Childhood is the most formative time of our life. Our sense of self and understanding of the world develops during that time. Our caregivers are not only responsible to keep us safe, protect us, meet our physical needs but also acknowledge and meet our emotional needs.
What is Childhood emotional neglect?
Like we teach our kids how to walk, talk and other developmental tasks, teaching them what to do with emotions, how to understand them and regulate them is also a part of their development that caregivers are responsible for.
Childhood emotional neglect is when caregivers are not able to meet their children’s emotional needs. They might be trying their best to be as good of a parent as they can be but they are not able to hold space for their children’s emotions.
Parents are not able to validate their children’s feelings, they don’t show any interest in their feelings, they are not able to help them understand their feelings and help them learn to regulate their emotions.
Lots of adults who experience emotional neglect as kids are not able to recognize it as neglect. Some of them define their childhood as a happy one because they got a good education and their basic necessities were met. For them their emotions being ignored was normal, they have no reason to think that that was not right.
Children showing big emotions can make caregivers uncomfortable and instead of getting curious about that emotion they want to shut it down.
They yell at the child, they say things that make the child feel guilty for having feelings, they punish by isolating the child, they minimize their feelings, they make them feel like they are inconveniencing and burdening them with their feelings.
Children learn that feeling feelings can result in rejection and it is not safe so they disconnect from their own emotions to keep themselves safe.
Connecting with your emotions is essential if you want to connect with yourself and get to know yourself better. Emotions is the way that your body communicates with you. Emotions tell you what you need, how you feel about a situation and feeling also guide you to understanding what will bring you relief.
Disconnecting from your emotions might have been something you needed to do as a child to survive. However, the emotional disconnect continues even after we become adults.
Effects of childhood emotional neglect on adults
Adults who have experienced childhood emotional neglect minimize and ignore their feelings.
They have a difficult time accessing their feelings because the message they receive as kids is that their feelings are going to get them in trouble and take nurture and love away from them. Therefore, they disconnect from their feelings and are not able to recognize them.
Following are the strategies adults with childhood emotional neglect might develop over the years in order to protect themselves from being disliked or abandoned.
Lack of self compassion– They are very kind and empathetic to other people. They express compassion to anyone who is hurting or needs their help. But, they don’t have the same compassion for themselves.
They have never learnt to be compassionate and kind to themselves. Growing up they received the message that their emotions and needs are an inconvenience to people around them.
A strong self critic part– Adults who have experienced emotional neglect have a very dominant self critic part. They are very harsh and mean to themselves.
The lack of validation and acknowledgement from their parents makes it difficult for them to be nice to themselves. They are so critical of themselves because they are trying to not make any mistakes or disappoint anyone.
The self-critic part plays a role in maintaining perfectionism which in turn keeps the anxiety of someone rejecting them and disliking them at bay. However, harsh criticism of self and negative self talk results in low self esteem and depression.
Self-doubt– They tend to doubt themselves a lot. They keep second guessing their needs, feelings and inner voice.
The feedback they got from their caregivers about their emotional experiences as kids was that their experiences are wrong. Their feelings are wrong and they are not safe if they express their needs and feelings.
So, now as adults they are not able to trust their needs. They gaslight themselves by saying things like, “I should not feel like this,” “It was not that bad.” They deny their own feelings by saying “I am ok” even if they are not.
If they are around toxic people they don’t listen to their intuition. They doubt their inner voice and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Even if they were hurt and disrespected they will take on the blame which follows shame and guilt.
Growing up they internalized everything as their fault. They blamed themselves for the caregivers’ anger, sadness and even the silent treatment they received from time to time.
We tend to blame ourselves even if it’s not our fault because it gives us a sense of control over the possibility of changing the outcome of a situation. The thought might show up as “it’s my fault I should have known better.”
By changing our behavior we can change the outcome and avoid feeling shame and guilt.
For example, in a relationship it might show up as over accommodating your partner at your own expense. But, if the relationship does not work out then self blame shows up in the form of negative belief, “I am not good enough.” This thought can cause a lot of shame.
Prioritizing other people’s needs over their own- They are not very aware of what they really want in a situation.
They look at meeting other people’s needs as the only way of being liked or loved.
They show up for others at their own expense because they think that their worth is limited to what they have to offer.
Growing up they have learnt that the only way to receive nurture and care was by taking care of their caregivers needs. They grow up very fast. They take on adult-like responsibility. They meet their parents’ needs instead of expressing their own and expecting them to be met.
Now as adults they are repeating the same pattern. They had to disconnect from their needs to survive. As adults they are still disconnected from their needs.
They are prioritizing others to not be rejected. They are constantly in survival mode.
An attempt to fight a sense of deep loneliness- Adults who experience childhood emotional neglect have a very strong feeling of emotional emptiness.
When I ask my clients since when have they been feeling this sense of deep loneliness, most of the time the answer I get is, it’s always been there.
this deep loneliness that makes you feel empty starts at a very early age. When a distressed child goes to her parents for nurture and connection, emotionally available parents give them the care and affection and help them come back to a place of emotional equilibrium.
But if the caregiver is not emotionally available and does not know how to hold space for the distress the child shows then their dysregulated reaction makes the child feel shame and guilt for having the feeling and needing comfort and as a result they disconnect from their own feelings resulting in emotional emptiness.
We carry this loneliness with us into our adulthood. Either we completely withdraw or start seeking external validation and acceptance to fill this emptiness.
We allow people into our lives who might bring toxicity with them. We are unable to say no because it feels like saying no will result in losing people and drown them in emotional loneliness.
How to heal the effects of childhood emotional neglect?
Healing from childhood emotional neglect takes time. Here are a few things you can do to start the healing process.
The first step is gaining awareness of your patterns. Notice the feelings that come up for you when someone asks for help.
Start getting curious about the reaction that shows up in the form of thoughts or feelings when you think someone is upset with you.
Use curiosity to connect with yourself. Instead of judging yourself for what you might have done wrong. Get curious about the self critic that is showing up.
Notice the relationships in your life. Get curious about what those relationships bring into your life.
The cure for this emotional emptiness comes from within. Your acceptance of self, showing compassion towards yourself, connecting with your feelings and expressing your needs are a few things that might slowly fill that emptiness.
Seekout professional help to dig deep and work with your wounded parts that need your attention and healing.
To learn more about childhood trauma and what can help heal it, read my article on childhood trauma and relationship PTSD
If you feel ready to explore, start gaining awareness and eventually work on healing your wounded parts then send me an email for a free consultation.
Check out this article I wrote for a magazine that talks about signs of childhood trauma manifesting at work.
Until yesterday, I did not even know that childhood emotional neglect was even a ‘thing’. I was involved in a tragic accident in the home when I was 5 that killed my 3-year-old brother. My parents were emotionally unreachable after that. I have understood and I have gained a lot of support from going to Al-Anon. I have a story I want to make into a book. I suddenly realizing that the death of my brother is the common string. I had the ah-ha moment that I could write to a story that could help other parents who lost a young child. I started looking up trauma and discovered I have every one of the symptoms of childhood emotional neglect. I was looking for someone to help me write, but now I think I should also find a therapist.
Hi Claudia, Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your vulnerability. Hope you find the help you need to support your parts.