Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is a deep, long lasting wound that is not easily detectable in adults or by those in close relationships with them.

When you have exposure over time to an adult with childhood trauma, you will notice that the person may have trouble communicating emotions or feelings, constantly withdraws instead of exploring feelings, and uses only functional, simple sentences. At first, you may wonder if you have harmed this person by something you’ve said. But when it becomes a continual pattern, it’s best to understand the underlying elements before thinking it’s something you can fix or change.

The truth of this relational dysfunction in adults is that there was some type of parental invalidation of their emotions when they were children. One can imagine a child coming home from school each day and a parent neglecting to process with them, espousing a “seen but not heard” stance. This child learns to not share emotions and cannot gain the capacity or vocabulary to understand what they are feeling.

They have no safe space and instead grow up without receiving the empathy they need for healthy development. This can result in not having a lot of empathy for themselves or others around them. They are a “closed system” and may be unaware of the why behind their lack of healthy communication.

If someone is in a close relationship with an adult who has had CEN, they will notice continual patterns of withdrawal. They will also notice that conflict or the processes of basic daily life is a chore for the CEN adult. They will quickly go into addictions or escapes to avoid any seemingly difficult situation.

The people who are in relationships with them, whether their siblings, children or spouse, are left in a perpetual mode of irresolution with their loved one. Sometimes adults with CEN mimic the persona of a two year old, throwing tantrums instead of being able to process through normal critical thinking, especially if the situation involves emotions. Their loved ones may experience a series of emotional abuses (see signs of emotional abuse) and wonder why there is a disconnect between what is being shared and how it’s taken.

If you are in a relationship with a CEN adult, it’s good to be aware that, in many cases, you may need to provide self-compassion and not expect them to be able to always connect on a mature level. If you see the signs of CEN early on in your relationship, it may be something to consider. You may even want to ask yourself if you should enter into the relationship, since even necessary daily communication may be frustrating.

Hopefully, adults who have suffered neglect can find the tools to learn to process their emotions and find empathy towards themselves and others. But you may not be able to provide those tools — and might risk suffering unintentional emotional abuse in the process.

Sad child photo available from Shutterstock