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Failure of a parent to meet the emotional needs of a child on a consistent basis is known as Emotional neglect. It is almost impossible for a parent to meet the emotional needs of a child at all times; emotional neglect comes into the picture when these needs are neglected over time. It leads to a child having deep insecurity, which can affect them for the rest of their lives.
Whether it is an individual or the whole family, therapy is a possible avenue to overcome childhood emotional neglect. For parents or caregivers who are struggling with providing adequate emotional support to their children, attending parenting classes or joining support groups can also be very helpful.
What is Emotional Neglect?
Emotional neglect is very different from any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse inflicted on or towards a child. Emotional neglect is the void created by the lack of essential emotional interactions like nurturing, connecting, and adequate responses to stress. It is much more difficult to identify, even for those who have experienced it, because more than anything else, it is the lack of emotional care.
Emotional neglect is not caused due to a one-off scenario where the parent is busy, but by a continuous process of failing to meet the emotional needs of a child. Ignoring and dismissing a child’s feeling of distress is a prime example of emotional neglect. Humiliating a child for expressing their emotions or an outright refusal to listen to a child’s feelings make a child believe that it is wrong or useless to have any emotions.
A child’s emotional system, which is in its developmental stages, is severely affected by the trauma caused due to emotional neglect. Complex Trauma and Complex PTSD symptoms are often witnessed in children or adults who have experienced emotional neglect in their childhood.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Causes
Parents who neglect their children emotionally are often not abusive at all but instead are struggling themselves. When your own life is in strife, it can become very difficult for a parent to push themselves to create a solid and a secure bond with their children. Mental illness, stress, and pressures like work, abuse, poverty, PTSD from military work, etc., are often the reason why a parent is unable to provide emotional care and support to their children. Unfortunately, sometimes the parent is even unaware of their actions which leads to emotional neglect of children.
Below are some of the reasons why a parent may be neglecting their child:
- Adults who have experienced neglect or abuse might not understand how to be caring and nurturing towards a child.
- Due to work, incarceration, and military service, absence from home can lead to a parent not spending quality time with the child.
- Addiction, depression, or other mental illnesses can be a roadblock in a parent’s ability to connect with the child on an emotional level.
- Violence and stress are often the leading factors in the emotional neglect of children.
- Overwhelming grief caused by the death of a parent or a family member.
Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood Emotional Neglect Experiment
A constant struggle in relationships, feeling forever disconnected and misunderstood are some of the experiences shared by people who have been emotionally neglected as children. It is through their intimate relationships with their caregivers that children learn and develop their feelings. The absence of such relationships can lead to struggles which include emotional reactivity or being disassociating and shutdown in relationships.
Signs that you or a loved one have experienced childhood neglect are:
- Lack of self-esteem
- Hesitancy is asking for help or support
- Frequent emotional outbursts
- Difficulty handling rejection
- Loss of words in the expression of feelings
- Association of shame and guilt with emotions
- Dissociative tendencies
Emotional Neglect Effects
Our relationship with our early primary caregiver is the doorway through which we learn how to interact and develop with the outside world. How we interact with the world, how we perceive it is mostly based on the learnings we get in our childhood. A void created by the absence of such experiences leads to difficulty creating healthy relationships for emotionally neglected children.
The adverse effects of emotional neglect on children are:
- Children accept that having or expressing their emotions is not okay.
- Outbursts become a way to be noticed or heard.
- Connecting with peers is a tedious task.
- Shutting down is an easy way out to deal with any situation.
- Asking for help becomes difficult
- Emotional distress presents itself in psycho-somatic complaints – Body aches, stomach problems, etc.
Emotional Neglect Long Term Effects
A child who has experienced emotional neglect growing up finds it very difficult to feel secure in relationships and the world. Our interactions and experiences during our childhood play a major role in how we interact as adults. Therefore, emotional neglect experienced during childhood can hinder our ability to understand, manage and create healthy relationships in life.
The long term effects of childhood emotional neglect include:
- Lack of trust in relationships.
