3 indicators of Childhood Emotional Neglect

3 indicators that your life may be affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect

by Jen Belmonte, LMSW

Note these two examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect, written by a Grand Rapids therapist:

Melanie finds her mind wandering while driving home from work.  Her company has been undergoing significant changes, she hasn’t been sleeping well, and she feels constantly anxious. Why are these feelings so hard to sort out?  She wishes she could talk to her spouse, but he’s been pretty checked-out with his own stress lately. Oh well. Do your best, don’t rock the boat, and things will get better, she tells herself.  After all, that’s the message she continuously received from her parents while growing up.

Trey, age 7, wakes up with stomach aches nearly every day.  He has trouble focusing in class, doesn’t connect well with peers, and was embarrassed by a classmate yesterday.  He’s not sure why, but the thought of talking with his parents about his school issues just makes the stomach aches worse.

While the concept of physical neglect is something with which we’re all familiar, that of emotional neglect is by far more subtle, but can be just as debilitating.  In the book, Running on Empty, psychologist Dr. Jonice Webb gives a name to a phenomenon that mental health practitioners have been witnessing for years. She explains that while many adults struggle with depression, anxiety, anger, and relationship difficulties, often the root of these difficulties can be traced back to something that was absent during childhood. Per Dr. Webb, Emotional Neglect “is the failure of parents to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”  Emotional Neglect occurs when parents “fail to notice, attend do, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings,” per Dr. Webb. How might this play out during adulthood?  Consider the following scenarios…

  • Tyler realizes at age 35 that he seems to attract women who do not bring out the best in him, and do not seem interested in helping him to become the best version of himself.
  • Maia notices during her sophomore year of college that something just doesn’t feel “right” in her interactions with others—why is it so difficult for her to pick-up on non-verbal cues, understand the emotional tone of a conversation, or maintain meaningful relationships?
  • Cheryl realizes upon becoming a grandmother that she has difficulties with interpersonal boundaries—why is it so hard to tell others “no,” and find (let alone utilize) her voice with others?

Individuals who have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect go through life experiencing much pain, relational turbulence, and often, an overall feeling that something “just isn’t right.” They’ve not learned to identify and validate their own feelings, much less those of loved ones in their life.

It’s important to note that oftentimes, emotionally neglectful parents are well-intentioned, kind hearted individuals.  Emotional neglect often occurs in homes where parents did not experience emotional safety and nurturing in their own homes while growing up.  Emotional neglect can occur in a variety of environments, and its impact is often life-long, unless addressed in a therapeutic relationship.

Dr. Webb reiterates that what didn’t happen during childhood can be just as damaging to the development of a whole, happy individual as what did happen.

Here are a few indicators she offers, which could suggest you may be living out of what you didn’t get from your childhood…

  • You experience guilt or anger towards yourself for having feelings. (“I feel awful saying this, but I really did not want to go to such & such an activity.”) Emotionally neglected children, all grown-up, often apologize for their own feelings.
  • You are fiercely loyal to your parents, especially when therapy begins to reveal parental shortcomings (“My parents did the best they could.”) Since individuals who have been emotionally neglected cannot recall what their parents didn’t do, they tend to blame themselves for their difficulties.
  • You have minimal memories from childhood. While you may recall your mother’s workaholism, or your father’s temper, you tend to preface whatever childhood memories you do have with a statement of minimization…e.g., “It wasn’t that bad,” or “This really isn’t that important.”

Here’s the good news…. You can recover from Childhood Emotional Neglect!  Coming alongside someone who has experienced emotional neglect includes several facets, such as learning how to….

  • understand, identify and express emotions
  • practice self-care, and establish healthy boundaries with others
  • communicate and manage conflict effectively
  • break the cycle of emotional neglect in one’s own parenting journey

One of our greatest privileges as therapists at Health for Life Grand Rapids is helping others who long to explore their life story and better understand their interpersonal and relational patterns. If you find yourself experiencing potential indicators of emotional neglect, please know we’d love to journey with you, and help you find healing and wholeness!

Health for Life Grand Rapids recently unveiled their new counseling wing: The Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of West Michigan. Our therapists are devoted to integrating the latest research and techniques with our heart for people in order to stand alongside those in recovery from trauma, neglect, and abuse.

References: www.drjonicewebb.com; Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More—both by Jonice Webb, PhD

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