What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

By Wasim Kakroo

Since children do not have a vocabulary and/or mental faculty available to them to express how they feel when they are neglected by their parents/family members/caregivers, we as adults may overlook the impact of our neglect on the mental health of such neglected children until the neglect they felt during their childhood does not show it’s detrimental effects vividly in their lives as adults and by that time, it might be too late or it might become too difficult to undo the damage. The failure of parents or caregivers to respond to a child's emotional needs is known as childhood emotional neglect. Neglect like this can have long-term as well as short-term, almost immediate implications.

It is critical for parents, teachers, caregivers, and others to understand why childhood neglect happens. It's also useful to understand what it looks like in a child who is experiencing it, as well as what can be done to fix it or assist a child in overcoming it.

Continue reading to see why this occurs in childhood and what it can lead to in adulthood.

What is childhood emotional neglect (CEN)?

When a child's parent or parents fail to adequately meet their child's emotional needs, this is known as childhood emotional neglect. Emotional neglect is not the same as emotional abuse in children. Abuse is frequently premeditated; it is a conscious decision to cause harm to another person. Emotional neglect can range from a deliberate disrespect for a child's feelings to a failure to act or notice a child's emotional needs. Parents who emotionally neglect their children may still provide care and all the necessities, such as good food, good schooling, toys etc to their children. They just miss out on or mishandle the emotional needs of their children.

An example of CEN would be a child who tells their parent how sad they are about a friend at school. Instead of listening and helping the child to deal with the difficult feelings, the parent dismisses it as a childhood game. Such a child may gradually learn that their emotional needs are unimportant and hence may cease asking for help.

Children's reactions to emotional neglect can be subtle. It's possible that parents are unaware of their actions. Similarly, other important people in the lives of children such as teachers may struggle to identify the subtle signs. Severe cases are more easily detected and may attract the most attention. Less serious ones may go unnoticed.

What are the causes of Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Parents who are not physically violent but emotionally neglect their children are usually going through a difficult time themselves in their personal lives. Connecting with others becomes incredibly difficult in times of stress, and parents may find themselves unable to create secure bonds with their children. When parents are dealing with mental illness, intense stress, or external pressures such as work, spousal abuse, poverty, or police service, they may be unaware that they are neglecting their children emotionally.

Parents may emotionally neglect their children for the following reasons:

1. Parents who have been neglected or abused as children may not know how to care for their children.

2. A parent's absence from the family may be due to work, military service, or jail.

3. Addiction or mental illness might make it difficult for a parent to pay attention to their child.

4. Extreme stress and/or violence in the family can disrupt parent-child relationships.

5. A parent's death, or any traumatic death in the family, might create an outpouring of grief throughout the family.

How does Childhood Emotional Neglect affect the mental health of children?

Emotional neglect in children can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from subtle to overt. At first, much of the damage caused by emotional neglect is undetectable. However, the consequences may become apparent over time.
The following are the most common symptoms of emotional neglect in children:

1. depression

2. anxiety

3. apathy

4. failure to succeed

5. aggressiveness

6. hyperactivity

7. developmental delays

8. substance abuse

9. low self-esteem

10. withdrawing from social interactions and activities

11. seeming uncaring or uninterested

12. poor emotional intimacy or closeness

What impact does childhood neglect have on adults?

Adults who have been emotionally neglected as children may have to face its consequences as adults. They may have difficulty in relationships later in life, feeling chronically distant and misunderstood. They may not know how to deal with their emotions as adults because their emotional needs were not met as children.

The following are some of the most common consequences of childhood neglect in adulthood:

1. post-traumatic stress disorder

2. depression

3. they may be emotionally unavailable

4. difficulty regulating emotions

5. perfectionism

6. increased sensitivity to rejection

7. dissociative tendencies

8. increased likelihood for eating disorder

9. avoiding intimacy and closeness

10. feeling deeply, personally defective

11. feeling empty and hollow inside

12. lacking in self-control

13. feeling shame and guilt

14. hostile and aggressive behaviors

15. having trouble trusting or relying on others

16. Lack of clarity about what others expect of you and what you expect of yourself

Adults who were emotionally neglected as children may become parents who neglect their children emotionally. They may not know how to nurture emotions in their children since they never learnt the value of their own
emotions while growing up as children.

People of all ages can overcome the effects of emotional neglect in the short term and prevent future complications by receiving effective treatment and recognizing their own experiences of childhood emotional neglect.

How to treat Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Childhood emotional neglect may make it hard for such an individual to understand emotions and relationships, hence effective healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect should include activities such as working on and building emotional intelligence, developing appropriate emotional regulation skills, and forging healthy relationships. Certain symptoms may be alleviated by medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, but healing from neglect requires more effort than just taking medicines.

There are certain modes of therapy that can be offered to such individuals who have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect:

1. Individual Therapy:

One of the best methods to heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect is to find a therapist who has an experience of working with attachment, trauma, and neglect. Individual therapy will equip one with coping skills as well as regulating skills so that they manage the symptoms of childhood neglect they are currently experiencing.
Effective therapy will also help the client to delve into the past to identify patterns of early neglect that may have been beneficial at some time in the past, such as a child withdrawing to avoid the pain of a parent rejecting their needs for attention or love. Therapy can reveal how a pattern of shutting down that was beneficial as a child becomes problematic as an adult, preventing a person from connecting with partners or even their own children. Individual therapy can also provide a secure atmosphere in which a person can learn and practice how to feel and regulate their emotions.

2. Family therapy:

The impact of one family member's struggle on the entire family system is recognised in family therapy, particularly family therapy based on a family systems approach. As a result, healing occurs when the entire family works together to grow and heal. To establish a more healthy structure, family therapy encourages members to listen to one another and collaborate.
Parents can use family therapy to heal wounds from their own childhood while also modifying their parenting to create a new pattern of emotional wellness in the family. If needed, family therapy can be done alongside individual therapy.

3. Parenting workshops:

Parenting workshops can be a great approach to help parents develop the skills they need to nurture their children emotionally. Attendees learn about child development, healthy discipline, and strategies to emotionally nurture and support their children in parenting programmes. Parenting workshops can be especially beneficial for parents who have been abused or neglected as children. There are also several parenting books and tools available on the internet that can help such parents to develop healthy parenting practices.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can harm a child's self-esteem and mental health. It can instill in them the belief that their feelings are unimportant. The effects of this neglect might be severe and long-lasting. Treatment for Childhood Emotional Neglect can help such neglected children overcome feelings of emptiness and inability to manage their emotions. Parents can also improve their relationships with their children in order to break the intergenerational cycle of abuse.


  • The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar). He can be reached at 8825067196

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