Physical abuse can leave physical scars, while emotional abuse leaves psychic ones, but what about emotional neglect? The absence of emotional support in childhood can be as damaging and long-lasting as other traumas. But, because you can’t point to exactly where and when the wounding happened, it can be hard to identify and overcome it. Emotional neglect is not the same as child abuse because it is often unintentional. While some parents might intentionally ignore their child’s emotions, others may fail to notice or respond to their child’s emotional needs. Your parents could have tried their best and loved you very much, but they may still have neglected your emotional needs, nonetheless.
Your parents may have been emotionally neglected by their own parents, and because they didn’t have good role models for how to treat a child’s emotions, they didn’t know how to treat yours. Even if they tried to correct for the mistakes their parents made, they might still have come up short. Illness, death, divorce, and job losses can all lead to emotional neglect because the parents may not have the ability to respond to their child’s emotional needs.
When parents treat children’s emotions as unimportant, not valid, excessive, or of lesser importance than other issues, they neglect the child emotionally. Some phrases that may be familiar to you if you were a victim of childhood emotional neglect include:
- “You don’t really feel that way.”
- “It wasn’t that bad.”
- “It’s not worth getting upset about.”
- “Stop being so dramatic.”
When your parents don’t notice, value, or respond to your emotions, or they question your emotions when you express them, they unintentionally send a message to you that your feelings don’t matter or that there’s something wrong with the way you feel. To cope, you learned to bury your feelings or to transform an “unacceptable” emotion like anger into an “acceptable” one like anxiety.
Does this sound like it might describe your childhood? Here are 9 signs you may have suffered from childhood emotional neglect:
- You’re afraid of relying on others, and you reject offers of help, support, or care.
- You have a hard time identifying your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and life goals.
- You are harder on yourself than you would be even on a stranger, and you lack self-compassion and understanding.
- You blame yourself almost exclusively, direct your anger inward, or feel guilt or shame about your needs or feelings.
- You feel numb, empty, or cut off from your emotions, or you feel unable to manage or express them.
- You are easily overwhelmed and give up quickly.
- You have low self-esteem.
- You are extra sensitive to rejection.
- You believe you are deeply flawed, and that there’s something about you that is wrong even though you can’t specifically name what it is.
If these signs sound familiar to you, and you think you may be a victim of childhood emotional neglect, there are things you can do to heal.
1. Learn to recognize your emotions. If your parents treated your emotions like they weren’t valid or essential, you might have trouble as an adult identifying what you feel or knowing how to behave when difficult emotions arise. Without feelings, decision-making is almost impossible. How we feel drives our choices. What we do, where we go, who we spend time with, and even what we eat are decisions made through emotion. They tell us how we feel about our world, others, and ourselves.
2. Identify your needs and ask others to meet them. You deserve to have your needs met just like anyone else does. Start small by asking for things that should be easy to achieve. For example, ask for a hug from your best friend or partner when you’re sad, or for a few moments of quiet when you get home from work after a hard day.
3. Find a therapist. A therapist can’t undo your childhood or erase mistakes your parents made, but they can provide you with the emotional toolkit your parents didn’t. A good therapist can help you identify your emotions, ask for what you need, learn to trust others, build self-esteem, handle rejection, build self-love, and more. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Childhood emotional neglect may not leave scars, but it does real harm to children and to the adults they become. To heal, you have to turn what’s invisible visible. Name it, explore it, learn from it, and recover.
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