The Invisible Trauma: Childhood Emotional Neglect: Understanding what didn’t happen in childhood, and how it is causing your unhappiness today
When we think of abuse and neglect, it usually brings to mind concrete examples of intentional harm through physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. But there is another common form of mistreatment that often occurs in childhood and goes largely unnoticed. When a child’s emotional needs are routinely overlooked, ignored, invalidated, or unaddressed, we call it emotional neglect.
“But I wasn’t Abused”
Many adults who are dealing with the effects of emotional neglect are hesitant to see there was a problem in the way they were raised, and even remember having good childhoods: their physical needs were met, no one overtly mistreated them, they had a loving family. Emotional Neglect can be difficult to recognize because it most often happens unintentionally. The parent was unable to meet the child’s emotional needs, whether it be the result of an addiction, mental illness, being focused on other things (work, divorce, illness), or simply not having the skills necessary to nurture the child’s emotional experience. In an emotionally neglectful environment, the child is shown their feelings are not important or are wrong. When this occurs, the child learns to detach from and ignore their own feelings, and this continues into adulthood if not addressed.
Here are common signs of Emotional Neglect:
1)You feel empty or disconnected from feelings, you are unable to identify and express feelings
2)You feel guilt or shame about your needs or feelings
3)You fear being dependent on others, and you reject offers of help
4)You do not seem to ‘know’ yourself: your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses
5)You are hard on yourself and give others more compassion than you give yourself
6)You are easily overwhelmed and discouraged
7)You have low self-esteem and are sensitive to rejection
8)You believe you are flawed; feel there is something inherently wrong with you that you cannot name
So What Can I Do About it Now?
Because emotional neglect is caused by caregivers who were not attuned to your emotions and did not acknowledge them adequately, you can start by doing this for yourself. Begin to check in with yourself throughout the day and identify how you are feeling, and why. Avoid judging or criticizing how you feel; work on accepting your emotions. Once you are able to identify, accept, and connect with your emotions, you can learn to support your own needs and communicate them to others.
This process takes time and can be significantly enhanced with the support of a mental health therapist who can help guide you in learning to meet your own emotional needs.
-Webb, J., & Musello, C. (2019). Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect
-Laura Gross, LMSW
Laura Gross is a fully licensed social worker who specializes in teen mental health issues. Contact her at:
Marsh Psychology Group: 248-860-2024