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childhood emotional neglect

How do you know if you experienced childhood emotional neglect?

Do you often feel empty and misunderstood?

Do you feel lonely even though you are surrounded by friends and people you love?

And do you take care of others but frequently forget about your own needs?

If the above is true, you are probably emotionally neglected in your childhood.

Recently, I read the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, by Lindsay C. Gibson and it got me reflecting on my childhood. Even though my dad can be a bit critical, protective, and controlling at times, the biggest struggle I had with my parents growing up was that I often felt overlooked and unable to express my needs and emotions to them.

When your emotions are not validated, you feel neglected.

I still remember the time when my class monitor cheated in class. I felt it was unfair and I told my mom that I wanted to tell my teacher about it. But my mom just told me not to stir trouble and spoil the relationship I had with the class monitor.

When I had difficulties in my secondary school and I didn’t get along with my classmates, I told my dad that I wanted to change school. But instead of hearing me out, he told me that my older brother was doing well in the same school and questioned why I couldn’t do the same.

When I was a teen, I tried to show my dad my point of view. But I soon realized that my voice was never going to be heard in the family. He is only going to see things from his perspective, so I give up sharing my thoughts with him.

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

According to Dr. Jonice Webb, the author of Running on Empty, childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

As a child, you probably have tried to express your needs,

but your needs are often ignored.

Of course, your parents can’t give you everything. However, most children just want their voices to be heard and their parents to listen to them and give them some attention.

Do I really need to tell my teacher about the misdoing of my class monitor? Do I really need to change my secondary school? Absolutely not! What I needed from my parents was to acknowledge how I felt and make an effort to understand me. I would have felt loved and understood if they had taken the time to listen to what I had to say.

How Do You Know If You Were Neglected as a Child?

It’s not always easy to tell if one is emotionally neglected as a child since emotional neglect is rather invisible, unlike abuse.

Childhood emotional neglect is not the same as abuse.

Children who were abused are more able to see and feel their physical and emotional wounds because abuse occurs when someone does something to them. It’s visible.

For children who feel neglected, they might not even be as in touch with their emotional wounds because it isn’t caused by an action. It is caused by a non-action. It is triggered by the parent’s failure to act. You can’t point to a single event that causes you pain. The hurt is invisible and often overlooked.

Neglected children often don’t understand why we feel disconnected from others and unloved. When our parents are cold and distant or don’t pay enough attention to us, we are left to wonder if there is something wrong with us. Why don’t our parents love and care about us? So many of us grow up with low self-esteem and might develop a fear of abandonment.

There are two ways to test or check if you are emotionally neglected as a child. The first way is to examine your childhood and see if you have absent or emotionally neglectful parents. The second way is to examine your adulthood and see if you exhibit any habits and behavioral patterns of someone who experienced childhood emotional neglect.

Do You Have Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

In the book, Reinventing Your Life, the authors sum it up very nicely with these three kinds of deprivation that a child might experience:

  1. Deprivation of nurturance: When your parents don’t provide you with enough warmth, attention, and physical attention as a child.
  2. Deprivation of empathy: When your parents don’t understand your world and validate your feelings.
  3. Deprivation of protection: When your parents don’t provide you with strength, direction, and guidance.

If you have emotionally neglectful parents, you are most likely to be deprived of the above. There can be many reasons why your parents did not provide you with basic emotional needs as a child. Below I have split the emotionally neglectful parents into two main categories:

  • unaware parents, and
  • absent parents.

Unaware Parents

Your parents provide you with basic necessities such as shelter and food and they think this is how a parent should show love for their kids.

But they are not aware that you might have other needs because they are also very unaware of their own emotional needs. Since they are not in touch with their own emotions, they are not able to provide you with what you need as a child.

Some parents don’t know what a child needs.

Another form of neglect is when parents let their children do whatever they want. They don’t provide any guidance, discipline, or structure to their kids. Even though on the surface, it might seem that the parents give their children a lot of freedom. But this might also make the children feel that their parents don’t care about them enough and they are left to fend for themselves.

I have a friend who wishes that his parents would tell him what to do and what not to do when he was younger. He wouldn’t have made the mistakes he made in life if his parents provided some guidance.

I will also include authoritarian parents in this category. They might think that they know what’s best for their children and raise their children with fixed rules and regulations. But they too are very unaware of what a child really needs.

