• Fiona Hewkin Counselling

Emotional Neglect in Childhood -How to Recover and Thrive

Lonely child in red hat leaning on tree

Emotional Neglect in Childhood can be devastating, so how can we recover as adults? When we think about trauma in childhood many of us think of physical or sexual abuse. Emotional neglect in childhood can be equally damaging.

If you experienced emotional trauma in childhood, it may come as a surprise that the problems you had when you were little are still here as an adult. Our trauma often shows in our symptoms. You may be experiencing anxiety, panic, depression or finding relationships difficult.

What is emotional neglect in childhood?

Childhood neglect is defined as parents not meeting the emotional, mental, or physical needs of their children in a way that has a negative effect on their self-esteem, self-image, and physical well-being.

Emotional neglect in childhood so often goes unnoticed and untreated. Many people describe their childhood as “good” or “OK” yet still have feelings of emptiness and being different. It is only on closer inspection that they realise something very important was missing.

It can be an awkward thing to really pin down as we don’t realise it is neglect as it is happening to us. Often, we internalise the pain and loneliness and think it is somehow our fault.

Emotional Neglect Examples

In an emotionally neglectful family, you may come home upset because of something that happened at school and your parents tell you to go away because they are busy. You may be terribly upset, for instance at a death of a relative and be told “big boys don’t cry.” You may be upset and be told to “stop crying or I will give you something to cry about” this tells a child that their emotions are unimportant and not worth listening to. An emotionally neglectful parent constantly ignores or dismisses their child’s distress or feelings.

It can be hard to identify because it is what didn’t happen in your childhood. While it doesn’t leave bruises it is hurtful and confusing.

Before we all start feeling horribly guilty about how we parent our own kids it is important to remember that emotional neglect in childhood doesn’t happen when a parent is momentarily distracted. Instead, it is an ongoing pattern of behaviours that fail to meet the emotional needs of the child.

Neglectful Parents

Parents who emotionally neglect their children often don’t mean to. Emotional neglect is often trans generational with parents who have been neglected by their own parents tending to adopt similar parenting styles when raising their own children. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Parents may be unaware that they are neglecting their children’s emotional needs if they are constantly struggling with their own stuff.

Emotional neglect in childhood is not simply for families in poverty or hardship. Parents can provide a big house with a pool and a private education but not support their child’s emotional needs.

Symptoms of Emotional Neglect in Childhood

  • Feelings of emptiness

  • Loneliness

  • Feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you.

  • No compassion for yourself but plenty for others.

  • Feeling out of place or you don’t fit in

  • Feeling unfulfilled even when you are doing well

  • Fear of being dependant on others, difficulty asking for help

  • Harsh inner critic

  • High levels of guilt or shame

  • People pleasing, constantly putting other peoples needs above your own

  • Difficulty identifying, managing, or expressing emotions

  • Not having a good idea of who you are, what you like or dislike

  • Little idea of your strengths or weaknesses.

Sad child sat by a window

Why is Emotional Neglect in Childhood so Damaging?

Our feelings are an integral part of who we are, so if they are not noticed or dismissed, we come to believe that we aren’t important. The message we receive is that our feelings don’t matter, or they are just plain wrong. Of course, at this point we learn not to value our feelings, because nobody else seems to. Often as adults we push our feelings away and may numb them with booze, food, drugs, sex, or overworking.

People who were emotionally neglected tend to be proud that they don’t depend on others. They have trouble trusting others because experience tell them that people are unreliable and do not care.

The feeling of being fundamentally flawed is common in adults who experienced emotional neglect in childhood. If we are constantly told our feelings are unacceptable, we are too loud, or in the way, is it any wonder we are left believing that there is something very wrong with us?

Recovering from Emotional Neglect in Childhood

Recovering can involve processing our own personal trauma and we do not have to do this alone. Finding a therapist who is experienced in attachment issues and childhood trauma can be extremely helpful. This is one of the most effective ways to start to feel better.

Therapy can show us that we have developed ways to survive that worked really well as children, like shutting down and being quiet, that may not be serving us well as adults. Once we are aware of these coping strategies, we can make a start on changing them.

There are things we can do to help ourselves recover and feel better.

  • Accept yourself as you are – recognise your own uniqueness and stop being so hard on yourself

  • Ask for help – it can be incredibly hard to do this, and can feel risky, but it is a risk worth taking

  • Get in touch with your feelings – become more self-aware, learn to recognise your feelings

  • Learn regulation skills – This can include breathing exercises, meditation, and grounding exercises. (yes, I know this sounds fluffy, but they work)

Recognising and dealing with emotional neglect in childhood has helped me deal with and overcome the damage done, and I have seen it work for countless others as well. Do you recognise yourself described in this blog? If you do why not get in touch and we can start to explore what you need so that you start to recover.

Feel free to use the contact page on this site to get in touch