How Emotional Neglect in Childhood May Look for Children and Adults

emotional neglect in childhood

emotional neglect in childhood

Emotional neglect in childhood can have a lasting impact well into adulthood. It impacts self-esteem, boundaries, , emotional regulation, communication in relationships and so much more. However, if you understand what it looks like in both childhood and adulthood, you are better able to learn coping skills for overcome the impacts.

What Is Emotional Neglect in Childhood?

Emotional neglect in childhood refers to a type of childhood maltreatment where a child’s emotional needs are not adequately met or are consistently ignored by their caregivers or parents. It is a form of child neglect that may not involve physical abuse or overt emotional abuse but can still have profound and lasting effects on a child’s development and well-being.

What Is Emotional Neglect in Childhood?

What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like in Childhood?

Emotional neglect can manifest in various ways, including:

Lack of emotional responsiveness

Caregivers may not respond to the child’s emotional expressions, such as when they are sad, scared, or happy, leaving the child feeling unheard or invalidated.

Example: James, a 7-year-old, feels upset after a fight with his best friend, but when he tries to talk to his mom about it, she seems disinterested and preoccupied with her phone, leaving James feeling unheard and alone.

Absence of affection and warmth

Children need love, hugs, and physical affection to feel secure and emotionally connected. A lack of these expressions can lead to feelings of emotional isolation and emptiness.

Example: Emily, a 5-year-old, rarely receives hugs or expressions of love from her parents, who are often distant and reserved in their interactions with her, leading Emily to feel unloved and craving for affection.

Absence of affection and warmth

Failure to provide emotional support

When children experience challenging situations, they need emotional support and guidance from their caregivers. Emotional neglect occurs when caregivers are indifferent or unavailable during such times.

Example: Michael, a 12-year-old, is nervous about starting a new school, but when he expresses his worries to his dad, his dad dismisses his concerns, telling him to “just toughen up,” leaving Michael feeling unsupported and anxious.

Inconsistent or absent validation

Emotional neglect can involve dismissing a child’s feelings or minimizing their experiences, making the child doubt the legitimacy of their emotions.

Example: Lily, an 8-year-old, proudly shows her artwork to her mom, but her mom casually brushes it off, saying, “It’s okay, but you could do better.” Lily’s excitement and achievement are invalidated, making her feel unimportant and discouraged.

Lack of attention to emotional development

Emotional growth is crucial for children, and caregivers need to actively engage with them to foster emotional intelligence and coping skills.

Example: Ethan, a 6-year-old, frequently struggles with anger and frustration, but his parents rarely address his emotions or teach him how to cope with them, leaving Ethan without the necessary guidance to manage his feelings effectively.

Exposure to excessive stress or family conflicts

Emotional neglect can occur when children are exposed to chronic family conflicts or stress without adequate emotional support to help them navigate through these difficult situations.

Example: Sarah, a 10-year-old, is exposed to excessive stress and family conflicts as her parents frequently argue and yell at each other over various issues, leading to emotional neglect and feelings of anxiety and helplessness. The hostile atmosphere at home leaves Sarah feeling emotionally unsupported and impacts her overall well-being and emotional development.

What Do The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect Look Like in Adulthood?

What Do The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect Look Like in Adulthood?

Children rely on their caregivers for emotional support, validation, and guidance as they navigate the world and develop their sense of self. When these needs are consistently unmet, it can lead to difficulties in forming healthy relationships, emotional regulation, and self-esteem. Identifying and addressing emotional neglect early on can help mitigate its effects and promote the child’s emotional growth and resilience. However, if you’ve reached adulthood and still experience the effects of emotional neglect in childhood, you’re not alone. Here’s what that might look like:

Lack of emotional responsiveness

Adults who experienced emotional neglect in childhood may find it challenging to express their emotions openly or struggle to connect emotionally with others. They might have a deep-seated fear of being vulnerable, fearing rejection if they share their feelings. As a result, they may suppress their emotions, leading to emotional detachment and difficulty forming meaningful relationships.

Absence of affection and warmth

Adults who grew up without receiving affection and warmth from their caregivers might find it challenging to show love and affection to others, even in close relationships. They may struggle with intimacy and have difficulty feeling emotionally close to their partners or friends. The lack of early nurturing experiences might result in a sense of emptiness and an unmet longing for affection throughout their lives.

What Do The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect Look Like in Adulthood?