Absent Parents

Apart from emotional validation and affirmation, some parents are not there with their children, to begin with. They are busy with work and absent from most of their children’s lives. Or they might be physically there but thinking about something else while talking to their children.

Often, I see kids on the train wanting to tell their parents something exciting they saw, but the parents just ignore them and continue to use their mobile phones. Realizing the parents are not there, these children end up talking to themselves.

Children feel neglected when their parents aren’t present.

Absent parents might know what a child needs but they are too preoccupied with their own life that they aren’t able to provide the child what they need. This includes parents who are unavailable, depressed, addicted or have a chronic medical condition. Their life is in a mess and needs a lot of their attention. They cannot perform their roles as a parent.

Signs and Effects of Child Neglect in Adulthood

1. You always feel that no one truly understands you.

There are two folds to this. First, your parents didn’t take the time to listen to you and make you feel understood, so you grew up believing that other people would not understand you too.

Second, you don’t make enough effort to share about yourself since you subconsciously believe that other people won’t be able to or aren’t interested in understanding you.

You don’t want to feel the same disappointment you had as a child.

So in the end, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Due to your lack of communication, people don’t get the chance to know you and that makes you feel even more disconnected from others. Even when you are in a relationship with someone, you will still feel lonely and unloved because you don’t tell your partner what you need or how you feel.

2. You always feel that you don’t matter.

People who are neglected have low self-esteem, but they might not be as self-critical as others who have low self-esteem. Instead, they might feel invisible, numb, or empty, and have this lingering feeling that they don’t matter.

You learned to neglect our needs since young.

When your parents don’t fulfill your emotional needs as a child, you develop this belief that you are unimportant. You have difficulties expressing your needs in adulthood, not just because you fear disappointment. It’s because you are so used to thinking that your needs are unimportant that you don’t know what your needs are.

You often find yourself having an abundance of empathy and compassion for others, but not so much for yourself. Some of us are accommodating and don’t have many preferences because we pay more attention to other people than ourselves.

Sometimes, we also feel uncomfortable accepting a favor from others or asking for help since deep down inside, we feel that our needs don’t matter.

3. You have people-pleasing tendencies.

When you are neglected emotionally as a kid, you develop a skill to please others. Not only did you learn that your needs are not important, you believed that other people’s needs like your parents are more important than yours.

Neglected children are trained to please their parents.

I didn’t get much emotional support from my parents. But what I didn’t understand then was my parents don’t know how to handle their own emotions too and are constantly looking for other people like their children to appease their own emotional needs.

Many times, I had to obey them and sacrifice my needs to maintain peace in the family. My parents would get upset, angry, or worried if I didn’t do what they wanted. This is not that different from a child throwing a tantrum in the toy stores when he couldn’t get what he wanted. Sometimes, it felt as though I had to babysit them.

It’s always about how our parents feel, not what we feel. Therefore, neglected children learn to be more in tune with other people’s needs than their own. Many of us also develop this habit of pleasing others because we don’t want others to feel neglected as we do.

4. You often have difficulties identifying and expressing your emotions. 

The irony with neglected children is that they understand other people’s feelings and needs very well, but they don’t understand their own.

For example, I have difficulties understanding some of my emotions, especially anger. When I had depression, I suppressed my anger. But the thing is I didn’t even know I was feeling angry. It wasn’t until things got a lot worse later that I was able to see how angry I was with the situation.

Our parents don’t acknowledge our emotions often enough because our emotions make them feel uncomfortable. So we learn to suppress our feelings and deny them. We think that we are not allowed or capable of being emotional.

You might also have a hidden resentment for your parents. 

When our emotional needs aren’t fulfilled and we are tired of being the ones taking care of our parent’s emotional needs, we might have resentment toward our parents. We feel that our parents are preventing us from getting our needs met and we have to forgo our needs to meet their needs. This hidden desire to get our needs met causes us to resent our parents and sometimes other people too, especially when we don’t express our desires regularly.

Find out more signs of childhood emotional neglect in the video below.

How to Overcome Childhood Emotional Neglect

1. Acknowledge your own needs and emotions.

Understanding your needs is not easy for someone who is neglected. You might not know your preferences, boundaries, and values well enough.

