Doctors and psychologists have long suggested that our childhood plays a significant role in shaping the rest of our lives. Whether it is good – such as rewards or achievements, or the bad – such as discouragement or mistreatment, it all comes together in making us who we are as adults. However, there is one factor that stands above all – childhood emotional neglect.
Emotional neglect is more critical than any other factor in the sense that it can neither be visible nor recalled. But it is there throughout a person’s life, preventing them from a chance of a happy life.
Research shows that some humans are born with high sensitivity than others. These Highly Sensitive People also referred to as HSPs, are prone to feel every emotion quite intensely. Sometimes, their emotions can get the best of them as well. This high sensitivity trait allows them to be aware of their feelings, and of others around them.
So, what happens when a child with HSP is told by his parents that he is ‘overreacting’, or that he is ‘different’? What happens when the parents don’t show their own emotions freely to the child or respond coldly to the child’s feelings?
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Emotional neglect refers to unmet emotional needs of the child, even if their physical needs are being met. Dr. Jonice Webb says that it is the opposite of emotional abuse. Emotional neglect is also different from physical neglect, according to her.
Simply put, emotional neglect in a child is the parent’s inability to cater to the child’s emotional needs, even when they may be providing everything for their physical well-being (food, clothes, home, etc.). Children are different in nature. For parents with more than one child, one kid may require a little more emotional attention than the other. Failure to respond and provide the required emotional stability may cause the child to feel neglected.
Dr. Jonice Webb, a well-recognized psychologist expert with over 25 years of experience in the field, claims that emotional neglect is, in some ways, opposite to emotional abuse. She says that abuse or mistreatment happens when a parent or both parents act in a certain, unacceptable way, however, neglect is the parents’ inability to act according to their child’s emotional needs.
Furthermore, it is also important to note that this kind of neglect differs from physical neglect as well. While you, as parents, may be providing your kids with the best education, healthiest food, and most stylish clothes, your child may be looking for some extra care and sensitivity towards their emotional needs.
It may be difficult for some to differentiate between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. This is why, you must understand that being emotionally neglectful is being absent for any of your child’s emotional needs, even the tiniest ones. What may seem insignificant to you may be very important for your child.
Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect can be recognized by looking at various signs. Emotional unavailability of adults often stems from emotional neglect in their childhood. Such adults also have a sense of emptiness, and do not have a lot of compassion for themselves. They also tend to blame themselves for everything.
As mentioned before, figuring out if you or someone you know have experienced emotional neglect as a child could be tricky. There are no physical or definite signs of people suffering from it, but there are certain behavioral signs that can be noticed overtime on those who went through some form of emotional neglect in their past.
Let us look at some of the symptoms of emotional neglect:
1. Emotional unavailability
Those who suffer from emotional neglect during their childhood have a difficult time expressing emotions appropriately. These people usually are at a loss of words to express their problems, especially if something is upsetting them. Also, they may find it difficult to comprehend or act when others around them express emotions.
People suffering from childhood emotional neglect can often feel an unexplained sense of emptiness. This emptiness or numbness can be a feeling in their mind, in their chest, and sometimes, even in their stomachs. Additionally, even when they accomplish something significant in life, they could still feel that their success is ‘missing something’.
3. Lack of compassion for themselves
Interestingly, children with emotionally neglectful parents can grow up to be adults with a lot of compassion for everybody but themselves. This is because when parents ignore their child is emotional, the children grow up to be adults with very little to zero regard for their emotions. They feel almost as if they don’t deserve compassion.
4. Blaming themselves for everything
As and when a negative event happens in the lives of people suffering from childhood emotional neglect, they tend to blame themselves straightaway. They constantly live with guilt, self-directed disappointment, and shame towards themselves. So much so that they could even feel guilty about having feelings, being happy, or wanting things.
5. Need to be independent
Everybody wants to be independent. It’s a good thing to be independent and be able to take care of yourself. But, for those with emotional neglect, being independent doesn’t matter as much as it matters for them to never seek anyone’s support or ask for help, even when they really need it.
Type of Parents Who Emotionally Neglect Their Children
Emotional neglect is often apparent in children whose parents are absent physically. Narcissistic parents and perfectionists also tend to emotionally neglect their children. Parents who are authoritarians or excessively permissive can also be emotionally neglectful.