Failure to provide emotional support

Adults who haven’t received emotional support during their childhood might struggle with self-compassion and self-care. They might have a strong inner critic and berate themselves during difficult times, feeling undeserving of kindness or empathy. As a result, they may be prone to experiencing anxiety or depression without knowing how to seek emotional support from others.

Inconsistent or absent validation

Adults who experienced inconsistent validation in childhood might have low self-esteem and a constant need for external approval. They might seek validation from others excessively, striving to prove their worth and fearing rejection or disapproval. This need for validation can lead to difficulties asserting themselves and setting healthy boundaries in relationships.

Lack of attention to emotional development

Adults who lacked emotional guidance during childhood might struggle with emotional regulation and coping with stress. They may find it challenging to identify and communicate their feelings effectively, leading to difficulties in resolving conflicts and expressing themselves in a healthy manner. Unresolved emotional issues from childhood can contribute to emotional outbursts or emotional shutdown in adulthood.

Exposure to excessive stress or family conflicts

Adults who grew up in environments filled with excessive stress and family conflicts might experience chronic anxiety or hypervigilance. They may have difficulties trusting others and often anticipate negative outcomes, as their past experiences have led them to associate relationships with turmoil and instability. Such individuals might also find it hard to establish a sense of safety and security in their own lives.

Emotional Neglect in Childhood and Attachment in Adulthood

Emotional Neglect in Childhood and Attachment in Adulthood

Emotional neglect in childhood is closely related to attachment theory, as it significantly impacts the way a child forms and experiences attachment relationships with their caregivers. Attachment theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, explains how early experiences with caregivers shape a child’s emotional development and their ability to form secure, healthy attachments with others throughout life.

When a child experiences emotional neglect, their emotional needs are not adequately met, and they may feel unheard, invalidated, or ignored by their caregivers. This lack of responsiveness and emotional support can have significant implications for the child’s attachment style, influencing how they perceive relationships and emotional intimacy in adulthood. Here’s how emotional neglect relates to attachment:

Attachment Styles

Emotional neglect can lead to different attachment styles in children. Children who experience consistent emotional neglect may develop an insecure attachment style, such as anxious attachment or avoidant attachment. Anxious individuals might crave attention and reassurance, often feeling anxious about rejection or abandonment, while avoidant individuals might become emotionally distant and avoid closeness with others to protect themselves from potential hurt.

Internal Working Models

Emotional neglect affects the internal working models a child develops about relationships and their own worth. These internal working models become the blueprint for how they approach and perceive relationships as adults. For instance, a child who experienced emotional neglect may internalize the belief that their emotions are unimportant or that they are unworthy of love and attention, leading to difficulties in forming healthy, secure attachments in adulthood.

Emotional Neglect in Childhood and Attachment in Adulthood

Emotional Regulation

Emotional neglect can hinder a child’s ability to regulate their emotions effectively. When caregivers are not responsive to a child’s emotional needs, the child may struggle to understand and manage their feelings. As a result, they may have difficulty self-soothing and expressing their emotions in a healthy manner, affecting their ability to navigate relationships in adulthood.

Trust and Intimacy

Emotional neglect can impact an individual’s ability to trust others and experience emotional intimacy. Adults who experienced emotional neglect in childhood may find it challenging to trust that others will be emotionally available or responsive, leading to difficulties in forming deep, meaningful connections with others.

Repetition of Patterns

Without addressing the impact of emotional neglect, individuals may unconsciously repeat relational patterns in adulthood. They might choose partners who are emotionally distant or replicate the same neglectful dynamics they experienced in childhood, perpetuating the cycle of emotional neglect in their own relationships.

Emotional Neglect in Childhood and Attachment in Adulthood

Therapy for Emotional Neglect in Childhood

It’s important to recognize that emotional neglect can have long-lasting effects on attachment and emotional well-being, but with awareness, self-reflection, and professional support through therapy or counseling, individuals can work to heal from the wounds of emotional neglect and develop healthier attachment patterns in their adult relationships.

People of all ages can benefit from therapy that addresses emotional neglect in childhood. Adults can look at the impact on their lives, mourn the childhood that they wish that they had, and develop skills to live the emotionally healthy lives that they desire now.

Learn more about therapy for emotional neglect in childhood.

Find a therapist who can help you work through these challenges by choosing “childhood emotional neglect” from the “what we help” dropdown menu in our therapist directory.