To have a better understanding of your needs, set aside time each day to reflect on your feelings and be true to whatever feelings arise. Anger and resentment are actually your best friends in this scenario because they tell you that you have unmet needs. So learn to accept both positive and negative feelings.

Write down and test out your needs.

A good practice is to write down what your needs are and test them out. Get to the core of it. If something makes you unhappy, examine why. Don’t dismiss the feeling. Check if similar situations make you unhappy too.

As we tend to have people-pleasing behaviors, writing down our needs will also remind us of our needs. So that we don’t lose ourselves while trying to help someone.

2. Know that your needs are important too.

To overcome childhood emotional neglect, you have to unlearn the belief that you are unimportant. Your needs are just as important as your parents and everyone else.

Sometimes, you have to let others deal with their own emotions when their needs conflict with yours.

Allow other people to deal with their own emotions.

If they are angry and upset with you, let them be angry and upset with you. You can’t be there to take care of their emotions all the time. Let them take responsibility for their own emotions.

Until today, my dad is still puzzled and somewhat frustrated with me because I don’t want to be an accountant or a manager. He can’t figure out why I don’t want a stable job or be in a position of power. I can’t help him manage his emotions and expectations. He has to learn how to accept a point of view that is different from his. If I were to listen to him, I would have to sacrifice my own needs. Then, I would end up resenting him and myself. This is not what I want for our relationship.

3. Learn to assert and express yourself.

People who feel neglected during childhood find it difficult to assert themselves and express their needs. We are afraid that other people will not respect or acknowledge our needs when we express them. We are also afraid that others will judge or mock us as too needy or clingy.

But assertiveness is an essential life skill. You have to learn to communicate your needs despite the risks of being invalidated and rejected. It’s better to let other people understand how you feel than to pretend everything is okay. Some will respond to your needs and others won’t. For those people who don’t, decide how to deal with them later. Always communicate first.

You can assert yourself without being aggressive.

Sometimes, we don’t want to assert ourselves because we don’t want to be in conflict with others and ruin our existing relationship with them. But not letting the other party know what you need might make the relationship worse since you are not being authentic with your feelings and the other person.

We can assert ourselves calmly without being aggressive. When you do it the first few times, there might be some aggression and that is understandable. Finetune the process and find the right words to say. With practice, you will get better at it.

4. Find friends that are willing to listen to you.

There are many types of friends. Some friends are people who you enjoy doing the same activities. Some friends are people you meet at work and in your school. Others are those with whom you can share your knowledge and discuss topics intellectually.

It’s important for people who were neglected emotionally in childhood to make friends with whom we can be vulnerable and pour our hearts out. Being deprived of emotional validation for so long, we need someone who is empathetic and non-judgmental enough to hear us talk about our problems. We need someone who can trust our feelings, not just someone who gives us advice.

Realize that not everyone can fulfill your needs.

It’s not ideal to share your feelings with friends who are uncomfortable in dealing with emotions themselves. Some friends just want to do things with you together. Expecting someone to do something they can’t, will just make you feel disappointed. Growing up, I figured that my parents were never the type that would spend the time to understand my emotions, so I stopped hoping and expecting them to do so.

Each friend serves a different purpose and we need a variety of friends. It’s also wise to find several friends with which you can connect on a deeper level and not just rely on one person.

5. Always be the one to care for your emotional needs.

There will be times when your empathetic friends are busy and not available. There will be times when your spouse or partner can’t fulfill your emotional needs and need time alone.

Instead of always depending on your friends or partner, learn to be your own best friend. This is part of being self-compassion. Be there for yourself. When you need attention and love, reach out to the little boy or little girl inside of you and tell him or her:

“I care for you. I’m here for you.”

There is nothing more rewarding than being present with yourself. Alternatively, you can find other methods to express your emotions. In my case, writing blog posts on this website is important to me. Not only because I enjoy sharing my insights and helping others, but it’s also a medium for me to express thoughts that I might not be able to express completely in my daily life.

You can also journal, sing, watch sentimental movies, create, or do anything that helps you express your emotions. It doesn’t have to involve another person.

Read my book, Parent Yourself Again, to learn how to love yourself the way you wanted your parents to love you.

Featured Photo Credit: father and son / Mark Bonica