If you are a parent, it must feel important to you at this time to know if you are accidentally neglecting your child’s emotional needs. Here is a list of a few common parental styles and family types where kids are more likely to grow up with emotional neglect:
Parents who are absent
These types of parents fail to stay present for their children. The reason could vary from relationship issues to work-life balance and even travel. Whatever may be the reason, in these cases, kids tend to raise themselves, or if you are an elder child, you may end up raising your younger sibling and play the role of a parent in their lives.
Needless to say, these parents tend to give more importance to their own needs than their children. Kids who are born with such parents tend to find it difficult to identify their own needs or to work towards having them met.
These are the type of parents who fail to appreciate their kids for all the good they accomplish but believe in pointing out the slightest downfalls. These parents force the kids to set unrealistic expectations, leading them to grow up with a lot of performance-related stress and anxiety issues.
A sure-shot parental failure; this type of parent is more concerned about disciplining their children to the point of utmost perfection. In doing so, they usually ignore the feelings and thoughts of their children. Children with such type of parents either grow up to be complete rebels or total submissive adults.
Totally opposite to authoritarians, permissive parents allow their children to practically do anything and everything, instead of guiding them as parents should. As a result, these kids grow up to be adults with no control or ownership of their behavior.
Other than those mentioned above, parents with drug or alcohol issues and sociopathic tendencies can also damage their children’s upbringing. If you think you fall under any of the categories, it is best for you to seek therapy at the earliest and change your behavior towards your kids. The more time you allow for your child to feel ignored, the worse it gets for them to recover from their condition.
Tips to Overcome from Childhood Emotional Neglect
To overcome the feelings of emotional neglect, you have to start with becoming more aware of your emotions, and start valuing your needs. Loving yourself, being more patient with yourself, and pampering yourself with gifts is a good start too.
By now, you would have a fair idea to judge if you had an emotionally neglected childhood. And, if you think you did, it’s not too late. There are things that you can try to implement in your regular life to overcome your childhood emotional problems. You must understand that when a parent fails to acknowledge the emotional needs of their child, it is a problem with their parental skills and not yours.
Here are a few tips to help you gain the reassurance you need to overcome your childhood problems of being emotionally heard:
1. Be aware of your emotions
If you have spent a long time ignoring your emotions or not catering to them, it may feel slightly difficult to start acknowledging them all of a sudden. But, start taking one step at a time. If it’s difficult to talk about your feelings immediately, start by noting them down. And, this applies to your positive as well as not-so-positive feelings.
2. Start valuing your needs
If you grew up with parents who couldn’t respond well to you even when you needed them the most, it’s not your fault if you cannot value your needs and be empathetic towards yourself.. Just because they didn’t it was important to value your emotions and needs doesn’t mean you are not worth it. Like every living person on earth, you can have emotional needs and it is absolutely okay for you to want to have them met.
3. Love yourself
You may have grown up to put yourself after everyone, but as saintly as it sounds, it’s not healthy. In fact, you must be able to love yourself and care for yourself before you can truly do that for others.
4. Be patient
It may be frustrating at first to feel that you have no control over your emotions or that you can’t put your emotions into words. But, remember, healing, physically or emotionally, is a process. There is no one-time fix for situations like these. Give yourself time to recover from the years of neglect you have experienced, and let things become normal gradually.
5. Pamper yourself
If catering to your emotional needs suddenly feels like a big step, start by pampering yourself. Go out for a nice lunch, treat yourself to a spa, catch up with that old school friend go for a trip together, and let someone do something nice for you. Keep in mind, all these steps take you a step closer to opening up yourself emotionally to others around you and allowing themselves to show you that you deserve to be taken care of.
Trying to break away from the chains of emotional neglect can be extremely difficult at first, but the key is to be patient and not give up on yourself. You may feel inclined to do so, considering you may have felt that your parents did, but keep reminding yourself that you are not your parents. And, that you have a greater responsibility towards your emotional well-being.
Your emotional health deserves as much of your attention as your physical fitness. Just like you feel so dedicated to working out and eating healthy to keep your health in check, think positive and learn to appreciate and acknowledge your emotional needs to live an emotionally healthy life.
Namrata is a Doctor i.e. dentist turned writer and a clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books, and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but the psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team