- Overpowering feelings of guilt and shame lead to loneliness.
- Problematic relationships.
- Difficult asking for help.
- Struggle in accepting or sharing emotions of others or self.
- Dissociative or shutting down behaviors.
- Obstructing relationships and opportunities due to fear of failure/rejection.
- High risk of anxiety and depressive disorders.
- Emotional outbursts.
Emotional Neglect Diagnosis
Often healthy children whose physical needs have been met and even exceeded can be emotionally neglected, making identifying emotional neglect difficult. How a child interacts with their parent or with other kids can provide a birds-eye-view about if the child is indeed emotionally neglected or not.
Symptoms like failure to thrive in infants and young children could be signs of emotional neglect. Not asking for help when needed or an effort to not draw attention to them and shutting down are some of the symptoms exhibited by school-aged children and adolescents. Although they may appear to be independent, confident, and self-sufficient, emotionally neglected children, find it difficult to relate to peers or make friends. Emotional distress often shows up as somatic complaints without an organic cause in children.
As people reach adulthood, due to the emotional neglect they have experienced as children, they find themselves dragged into abusive or toxic romantic relations or struggle to have consistent relationships.
Such adults struggle with their own emotions, but they can also not understand other people’s emotions. An ever-present feeling of loneliness, failure to connect with others, and shutting down are the usual outcomes for such people. Emotional neglect is often the root cause of anxiety and mood disorders.
Emotional Neglect Statistics
Childhood abuse or maltreatment has been studied far more than emotional neglect; therefore, the statistics are very limited at this time.
- Around 184 out of 1000 children have shown signs of emotional neglect as per one meta-study, more than 18% of total participants.
- In the USA only, child protective service agencies confirmed that 906,000 children being maltreated. Among them, 61% of children experienced neglect, 19% physically abused, 10% sexually abused, 5% emotionally abused.
- 1,500 children died from maltreatment: 36% was from neglect, 29% physical abuse, 29% other maltreatment types.
- Check more statistics on child maltreatment: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/11/maltreatment
- Emotional neglect is also associated with a heightened risk of anxiety disorders in adolescence and adulthood.
Compared to peers who have had a history of physical and sexual abuse, the symptoms are far worse for youth who have experienced emotional neglect and abuse.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Treatment
Building emotional intelligence, developing appropriate regulation skills, and forming healthy relations is the focus of an effective treatment for emotional neglect. These aspects are important because the biggest effect of emotional neglect is the difficulty in understanding emotions and relationships. Although medication is available to fight certain symptoms, healing is a work in progress and requires time and patience.
One of the best ways to treat the effects of childhood emotional neglect is to find a therapist who is familiar with attachment, trauma, and neglect. Individual therapy allows a person to manage the symptoms being experienced due to emotional neglect by providing coping skills and regulation skill-building.
Effective therapy allows a client to identify any behavioral patterns created in their past due to neglect. These patterns may seem helpful in the past, like a child choosing to shut down when faced with the pain of a parent neglecting their emotional needs or attention. Therapy helps the client understand that while the strategy of shutting down may have been helpful as a child, it can lead to multiple problems as an adult, including difficulty connecting with others or even their children. A person learns and practices how to express, understand and regulate their feelings in a safe environment during therapy sessions.
Component-Based Psychotherapy (CBP) has proven to be the front runner out of all the other therapies to treat emotional abuse and neglect. Relationship, regulation, dissociation, and narrative are the main components used in CBP for the healing process. Clients have found Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) very effective in processing traumatic events, including emotional neglect.
The entire family is affected when one family member struggles, forming the base of the family-based model used in Family Therapy. The whole family works together to grow and heal, allowing the healing of the affected member. A healthy system is developed within a family by listening to each other and by working together. This discussion is facilitated during family therapy.
Family therapy allows the parents to heal their childhood wounds and help create a new way to provide and support emotional health in the family. If required, family and individual therapy can be provided simultaneously too.
