People are often not aware that they have experienced childhood emotional neglect and abuse until adulthood and their symptoms become more apparent. Because it’s mostly silent and invisible, emotional neglect is often overlooked in our society. Unlike physical neglect or abuse, where there are often physical signs such as bruises or children coming to school underfed, emotional neglect is more difficult to identify.
It is possible for even the most caring and well-intentioned parents to be emotionally neglectful. In fact, the largest subset of emotionally neglectful parents genuinely do love their children and want the best for them. People raised by emotionally neglectful parents are often primed to under-respond to their own children’s feelings.
For healthy development, loving a child while critical is not enough by itself. Parents must also be in tune with their child. To be in tune with another person, especially a child, a parent needs to be aware of and understand their own emotions.
When a parent is not emotionally attuned to a child, they do not share their positive reflections with their child. It is therefore difficult to develop a positive sense of self, often leaving the child with a poor self image, low self-esteem and being overly sensitive. Emotional neglect often occurs in families with unrealistically high expectations or few opportunities for attentive listening, and/or in which a child’s emotional experiences are invalidated to the point she/he doubts their self.
Symptoms of Emotional Neglect
Author Dr. Jonice Webb, (reference at end) describes a range of symptoms of childhood emotional neglect in adulthood:
- “Numbing out” or being cut off from one’s feelings
- Feeling like there’s something missing, but not being sure what it is
- Feeling hollow inside
- Being easily overwhelmed or discouraged
- Low self-esteem
- Pronounced sensitivity to rejection
- Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own
While these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you were emotionally neglected, if you identify with more than one, it may be worthwhile to seek professional support – you could call the Blue Knot Helpline and discuss your issues with one of our experienced trauma- informed counsellors. Call 1300 657 380 from 9-5 Mon-Sun.
What parental styles can be associated with emotional neglect of children?
Some parents experienced emotional neglect as children themselves. Most parents are well-intentioned and do the best they can – however some parenting styles and characteristics are associated with emotional neglect:
- Authoritarian parents want their children to follow the rules, and have little time or inclination to listen to their child’s feelings and needs. As adults, these children may either rebel against authority or become submissive.
- Permissive parents have a laissez-faire attitude to child rearing and let their children fend for themselves. As adults these children can struggle with setting boundaries and limits for themselves.
- Parents with narcissistic qualities feel the world revolves around them, making life all about the parent’s needs instead of the child’s. As adults, these children may have difficulty identifying and meeting their own needs. They may even feel that they don’t deserve to have their needs met.
- Perfectionistic parents often believe their children can always do more or better. Their children may grow up to be perfectionists, and set unrealistically high expectations for themselves, resulting in anxiety around feelings of never being good enough.
- Absent parents can be removed from a child’s life for a variety of reasons, such as death, illness, divorce, working long hours, or frequent travel for work. Children of absent parents often largely raise themselves, and become overly responsible and overburdened.
5 Tips for recovering from emotional neglect
If you think you may have been emotionally neglected as a child here are some tips:
1. Learn to be aware of your emotions
If you’ve spent your adult life disconnected from your feelings, the first step is to learn to notice and become aware of feelings – good and uncomfortable feelings. When you feel a change in body sensation – e.g. flood of warmth, racing heart, eye twitches – slow down, perhaps place your hand on your chest, notice the next in breath and become aware of the emotional experience. No need to alter your reaction, simply notice the change.
2. Use Descriptive Emotional Language
Develop your emotional literacy – find words to describe how you feel – if you didn’t grow up in a home where people talked about their feelings you may need to expand your vocabulary. For example you might say you are feeling happy – but perhaps a more accurate word is that you are feeling hopeful, creative, or satisfied. These words can start a more meaningful conversation in which you explain how you’re feeling more accurately, and provide the listener with more information.
You may feel betrayed, jealous, let down or numb but instead say you are angry – this can confuse the listener, making it harder for them to respond or support you. Using more descriptive language can enrich relationships. You can search for new ‘feeling’ words on line.
3. Identify your needs, and take steps to meet them.
Many adults who experienced emotional neglect as children don’t know what they need and don’t feel they deserve to get their needs met. Developing your emotional vocabulary can help you explore your needs. When you begin to understand what you need you may also starting noticing what helps.
4. Acknowledge That Beliefs Are Not Always Facts
If you believe you don’t deserve to have your needs met, see it as just that – a belief, not a fact. It can be helpful to begin to deconstruct old beliefs you’ve held for a long time that may no longer hold true. Like everyone else, you have emotional needs that you deserve to have met, no matter what you experienced in childhood.
5. Take Care, Be Gentle, Nurture Self Compassion
Be gentle and kind to yourself, take it slowly. Adults who experienced emotional neglect as children often have difficulty with self care. If you are unaware of your own feelings and needs, you might not know where to start. Try treating yourself with the same care and gentleness you would give a small child. Be tender and compassionate, cast aside the self critical and judgmental side for a while and experience a different version of yourself.
Webb, J. (2012). Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing.