive happened, then I wasn’t abused, and I shouldn’t be responding as if I was.”
Often, such individuals, when asked about their childhood, will say they had loving, caring parents and an ideal upbringing. “Nobody ever hit me or yelled at me or touched me inappropriately or any of that stuff. Everyone was really nice.”
At most, they’ll mention that their parents were not around very much because of work or were focused on something other than them for some important reason. Usually, these clients can’t understand why they feel so miserable all the time, and their lives are falling apart (typically related to addiction, relationship woes, and the like), because, in their minds, nothing bad happened to make them this way.
Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours helping such clients understand that neglect is a form of abuse—a silent and less visible form of abuse, to be sure, but every bit as damaging as more overt forms of abuse in both the short and long term. This is why I’m so thrilled that my friend and colleague, Enod Gray, has finally addressed this topic in book form with her recently published offering, Neglect: The Silent Abuser.
One of the most important aspects of this book, in my opinion, is Enod’s discussion of the various ways in which neglect manifests, which I will summarize below. This is the information that neglected individuals desperately need if they are to recognize and heal from what happened in their childhood (or, more accurately, from what didn’t happen in their childhood).
The most common forms of neglect include:
- Lack of Adequate Food, Shelter, Clothing: This is the most obvious and overt form of neglect. If a child does not get enough to eat or enough healthy food to eat, his or her primary need for nourishment is being neglected. The same is true with shelter and clothing (including cleanliness of the home and clothing).
- Emotional/Psychological Abandonment: When people hear the word abandonment, they usually think about being physically left behind. But that is not the only form of abandonment. Emotional abandonment occurs when parents are physically present but emotionally absent. There are there and not there at the same time. This form of neglect negatively impacts a child’s self-esteem. The younger a child is when he or she experiences this form of abuse, the more damaging it becomes.
- Being a Low Priority: As stated earlier, people who were neglected in childhood rarely think they were abused. At most, they will say that their parents were focused on more important things (like work, a chronically ill family member, a particular project, a hobby, an addiction, etc.). It’s very easy for a child to learn that he or she is not important, or at least not as important as other things in a parent’s life. That is incredibly damaging to the child’s psyche and self-image.
- Not Feeling Heard: When children are not allowed to ask questions or express an opinion, their intellectual and psychosocial development are neglected. This impacts their self-worth, their autonomy, and their ability to connect with others healthfully.
- Not Being Allowed to Have or Express Emotions: When a child is not allowed to have or express emotions, that child’s emotional needs and emotional development are being neglected. Children need their parents to hear, feel, and empathetically work through their emotions with them. If that doesn’t happen, they come to believe that their emotions are unhealthy, and they learn to “stuff them” deep down. Over time, they may use addictive substances or behaviors as a way to numb out and not feel their feelings. Or they may hide their emotions until they reach a tipping point, and then their pent-up emotions come spilling out all at once.
- Being Used as a Surrogate Spouse: This is sometimes referred to as emotional incest or covert incest. Essentially, a child is forced into the role of a spouse/partner (the child is used by a parent to meet the emotional needs of that parent). When this occurs, normal childhood development is neglected. The child does not develop socially or emotionally because he or she is forced into an adult role. This form of neglect/abuse often can have a significant long-term impact, especially when it comes to forming and maintaining romantic/sexual relationships. Interestingly, children forced into a surrogate spouse role often think of themselves as favored rather than neglected. Nevertheless, they are very definitely victims of neglect.
- Being Forced Into the Role of a Surrogate Parent: Typically, this happens to the oldest child in a single-parent or economically disadvantaged family. A single parent may be focused on earning enough money to provide for the family, and the oldest child takes over the housework, cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing of younger siblings. For economically disadvantaged two-parent families, a similar dynamic may occur. A single parent might also be heavily focused on dating and finding a new partner, forcing the oldest child into a parental role. Another scenario involves a seriously mentally or physically ill family member who requires an inordinate percentage of parental attention, forcing the oldest healthy child to step in as a surrogate parent. Whatever the reason, being forced into an adult role is a form of neglect/abuse with significant long-term impact.
- Being Overly Controlled: This may sound like the opposite of neglect, but it isn’t. Children who are overly controlled by a parent or parents get loads of attention, but they don’t learn to think, feel, act, and react for themselves. In her book, Enod Gray calls this type “neglect of the soul,” and for me, that’s a more than apt description. Rather than being guided and heard, the child is forced into a box designed and maintained by his or her parents. Because of this, the child is unable to develop a sense of self, to recognize and express emotions, and even to know what he or she likes and doesn’t like. Most likely, the child will continually feel that anything he or she does is wrong.
Children enter the world with basic, life-sustaining needs: food, water, shelter, and emotional attention. If one or more of those needs is ignored or neglected, the child suffers. Unfortunately, most people don’t see emotional attention as a need. They think of it as an extra, a bonus. But it’s not.
We need to have our emotional needs and development attended to every bit as much as our physical needs. And when our emotional life is neglected by our caregivers, our knowledge of self is stunted or pushed off track. This inevitably leads to later-life problems—depression, anxiety, addictions, attachment deficits, an inability to healthfully recognize and express emotions, etc.
For more information about neglect, including ways to identify and overcome it, I highly recommend Enod Gray’s book, Neglect: The Silent Abuser. You might also want to listen to the podcast I recently did with Enod in which we discuss the effects of neglect and how to heal from it.