Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to a child’s emotional needs. In other words, childhood emotional neglect is something that failed to happen while you were growing up.
To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s experiment.
First, think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened. Second, think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
The second request was more challenging because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
What happens in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become.
But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen to us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Here’s the #1 indicator that you were emotionally neglected as a kid.
What does childhood emotional neglect look like?
Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act rather than a parent’s action, the same as we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen and be completely unaware.
Regardless of the form the neglect takes, the result is an adult who feels emotionally incomplete and often blames themselves for everything that goes wrong around them.
Childhood emotional neglect in action.
Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness.
Neither says, “Joey, are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice anything is wrong. It probably appears like nothing from the outside. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving scars that remain in his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural developmental needs of children.
For a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of themselves, who they are, and what they’re capable of, they must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of their emotions from their parents.
If there is a shortage of parents in any of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills of self-knowledge and self-care necessary to thrive in this world.
Back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels goes unnoticed, responded to, or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development.
He may believe his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, shameful, or unacceptable.
“But I had a great childhood.”
I have seen these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult feeling incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning their purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when an emotionally neglected adult looks back to their childhood for an explanation for why they feel this way.
Many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So, as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it and overcoming it to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating.
Adults who were emotionally neglected as kids.
Emotionally neglected children grow up with a disadvantage when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.
When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their children, and they raise their children to have the same lack. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible, have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
Jonice Webb, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and best-selling author of two self-help books. She specializes in childhood emotional neglect, relationships, communication issues, and mental health. Dr. Webb has appeared on CBS News and NPR, and her work has been cited by many publications.
This article was originally published at Psych Central. Reprinted with permission from the author.