Group Therapy/Support Groups
Group therapy allows participants to identify and relate to each other in a safe environment, allowing them to build connections and decrease loneliness. In a group setting, members are taught skills and allowed to express, acknowledge and affirm their feelings. Accepting and realizing that their experience is not unique profoundly affects their ability to deal with feelings of isolation and loneliness.
12 step program like Adult Children of Alcoholics and AI Anon can be highly beneficial for people who have experienced emotional neglect due to addiction issues at home. Many therapists also offer Issue-specific therapeutic groups.
Parents can build exceptional skills to emotionally support their children by attending parenting classes. Child development, healthy discipline, and ways to support and nurture children emotionally are the primary focus of these parenting classes. These parenting classes are especially beneficial for parents who themselves have suffered abuse or emotional neglect. Most communities provide parenting classes through government agencies, religious institutions, and schools. Online resources and parenting books are also available.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovering Tips
The recovery process from childhood emotional neglect requires time and energy.
Be Curious About Yourself
People who have experienced childhood neglect tend to be very hard on themselves and negatively critical towards their behavior. An important aspect for you to consider is identifying the root cause of the issue instead of being judgemental of yourself. When you are behaving or reacting out of character, you need to dig deeper and find what you are feeling and if the present situation reminds you of a painful memory from your childhood. Curiosity about yourself will make you aware of the reasons for your judgemental attitude towards yourself.
Be Curious About Others
As curiosity about yourself introduces you to your inner self similarly, curiosity about others allows you to understand them better and connect with them on a deeper level. Often in an effort to protect themselves from rejection and shame, people who have experienced emotional neglect create emotional roadblocks. Unfortunately, these roadblocks created to keep people away also hinder the path of new relationships and connections. Curiosity about others around you gives you a state of mind where you feel comfortable asking questions and engaging with them.
Move Your Body
Our feelings and traumas are held inside our bodies, and these emotions are expressed through our bodies. It is often noticed that people who have suffered childhood emotional neglect learn to dissociate or shut down their emotional and physical responses. Healthily engaging the body is a very important part of the recovery from emotional neglect. An incredibly powerful way to unify your mind and body is Yoga. Symptoms of mental illness like anxiety, PTSD are decreases with regular yoga practice as per multiple studies. Preliminary research has also shown the benefits of Tai Chi and Qi Gong to positively affect symptoms of emotional trauma.
Parents who have experienced emotional neglect in their childhood are often unable to provide a strong emotional intelligence framework for their children. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and differentiate emotions in yourself and others. Creating and using a feeling list to define an emotion is a great way to increase and strengthen your emotional intelligence. A helpful practice to develop emotional intelligence is to identify the emotions felt by others and how you can understand what they are feeling.
Regulation skills which a child learns from their primary caregiver are missing from a child who has experienced emotional neglect. Learning regulation and grounding skills are extremely important to function and interact well in the world. Regulation skills are a set of exercises that allow you to express your emotions/feelings without letting the body’s reactions. Deep breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and grounding methods are some examples of regulation skills.
Trust is a vital part of the therapeutic process. First, you need to seek out a therapist who has the knowledge, understanding, and competence to work with the effects of emotional neglect. The second part of the process is that once you feel safe and secure with the therapist, you need to trust the process. Like any change, the healing process takes time and patience, and at the end of the day, it is worth every second spent in the process.
Child Is Being Emotionally Neglected, What to Do?
The first step you should take if you believe that a child is being neglected or is suffering abuse is to contact your local child and family services agency. Emotional neglect could indicate that other types of abuse might be happening in a family. It is mandatory for people who work with children and families to report any suspected abuse.
Reporting emotional neglect or abuse is the best way to help a family connect with the resources they need and can be done anonymously. Contacting the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) would allow you to connect with local resources. Parenting programs are offered to help teach pertinent parenting skills through Prevent Child Abuse America.
Additional Resources for Childhood Emotional Neglect
The following resources can be beneficial for you or someone you know who may have experienced childhood emotional neglect:
- Child Mind Institute
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- National Children’s Advocacy Center