Childhood Emotional Neglect and Its Effects

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We tend to hear quite a bit about childhood abuse and the effects it has on them later in life. It could be emotional, verbal, sexual or physical abuse. But what we don’t hear a lot about is childhood emotional neglect and the effects that it has on the children later in life.

What Is Emotional Neglect?

Emotional neglect means not being available to meet the emotional needs or desires of someone. You may also hear it referred to as emotional deprivation disorder. Regarding childhood emotional neglect, this is characterized by one or both parents not being as attentive or responsive to the child’s emotional needs. They may be able to show up physically, but for one reason or another are not there emotionally.

For example, a parent that is struggling with an addiction to alcohol or drugs may be present in the home with the children. But because they are dealing with their own emotional pain and addiction issues, they are not able to fully be present with their children. They may care for their basic needs, such as a roof over their head, food to eat, clothing, and general safety. However, they are not able to engage with the child at an emotional level, leaving the child feeling neglected and alone.

Another example would be a parent or parents who are so busy working or keeping up with the Joneses that they neglect quality time with their children. They may not know how to emotionally connect, as perhaps their parents never really connected with them.

Or they may be dealing with their own emotional or mental health issues that prevent them from making that authentic connection with their children.

Not being fully emotionally present doesn’t make someone a bad parent. They just may not have the emotional maturity or skills to know how to foster their children’s emotional development. However, they can learn how to be there and emotionally connect.

What is Emotional Neglect

Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life

A child that is emotionally neglected may grow up feeling unloved and unworthy. Regardless of why their parent(s) were not able to connect emotionally, the child grows up lacking a solid model of how relationship connections should be.

Infants are exceptionally vulnerable to emotional neglect. They rely solely on their caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs. When they cry, they need their caregiver to respond to them. If they are neglected when they cry, they end up feeling confused and insecure. They learn over time that they cannot rely on their parents, and therefore, have a tough time with trust.

Infants need parents that respond and soothe them. This is when they begin to learn emotional regulation too. If they’re stressed and their parents don’t respond, they end up feeling helpless and anxious. They may also end up carrying negative feelings into adulthood.

As children grow, they still require adequate parental engagement to develop emotional, cognitive, and social skills. They require affection, praise, conversation, and responsive play with parents. If they don’t receive this kind of parental involvement, their emotional growth gets stunted.

Emotional neglect is prevalent right here in America. In fact, James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, states that one of the biggest problems America is facing today is childhood neglect. He says that if parents can heal their own emotional wounds and parent from a more healed, present state, society will benefit in great ways, such as less addiction, crime, mental health disorders, and more.

Ways Emotional Neglect Shows Up In Adulthood

Children that grow up with emotional deprivation disorder or emotional neglect tend to experience more anxiety and depression as an adult. Many of them withdraw inward, leading a lonely life feeling like no one has their back. They are also prone to using substances to numb out, as the inner pain seems like too much to handle.

How Emotional Neglect-Shows Up In Adulthood

Neglect is also associated with:

  • Eating disorders
  • Obesity
  • Feeling numb emotionally
  • Codependency
  • Social anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Hyperactivity
  • Not thriving
  • Delays in development
  • Low self-worth or self-esteem
  • Fear of intimacy

What Can Parents Do?

If you’re parenting children now, the first thing you can do is gauge how present you are for your children now. Are you emotionally engaging with your child?  Do they feel like they can trust you to respond to their needs?  Are you regularly checking in with them?

Or are you dealing with so much on your plate that you’re just going through the motions with them? Are you struggling with an addiction and more caught up in that? Are you experiencing a mental illness that is preventing you from meeting your child’s emotional needs? Are you so busy that you just don’t feel like you have time to sit and talk with your children? To really engage with them?

If you discover that you haven’t been showing up as you children need and want, you can start changing that right now. You can deal with whatever it is that’s been keeping you emotionally unavailable. If you can’t do this on your own, reach out for help from a counselor.  It may take some time to learn how to be an emotionally present parent, but it’s well worth it.

If You’re Struggling With An Addiction

If you’re struggling with an addiction to alcohol or a drug, you are not likely to be as present for your children as they need and want. It’s not that you don’t care, because you do.  But the addiction can cause you to over-focus on satiating those cravings, rather than being fully available for your children.

Of course, the more severe the addiction, the less emotionally available a parent will be. And, the more likely emotional neglect is going on.  There’s no doubt a parent that drinks to oblivion a few times a week may not be able to really show up for their child, regardless of their age.

If you’re struggling with active addiction, know that professional treatment can help. Reach out today and get started on your path to recovery. You will benefit, along with your emotional connection with your children.

During the course of addiction it is not uncommon for addicted parents to lose custody of their children. Click here to learn more about the process of regaining your rights as a parent.

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21 comments
  1. First off I think emotional neglect happens throughout our lives. For as human as we are, each of us are bound to make mistakes etc but I think a good way to reduce it is by being sensitive to people whether it is for kids or an adult. To be honest I too is guilty for this at least for minor instances such as at tines forgetting things or just flat out me being lazy but when I know that it is something major such as a vital issue or a promise then I act. Because those things as small as it is can make or break someone. Let alone kids.

  2. Most surprising behaviours we do or find ourselves do is due to our various childhood emotional neglect, the lessons and love received while growing means alot. Effect of neglect is never exhausted

  3. Now adays, childhood emotional neglect has become rampant in our society. This is a call for urgency, this needs to be taken care of

  4. It is not surprising to know that emotional neglect can cause long term effect to children. We need to know that children need all the things to become a fully functioning adult in the future.

  5. childhood emotional neglect is one area the parent should try to alleviate for the children. Be there for them and see them blossom

  6. When there is childhood neglect, a family and the society at large can be very much affected. A cohort of deficient kids are raised an decrease the productivity of the community.

  7. A healthy emotional connection between parents and kids is the basis to develop emotional intelligence. Sometimes it´s very hard for an adult that was emotionally neglected to show affection properly, be social, or even show empathy to others.
    I’m sure there are many good parents who have a hard life and do a huge effort to get the necessary to cover the basic needs of their kids, however, they should be told what is emotional neglect, because it´s very common that they spent most of the time working and don´t spend quality time with their kids.

  8. It isn’t easy when one has an emotionally neglectful parents. This means that one will go through all of this without any emotional support.. This is not good mostly for a growing child.

  9. I’m really thankful that this article exists. People need to be aware and educated on these types of topics especially parents and soon to be parents. I feel really bad for children that have emotionally neglectful parents. Those children deserve better. I hope that parents become more aware of what they are doing to themselves and to their child or children.

  10. I think there are many dysfunctional homes where sometimes the mother or father figure is missing, no one is born knowing how to be a father or mother, it is something that is learned only that some are more committed than others. Emotional neglect is due to the lack of importance and attention given to children

  11. I think Child Protection Services should do something about emotionally neglectful parents. It could potentially help a lot of people in future.

  12. I think your article perfectly answers the question ‘what is emotional neglect.’ I have learned so much from this and can’t thank you enough for sharing.

  13. It looks like almost all problems are as a result of childhood emotional neglect. As such, it is very important for parents to raise their children with all the love and affection they can give.

  14. Color me surprised to see issues like eating disorders and obesity linked to childhood emotional neglect. I could have never seen that coming!

  15. A big part of who we become as adults is dictated by whether we experienced childhood neglect or not. Thank you for the deeply insightful article.

  16. The issue of childhood emotional neglect is one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. It has such deep running ramifications that we can’t afford to ignore it!

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