Emotional neglect, that which never was…
This type of neglect often goes unnoticed because it usually happens quietly and out of sight. As opposed to physical neglect where the signs are recognizable, such as bruising or undernourishment, emotional neglect can be very difficult to identify. In general, it is also not recognized by the person experiencing it until the symptoms appear in adulthood.
In adulthood, perhaps as the result of becoming a parent yourself or comparing your own upbringing to that of others, you begin to realize that you have missed out on something as a child. This can be an indication of emotional neglect. It’s all about something which never was.
Upbringing and relationships
With children, emotional neglect can already begin at birth. Premature or sick babies who require being put in an incubator are deprived of the initial bonding phase with the mother. This can leave an imprint of anxiety and loneliness on the brain, which can continue to be present in adulthood.
In a later developmental phase, emotional neglect can be characterized as a lack of the ability to tune in to emotions. A child is not able to identify or name its own emotions. When a parent tunes into a child’s needs and feelings, the child then learns from the parent what it means to experience different emotions. However, if this doesn’t happen, the child is left on its own to make sense of the emotions that are being experienced. This is where things often go wrong. The child internalizes the fact that the parent is unable to tune in or emotionally connect and interprets this as rejection or, ‘there’s something wrong with me’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. When there is a consistent lack of tuning in, a foundation of feelings of rejection, insecurity, shame and self-criticism begin to take hold in the the child’s identity.
Emotional neglect can also occur in an adult relationship. For instance, even if you are communicating with your partner about how you feel, your partner is unable to understand your feelings and you find yourself stuck in endless ‘yes it is/no it isn’t’ discussions. In the long term this leads to a sense of loneliness within the relationship. You are emotionally starving, so to speak. Research shows that most men have more difficulty than women with emotions and feelings. They find them confusing, feel they are being held responsible for things they can’t solve, are not really in touch with themselves and generally have more affinity for things than for people. For both partners, the disadvantage of not being able to share or take emotions seriously will eventually have a negative effect on intimacy. What can also happen is that emotional neglect experienced in the past results in an extreme longing for connection that may cause one to make wrong partner choices. Feelings of loneliness, ‘emotional starvation’ or lack of real connection and intimacy have been part of your identity for so long that you don’t even realize that you’re not getting what you need from this unsuitable partner. The lack of own identity, knowing yourself and what you need, low self-esteem and the emotional starvation can make you latch onto an unhealthy form of attention or love which can result in a series of broken relationships and further damage.
Emotional neglect can take many shapes ranging from a parent with unrealistically high expectations, or who doesn’t listen attentively, to the invalidation or denial of the child’s emotional experiences. All of these things bring about self-doubt in the child. When a parent sufficiently provides for the child’s physical needs, but is not emotionally tuned in, the child doesn’t learn how to understand or take their own emotions seriously. The ability to do this is a skill which is ideally learned from a parent and is something that a child needs in order to grow up with a healthy sense of self. A sense of self-worth can only develop when you feel that your emotions and feelings are taken seriously.
One pitfall of emotional neglect is the feeling that you don’t really have anything to complain about since you think that no real injustice or abuse has occurred. Instead, you tend to think: ‘It was not so bad, others had things much worse or, everyone had something’. Trivializing emotional neglect really amounts to denial. However, the consequences of this, as already described, are impossible to deny. This is why it’s so important to take emotional neglect seriously.
Symptoms of emotional neglect
- desensitization or loss of contact with your own emotions and needs
- the feeling that something is missing without knowing exactly what is is
- feelings of emptiness
- little or no development of talents
- easily overwhelmed or discouraged
- low self-esteem
- extremely sensitive to rejection
- lack of clarity about expectations of others and yourself
Being raised and the effects on your emotional status
In bringing up children, most parents mean well, simply didn’t know any better or just did what they could in any given situation. In most cases, there was no question of bad intentions or psychopathology with the parents. Rather, it was more likely that they were emotionally immature or underdeveloped. Some people may have experienced emotional neglect themselves as children, and have little to give emotionally.
There are, however, parenting styles with certain characteristics which lend themselves to emotional neglect.
Authoritarian parents want their children to follow rules and have little inclination or time to listen to a child’s needs. Adults who were raised by authoritative parents often rebel against authority or become submissive. Especially before the 1960’s, the motto with regard to raising children was: ‘Children are to be seen and not heard and may say something when the adults have finished speaking’. Raising children in those days was a matter of teaching proper behavior and adjustment. The average parent had no notion of the necessity for a child to develop his or her own identity, personality and the importance of being allowed to set boundaries.
Tolerant parents have a ‘whatever happens’ attitude towards the upbringing of their child. Emotionally, the child is left on its own. Parents sometimes find it small-minded to provide an emotionally mature example, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge, skills, energy, interest or patience required in order to talk to a child about how to deal with emotions. Children who are brought up by tolerant parents often have difficulty establishing boundaries and limits for themselves in adulthood. People like this might find themselves in a never-ending state of puberty or student life, and are too immature and unable to build an adult life with a career or family. They lack a sense of responsibility towards others and remain childlike. Or they become overly responsible because no one took responsibility for them and they learned to be responsible at a very young age. As they reach adulthood, these children have difficulty setting and communicating boundaries to others, and run the risk of falling prey to people who want to use them for their own gains.
Perfectionists tend to believe that their children can always do things better, different or more. These are parents who criticize and correct rather than provide guidance. This results in the child learning that whatever they do or don’t do can always be better in their parent’s opinion. This is especially the case when there is too little positive feedback which is not solely centered around their accomplishments. Children with parents like this can turn into perfectionists with unrealistically high expectations for themselves. They develop a strict inner critic, which causes anxiety and the feeling that you are ‘never good enough’.
There are different reasons why a parent can be absent, such as: death, illness, divorce, a demanding job or frequent travel. Parents can also be emotionally absent and be unaware of what their child may be going through. They are present but don’t give guidance on an emotional level. The eldest child is sometimes called on to help with the upbringing of the younger siblings. These children are often overly responsible and this carries over into their adult lives. They come across as little adults, overburdened with worries about themselves, others and the rest of the world.
It is very possible that your parents were a combination of the above-mentioned examples.
Healing emotional neglect
Healing begins by learning how to tune in to your own emotions and feelings. Change can begin when your awareness of what you feel grows and you give yourself permission to experience these feelings. Feelings are identified when they are recognized and given a name. The ability to identify feelings is a skill that can be learned, and with that you learn to accept and take your emotions seriously. Feelings and emotions are there for a reason and they have a lot to tell about yourself. Although there are no ‘wrong’ emotions, there are effective and less effective ways to deal with them.
Ready to take the next step in the healing process?
You may have recognized yourself in what’s been described so far, and may have a desire to improve your relationship with yourself as well as with others. Are you looking for support in this process? You can find it here in the practice. Making an appointment with the practice for an initial consultation would be an excellent first step.