When looking for signs of childhood abuse, for many people, thoughts of a parent physically hurting or neglecting their child might come to mind. Physical harm is an important facet of child abuse to recognize. There is another type of abuse that’s covert and often just as damaging as physical harm. This type of abuse is called Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), and it’s a form of emotional abuse that occurs when parents do not acknowledge their child’s emotional needs.
The Hidden Wounds of Emotional Neglect
Children have physical needs that can include food, water, shelter, clothing, and more. For many children, when parents can not meet those needs, the effects are typically evident to them. For children who experience childhood emotional neglect, their parent(s) lack of emotional support is often more difficult for them to identify.
According to Dr. Jonice Webb, a therapist specializing in CEN and author of the renowned book Running on Empty, emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s feelings and emotional needs.
When a child turns to their parent when they are upset, emotionally neglectful parents might respond to their child with platitudes such as, “it’s not that bad, “stop crying, “you’re fine, and “I don’t have time to deal with this.” Over time, the child often learns to bury their emotions and believe their feelings do not matter.
Many adults who have experienced emotional neglect as a child have thoughts that their parents provided for them physically, but something still felt off when they were younger. Emotional neglect isn’t always intentional.
Parents can try their best but still fail to show up for their child emotionally. Some parents adopt parenting styles similar to the ones they experienced. If their parents did not successfully model emotional support, it could be more challenging to incorporate it into their own parenting style.
The Signs + How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Adults
The impacts of emotional neglect don’t end at childhood. Many adults who experienced emotional neglect carry the pain into adulthood. The effects of childhood emotional neglect can play a role in your relationship with yourself, as well as the relationships you have with romantic partners, family, and friends.
Persistent Feelings of Emptiness
Feelings of emptiness can look different from person to person. For some, it’s a notable empty feeling in their belly or chest. For others, it feels like emotional numbness, apathy, feeling as if you are drifting through life on autopilot, and feeling unfulfilled.
The feeling of emptiness can occur because a person feels like something important is deeply missing inside them. What’s often missing is access to the emotions that felt invalid during childhood.
Aversion to Depending on Others
Rejecting help from others is a common sign for survivors of childhood emotional neglect. When children learn that they can’t rely on their parents to meet their emotional needs, having to depend on others can become a source of anxiety.
During childhood, they could not rely on the person or people they needed most; they often wonder, “what will make others any different?” As an adult, the survivor prefers to depend on themselves.
Survivors of childhood emotional neglect often endorse harsh criticism around how they view themselves. When children do not receive consistent attunement and validation from their parents, it can impact how they view themselves. The result in adulthood can look like crippling self-doubt, low self-esteem, and imposter syndrome.
Lack of Self-Compassion
If you have plenty of compassion for others but struggle to find that same grace for yourself, it could be due to a history of emotional neglect. It’s common for emotional neglect survivors to be kind and empathetic towards their friends and family but callous when it comes to themselves. The lack of compassion for themselves can look like focusing on others’ needs and struggling with setting boundaries.
Chronic Feelings of Guilt, Shame, and Self-Blame
Most people experience guilt and shame on occasion; however, childhood emotional neglect survivors often feel these emotions consistently. The lingering trauma of emotional neglect can manifest as guilt and blame around a person’s feelings and needs.
Difficulty Identifying and Expressing Emotions
Struggling to communicate feelings and emotions is a common symptom of childhood emotional neglect. If you felt as if your feelings and emotions were invalid in childhood, you likely thought you had to learn to bury them. Not only is it often hard to express emotions, but it can be equally challenging for survivors even to identify what their exact feelings are.
This can have an impact on friendships and romantic relationships. If you struggle with opening up and being vulnerable, it can feel like the relationship is one-sided, shallow, and emotionally exhausting.
Sensitivity to Rejection
Rejection sensitivity can be a common symptom adults of childhood emotional neglect experience. Rejection is difficult for many to experience, but it can feel especially triggering for an emotional neglect survivor. Rejection can feel like abandonment, which can be painful for those rejected by their caregiver(s).
Feeling “Different” From Others
Some emotional neglect survivors will experience a feeling as if something is “off” about them but struggle to identify what that means to them and why it’s occurring. Maybe you’ve thought something is “wrong” with you or feel “different” from others. This symptom is common as emotional neglect can hinder one’s sense of self and relationships.
It’s Difficult To Be Assertive
Assertiveness has its benefits as it allows people to advocate for themselves and their needs. Lack of assertiveness can show up in relationships, careers, boundaries, and more.
For example, you might struggle to ask for a raise or promotion at work or maybe freeze up when you need to set a boundary with someone. It can be challenging for survivors of emotional neglect to feel deserving of what they need and advocate for themselves.
Experiencing Additional Traumas + Other Mental Health Concerns
It’s not uncommon for survivors to experience other traumatic situations and mental health issues. Studies have shownthat emotional neglect survivors are more susceptible to intimate partner violence and developing an eating disorder. Experiences of emotional neglect can also link to chronic depression and anxiety.
Healing From Emotional Neglect is Possible
Recognizing the ways emotional neglect has impacted you can be an essential part of the healing process. Mending the hidden wounds of emotional neglect is deserved by every survivor.
If any of the listed symptoms resonate, it could be worth working with mental health professionals to safely unpack the trauma, recover, and thrive. With self-compassion, you can give yourself the empathy and support you did not receive as a child and overcome childhood emotional neglect.
Thank you kindly beautifully written and MUCH appreciated!
My therapist has been trying to tell me that what I live with is the result of emotional neglect. I have been reluctant to fully accept this, but reading this has really helped me see where to focus my attention in this healing journey. Thank you so much. I feel like I’ve been waiting decades to read this, as it describes me perfectly.