Emotional neglect is a consistent pattern of failing to meet the emotional needs of a child. No parent always responds perfectly to a child’s emotional needs each time, but emotional neglect is a pattern over time where the lack of meeting emotional needs leaves children with deep insecurity that can affect them throughout their lifetime.
Overcoming childhood emotional neglect is possible through therapy, for an individual or for the whole family. It may also be helpful for parents or caregivers who are struggling to provide emotional support to their children to go through parenting classes and/or join support groups.
What Is Emotional Neglect?
While physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse are behaviors that parents or other caregivers enact upon or toward a child, emotional neglect is the absence of necessary emotional interactions such as nurture, connection, and adequate responses to distress. Because it is the lack of emotional care, it is harder to identify, even for those who have experienced it.
Emotional neglect does not occur because a parent is occasionally distracted, but instead is an ongoing pattern of behaviors that fail to meet the emotional needs of a child. An example of emotional neglect would be a parent who consistently ignores or dismisses their child’s distress or feelings. Demeaning a child for their emotions with phrases like “crybaby,” and refusing to ever listen to a child’s feelings (“stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”) will teach a child that their emotions are wrong and unimportant.
Emotional neglect is traumatic for a child in that over time it becomes overwhelming to a child’s developing emotional system. This can lead to some children or adults developing symptoms of Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD.
Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect
People who experienced emotional neglect as children can struggle with relationships throughout life, sometimes feeling chronically disconnected and misunderstood. Because children learn how to manage their feelings through relationships with their primary caregivers, other common struggles include emotional reactivity and shutting down emotionally or dissociating.
Signs that you or a loved one have experienced childhood neglect include:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Inability to ask for or accept help or support from others
- Heightened sensitivity to rejection
- Lack of language for describing feelings
- Dissociative tendencies
- Shame or guilt around emotions
Emotional Neglect Statistics
Emotional neglect has not been studied as much as other types of childhood abuse or maltreatment, so the statistics are somewhat limited at this time.
- One meta-study suggests more than 18% of children suffer from emotional neglect, with a prevalence of 184 out of 1000 cases.9
- Emotional neglect in childhood leads to higher risk of anxiety disorders in adolescence and adulthood.10
Youth that experienced psychological maltreatment (including emotional neglect and emotional abuse) were shown to have worse symptoms than peers who had history of both physical and sexual abuse.11
How Emotional Neglect Affects Children
Attachment theory teaches us that we learn how to interact with the world through relationship with our early primary caregivers. Those early connections form a template for how we see the world and how we relate to others in it. Without a template for secure connection, emotionally neglected children struggle to form healthy relationships.1
Emotional neglect affects children in the following ways:
- Children learn that their emotions are not okay
- Shutting down becomes an adaptive behavior
- Lashing out can become a way to try to be heard or noticed
- Difficulty in connecting with peers can be persistent
- Inability to ask for help (in school or otherwise)
- Emotional distress may present through somatic complaints — headaches, stomach problems, etc.
The Lasting Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect in childhood disrupts a child’s ability to feel secure in relationships and in the world. Because our early childhood experiences form the way we interact as adults, untreated childhood emotional neglect can cause long term deficiencies in our ability to understand our emotions, manage our emotions, and be in healthy relationships.
The lasting effects of childhood emotional neglect include:
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Relationships that are distant or disconnected
- Distrust of others
- Inability to ask for help
- Persistent feelings of loneliness, guilt, or shame
- Inability to deal with emotions of self or others
- Dissociative or shutting-down behaviors2
- Sabotaging relationships or opportunities in order to avoid rejection
- Heightened risk of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders3
- Emotional reactivity
Causes of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Parents who are not outwardly abusive but neglect their children emotionally are often people in deep struggle themselves. In times of turmoil, the ability to connect with others becomes extremely difficult and parents can find themselves unable to form secure bonds with their children. Parents may be unaware that they are neglecting their children emotionally especially when they are themselves struggling with mental illness, extreme stress or external pressures such as work, spousal abuse, poverty, or military service.
Parents may neglect their children emotionally for the following reasons:
- Parents may have been neglected or abused themselves and may not understand how to be nurturing to a child.
- Work, military service, or incarceration may keep a parent from being present in the home.
- Addiction or mental illness may impede a parent’s ability to attune to the child.
- Extreme stress and/or violence in the home can disturb the bonds between parent and child.
- Death of a parent or any traumatic death in the family may cause overwhelming grief in the family system.
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Diagnosing Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect can be difficult to identify because children who are emotionally neglected can present as healthy children, with their physical needs being met and sometimes even exceeded. Observing the interaction between parent and child as well as the way a child interacts with other children can give insight into whether a child is being emotionally neglected.
Infants and very young children may show symptoms of failure to thrive. School aged children and adolescents may be more shut down and less likely to ask for help or draw attention to themselves in school. They may appear independent and self-sufficient but may also struggle to relate to peers and may not have many close friends. Somatic complaints that have no organic cause can also be a sign of emotional distress in children.
In adulthood, people may have consistent struggles with relationships, sometimes even finding themselves drawn into abusive or neglectful romantic relationships. Adults who experienced childhood emotional neglect can struggle with emotions from others as well as their own emotions. They may struggle to connect and may feel a pervasive sense of loneliness and be prone to shutting down.2 Anxiety disorders and mood disorders can be indicative of emotional neglect.4
Treatment of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Because emotional neglect in childhood creates difficulty in understanding emotions and relationships, effectively healing from childhood trauma should include actions like building emotional intelligence, developing appropriate regulation skills, and forming healthy relationships. Medication prescribed by a psychiatric provider may be able to help alleviate certain symptoms, but healing from neglect requires further work.
