Emotional neglect can be defined as a parent’s failure to notice and respond appropriately to a child’s emotions. It can be challenging to identify due to it being invisible. Unlike physical abuse, emotional neglect doesn’t leave bruises or any other visible signs that would tell the children experiencing it that something is wrong. More importantly, people usually don’t realize that they were emotionally neglected by their parents until many years later, when they become adults and the symptoms of emotional neglect start to appear.
In adulthood, emotionally neglected people try their hardest to be the good boy/girl their parents wanted them to be. Being emotionally neglected by their parents leaves them with many negative core beliefs (www.befreecounselling.com/blog/core-beliefs) such as, ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘I’m a failure’. They need other people in their life to help them define who they are. Some of them struggle to ask for help because they always expect to be let down and disappointed. Many don’t think they deserve to relax and they need permission from other people to have fun.
Some of the other symptoms of emotional neglect may include:
Emotional neglect is not triggered by something that happened in childhood, quite the opposite, it’s caused by something that didn’t happen when adults were children. This can prevent people from seeing the connection between their struggles and the ‘normal’ childhood they thought they had. Many become resistant to accept that their loving and well-meaning parents could be the cause of their struggling which makes emotional neglect hard to acknowledge.
Nonetheless, exploring the environment they grew up in and discussing their parents’ parenting style could help them understand how their parents could have unintentionally hurt them by failing to respond appropriately to their emotional needs. This would allow them to recognize that the message their parents sent to them by ignoring and overlooking their feelings was that their emotions were not important, they were wrong or unacceptable and therefore were not accepted or valued.
No one wants to discover that their parents might have unconsciously hurt them and caused them to suffer for years. However, once people who were emotionally neglected overcome their initial resistance to accept that they often start to feel relieved as they finally have an answer to all the ‘why’s’ in their life. They finally understand why they feel so lonely and empty and why they feel that there is something terribly wrong with them. They finally are able to comprehend why they fear rejection and why they feel like they don’t belong anywhere. This could also help them to stop blaming themselves for the way they feel, which is caused by them not having any negative or terrible memories from their childhood that would explain their struggles.
It’s important to stress that most parents mean well and have good intentions when it comes to raising their children. The harm they caused is not intentional and might have originated from them having been emotionally neglected themselves.
It’s possible to recover from emotional neglect. The first step is to learn about emotions and to identify positive and negative feelings. Some people might have to learn to name different emotions they are experiencing by having to relearn a language for their feelings. The next step would be to make a conscious effort to focus on what they are really experiencing and feeling about things and learning how to express their feelings.
Further action would require them connecting with their Inner Child, the ‘little you’ who felt what they felt and who decided how they would adapt to the circumstances they grew up in. An essential part of this process is to also learn self-compassion and self-care in order to develop a more positive sense of self.