Childhood emotional neglect involves overlooking and dismissing some or all the emotional needs of a child — whether deliberately or inadvertently.
Emotional neglect can exist on a spectrum. Some caregivers may be attentive to certain emotional needs of a child but not others, while others may completely neglect the minor’s emotional needs.
In general, emotional neglect during childhood involves inattentiveness to the kid’s emotional development and can have both long- and short-term effects.
Under the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, emotional neglect in childhood is defined as a caregiver’s failure to act, resulting in a higher chance of serious harm for the minor.
Emotional neglect may involve any pattern of behavior or omission that doesn’t allow a child’s emotional needs to be met at a level where they can thrive.
Montina Myers-Galloway, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Charlotte, North Carolina, explains that emotional neglect involves unnoticed or unaddressed emotional needs.
“Children need someone to listen to them, to validate their feelings, to have appropriate expectations for them based on their age, and they need the adults in their life to provide guidance on the challenges they face as they are developing,” she explains.
Examples of emotional neglect may include:
- lack of emotional support during difficult times or illness
- withholding or not showing affection, even when requested
- exposure to domestic violence and other types of abuse
- disregard for a child’s mental well-being
- lack of intervention on the child’s behalf (e.g., allowing behavioral problems to go unaddressed)
- social isolation
- being emotionally unavailable or absent
- ignoring a child
- pushing a child past their mental and physical abilities
Is emotional neglect a form of abuse?
Yes. Emotional neglect can meet the definition of abuse in many circumstances.
Emotional abuse can be any act or failure to act that causes immediate or long-term emotional harm.
While many forms of abuse are deliberate and malicious, emotional neglect can also occur subconsciously due to a caregiver’s:
- emotional intelligence limitations
- history of personal trauma
- health status
- level of self-awareness
Intentional vs. unintentional emotional neglect
Childhood emotional neglect can vary in both cause and severity.
For some caregivers, emotional neglect may be intentional — acts of denying or diminishing emotions to “toughen” up children, for example.
“An intolerance for boys to cry because of gender norms in our society [is an example],” points out Beth Tyson, a psychotherapist specializing in childhood trauma from Media, Pennsylvania. “Crying is a natural response to fear and sadness. When we don’t allow boys to cry, they stifle their emotions, causing behavioral problems down the road.”
It’s also possible that a caregiver isn’t aware they aren’t meeting a child’s emotional needs.
This unintentional form of childhood emotional neglect can stem from past experiences, and the emotional patterns passed down to the caregiver from their guardians.
“Adults with unresolved trauma from their childhood will often be triggered by a child’s emotional needs,” says Tyson. “Especially if the adult experienced emotional neglect or abuse as a child. When we witness our children demanding a need to be met that was not met for us as children, it activates the old memories that the behavior is unacceptable.”
Being uncomfortable with emotions may encourage neglectful behaviors like:
- invalidating children’s pain or emotional expression
- using distractions to stifle or avoid emotional expression
- allowing children to spend an abundance of time on electronics to “stay quiet”
- avoiding eye contact with a child because you’re on your phone
Tyson explains these common behaviors can lead to a lack of emotional connection with your child, may teach them to seek external sources of comfort, and can encourage them to internalize emotions.
She gives another common example of unintentional emotional neglect in the form of telling children: “It’s OK. Don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about.”
“This is a common reaction to a crying child and it is a form of emotional neglect if it happens too frequently,” she says.
Emotional neglect can be challenging to spot and often occurs alongside other forms of abuse.
Signs of emotional neglect in children may include:
- lack of confidence
- social withdrawal
- emotional volatility
- difficulty controlling emotions
- challenges in making and maintaining relationships
- age-inappropriate behavior
Signs of emotionally neglectful behaviors in a caregiver may include persistent:
- indifference toward the child
- mindless behaviors
- substance use
- blaming the child for challenges at home or school
- denying the existence of the child
- viewing the child as “bad” or “worthless”
- acting as if the child is a burden
- using the child to satisfy personal emotional needs
The effects of emotional neglect may vary depending on the specifics of the case.
In 2016, a nationally representative study with adults found childhood emotional maltreatment was associated with an increased chance of experiencing mental health disorders, including:
- anxiety disorders
- substance use disorder
- cluster A, B, and C personality disorders
Myers-Galloway explains that childhood emotional neglect can also show up in adulthood as:
- inability to trust others
- stress internalization
- fear of abandonment
- lack of boundaries and other challenges in relationships
- distorted sense of self
Tyson notes that adults who’ve experienced emotional neglect in childhood may be more likely to repeat the patterns of neglect they were exposed to.
Healing from childhood emotional neglect is possible at any age. These tips may help.
Myers-Galloway suggests starting with self-compassion, the art of being kind to yourself.
“Take some time to think about what your needs are now and know that you deserved to have those needs met, even if your parents were unable or unwilling to meet those needs,” she says.
Remembering that you’ve done the best you can with the resources at hand may also help you be kinder and more empathetic with yourself.
Connecting with unconditional love
If unconditional love was absent from your childhood, having a pet may help cultivate it.
“Pets and time in nature can give you the unconditional love you lacked as a child and has the benefit of feeling safer than relationships with humans,” suggests Tyson. “The pets can be a stepping stone to trusting people.”
Getting a pet comes with lots of responsibility, so it’s important to decide once you know you can properly take care of an animal for the long term.
Tyson also recommends becoming an advocate for those who’ve experienced childhood neglect. She indicates taking action toward preventing the abuse can help provide you with a sense of relief and purpose in what you’ve experienced.
Writing a letter to your past
Writing a letter to you or your caregivers may help you express and process your experience.
“[Try] writing a letter to the people that neglected you expressing your true feelings and then burning it,” says Tyson. “Writing a letter to your younger self and acknowledging the neglect can be extremely powerful in the healing process.”
Tyson adds that journaling, in general, can also be a powerful tool, and working with prompts may make it easier.
Requesting guidance and support
If emotional neglect negatively impacts your day-to-day life and relationships, speaking with a mental health professional may help.
You might also find valuable resources and insight from online and local support groups where you can learn and share with others in similar situations.
Any behavior, inattention, or disinterest that causes a child’s emotional needs to be disregarded could be considered childhood emotional neglect.
While many examples of emotional neglect depend on social and cultural norms, emotional neglect can also be unintentional due to a caregiver’s past trauma and experiences.
Emotional neglect can be a form of abuse, but healing is possible. Advocating for others, practicing self-compassion, and speaking with a professional, may help.