Finding a therapist who is familiar with attachment, trauma and neglect is one of the best ways to treat the effects of childhood emotional neglect. Individual therapy will provide both coping skills and regulation skill-building to allow a person to manage the present symptoms they are experiencing related to childhood neglect.
Effective therapy will also allow the client to dig into the past to uncover early neglect created patterns that may have been helpful at the time, such as a child who shuts down to avoid the pain of a parent rejecting their needs for attention or nurture. Therapy can show how the pattern of shutting down may have been helpful for a child, but for an adult becomes problematic, keeping a person from being able to connect with partners or even their own children. Individual therapy can also allow a safe environment for a person to learn and practice how to feel their emotions and how to regulate their responses.
While different modalities in therapy exist, Component Based Psychotherapy (CBP) has been specifically designed to treat emotional abuse and neglect. CBP focuses on relationship, regulation, dissociation, and narrative as the main components of healing.5 Art therapy for children and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) show significant effectiveness in helping clients process traumatic events, including emotional neglect.6
Family therapy, especially family therapy that is based on a family systems model, acknowledges that one person’s struggle in the family affects the entire family system. Therefore, healing comes by the entire family working together to grow and heal. Family therapy facilitates members listening to each other and working together to become a more healthy system.
Family therapy also provides parents ways to heal the wounds from their own childhood while simultaneously adjusting their parenting to provide a new pattern of emotional health in the family. Family therapy can be done concurrently with individual therapy if needed.
Group Therapy/Support Groups
Seeking out support groups or group therapy can help to build connection and decrease loneliness. Group therapy provides participants the ability to identify and relate to each other in a safe environment. In the context of a group, skills are taught and group members have the opportunity to have their feelings acknowledged and affirmed. Realizing that their experience is not unique can have a profound effect on feelings of isolation and loneliness.
If a person experienced emotional neglect due to addiction in the home, 12 step programs such as Adult Children of Alcoholics or Al Anon may provide a supportive atmosphere that could be helpful. Many therapists have issue-specific therapeutic groups available to their clients as well.
Parenting classes can be a wonderful way to help parents build skills needed to emotionally support their children. Parenting classes teach attendees about child development, healthy discipline, and ways to nurture and support children emotionally. Parents who were abused or neglected themselves may find parenting classes especially helpful. Parenting classes are found in most communities through government agencies, religious institutions and schools. There are also many parenting books and resources online.
Tips for Recovering From Childhood Emotional Neglect
Recovering from childhood emotional neglect is a process that takes time and energy.
1. Be Curious About Yourself.
Curiosity is the antidote to judgement. Many people who experienced childhood emotional neglect are extremely hard on themselves and judge their own behavior very harshly. Instead of judging your behaviors, be curious about where they came from. When you find yourself behaving in a way that you do not like, ask yourself what you are feeling and if you are being reminded of anything painful from the past. Being curious about ourselves allows room for insight and awareness. Judgement shuts down those possibilities.
2. Be Curious About Others
In the same way curiosity about yourself opens up the possibility for insight and awareness, curiosity about others allows for true connection. In order to protect themselves from rejection or shame, many people who were emotionally neglected have emotional barriers that help them feel safe. However, this protective wall also can keep everyone at a distance to the detriment of connection and relationships. Curiosity about those around you allows you to ask questions and truly engage with others.
3. Engage Your Body
Our emotions express themselves through our bodies. Our bodies hold our feelings and our traumas. Many people who experienced childhood emotional neglect learn to dissociate or shut down their emotional and physical responses. Part of recovery is to engage with the body in a healthy way. Yoga is a wonderful way to help your body and mind become more united. Studies show that regular yoga practice decreases symptoms of anxiety and PTSD.7 Tai Chi and Qi Gong also have preliminary research showing similar benefits to people with symptoms associated with trauma.8
4. Build Emotional Intelligence
Parents who are emotionally neglectful often do not provide children with a framework for emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize and distinguish emotions in yourself and in others. Emotional intelligence can be increased by utilizing feelings lists to accurately define an emotion. Identifying which emotions other people are feeling and how you know what others are feeling can also be a helpful practice.
5. Learn and Practice Regulation Skills
A child who experiences emotional neglect does not have the opportunity to learn regulation skills from their primary caregiver. Therefore it is vital to learn regulation and grounding skills in order to function well in society. Regulation skills consist of exercises that build the ability to feel your feelings without letting your body’s reaction take over. Regulation skills can include deep breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and grounding methods.
6. Trust the Therapeutic Process
Find a therapist that you connect with and who has experience and competence to work with the effects of emotional neglect and once you gain a feeling of safety with the therapist, work to allow yourself to trust the process. Change, even healing change, is uncomfortable but worth the work that it takes.
What to Do If You Suspect a Child Is Being Emotionally Neglected
If you believe a child is being neglected or abused in any way, you should contact your local child and family services agency. While emotional neglect can exist in a family without any abuse, it may be a sign that other abuse is happening in the home. Many adults who work with children or families are mandated reporters and must report any suspected abuse.
Reports may be made anonymously and can be helpful ways to connect families with help. The National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) can also connect you to local resources. Prevent Child Abuse America has parenting programs that help teach appropriate parenting skills.
For Further Reading
If you or someone you love has been affected by childhood emotional neglect, the following resources may be helpful: