Early life experiences can have a lasting impact, particularly when you’ve felt unloved as a child. But healing from an unloving childhood is possible.
There’s no right or wrong way to respond to being an unloved child. We all do the best we can with the resources at hand.
One thing is certain, though: Such a significant experience will likely affect you on a deep level.
But overcoming the pain of feeling your parents didn’t love you is possible. It may be a long process, but feeling better about your past, yourself, and your relationships can be achieved.
Emotional pain from not receiving love as a child can manifest in many ways, whether you’re aware of it or not.
You may feel empty or numb, or you live with depression and anxiety. Unresolved trauma can find a way to show in your life.
These steps may help you heal.
Nurture your inner child
You may want to start with the basics.
“Start by identifying the child within that feels uncared for,” advises Lily Thrope, a clinical social worker in New York City. “Identify how you can care for and nourish that child now.”
In fact, learning to reparent yourself is important.
“You say the statements to yourself that you most needed to hear from your parents, and you learn to provide yourself with the love, validation, and support that you always needed,” says Avigail Lev, a psychologist in San Francisco, California.
Nurturing your inner child also involves remembering you weren’t at fault — not then, not now.
“Look at a 2-year-old child. If their parent doesn’t love them, would you blame the child?” says Susan Birne-Stone, a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York. “If you have a picture of yourself as a child, look at it. See how young and loveable you were. It was not your fault.”
Understand your parents
It’s not about accepting or justifying hurtful behaviors, but rather exploring the reasons behind those.
“Think about what your parent(s) must have experienced […] for them to become an unloving parent,” says Birne-Stone.
Recognizing that they may have gone through trauma themselves may help you realize that the way they treated you wasn’t personal. Rather, it was a symptom of what they experienced themselves and had nothing to do with you.
Validate your pain
What you feel is natural, valid, and not uncommon.
“Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel exactly how you do,” says Kailey Hockridge, a clinical counselor in Los Angeles, California. “Sometimes our feelings weren’t acknowledged or validated in ways that felt meaningful when we were kids, and doing so for ourselves as adults can be powerful.”
It may be a good idea to explore if you’re still expecting something from your parents that they aren’t capable of providing, says Wendy Pitts, a clinical social worker in Baltimore, Maryland.
“One of the most healing moments for adults who were unloved as children is when they realize that how they were treated is a reflection of the adults who mistreated them, not the child they were.”
Realizing that there’s nothing you can be or do that may lead your parents to show you love can be a liberating feeling. Being an unloved child isn’t something you cause or deserve.
Try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
“This evidence-supported mental health intervention helps untangle the past and present,” explains Jessica Tappana, a clinical social worker in Columbia, Missouri. “People are able to go back and heal some of those childhood hurts.”
Even though you’re not able to change what happened, EMDR may help you work on how you feel about it.
“Most importantly, [you] start to identify the links between the past and present so when something reminds you of feeling rejected by a parent […] you can respond to what is actually happening rather than responding how you did as a child,” explains Tappana.
It may be a good idea to remind yourself you’ve done and continue doing the best you can at any given moment.
“It’s difficult to go from self-criticism to self-love, but all self-compassion needs to look like is trying to not put ourselves down,” says Hockridge.
“First, accept that your needs weren’t met and have some compassion for where you’re at today,” says Trish Glynn Carey, a mental health counselor in Spring Hill, Florida. “Acknowledge what happened to you and use that understanding to release any shame or self-blame you might be carrying.”
This realization that the challenges you face today may be a natural consequence of what you experienced as a baby can help you switch your focus to what comes next.
“Appreciate that regardless of what took place in the past, things can be different going forward, that you can exact change,” adds Carey.
Childhood trauma can affect your adult relationships. You could reproduce behavioral patterns or connect with people who behave as unlovingly as your parents did.
Becoming aware of this is the first step to healing.
Assess your current relationship patterns
Try to identify if any of your connections are with a controlling or abusive partner, for example.
Lev emphasizes the importance of identifying patterns that could reinforce some of the core beliefs you may have about what you deserve or about what relationships are about.
“Learning how to create relationships that are reciprocal, safe, fair, supportive, and loving is crucial for you to heal,” she adds.
Clarifying your relationship values may also help, says Lev. “Hold yourself accountable to acting consistent with your values and finding people who behave consistently with the values you share. Learn how to end relationships with toxic people who are not in alignment with your values.”
Rely on yourself first
You deserve love and support. And that may have to start with yourself.
“If you’re looking for […] approval in others you may never feel fully satisfied,” explains Tappana. “Instead, you can do for yourself what your parents should have done and that’s to communicate to yourself that you matter.”
For this, Tappana recommends:
- developing a routine that meets your own needs
- constantly reminding yourself that you deserve to be cared for
- exploring how you feel through journaling
Accept how you feel
If you’re still in contact with your parents or caregivers, Carey says it’s natural to feel love for them as well as any other emotion, including anger or sadness.
“You can feel one or all of these emotions. No matter how you feel, it’s OK and you don’t have to justify it to yourself or anyone,” she says. “Pay attention to what you’re feeling and use that as a guide for what your relationship will look like going forward.”
“So, if you feel a lot of resentment and upset, then lower your expectations, limit your contact, and set a strong boundary,” adds Carey.
Consider interpersonal therapy
Psychotherapy is an evidence-based strategy for different mental and emotional challenges. It can help you identify hurtful behavioral patterns as well as develop effective coping skills.
“[Interpersonal psychotherapy] focuses on the value of relationships in one’s development,” says Thrope.
She explains it can help you develop new connections or identify those you already have that may fill in for the ones you missed earlier on.
The approach combines some of the techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy but focused on attachment styles.
“Creating these new nurturing relationships allows you to heal some of the attachment issues you might be dealing with,” adds Thrope.
It’s natural and not uncommon to doubt yourself and wonder whether you weren’t loved by your guardians because of something you are or did. This may lead you to think negatively about yourself.
Removing the filter that distorts how you see yourself may be important.
Change thought patterns
“If you’re an adult who grew up experiencing an invalidating, neglectful, or abusive childhood, you likely learned to make assumptions about yourself, others, and the world in an effort to protect yourself from being hurt,” explains Dr. Carole Goguen, a psychologist in Altadena, California.
“While these thought patterns may have protected you […] as a child or adolescent, they may be harmful in your world today.”
Learning to identify what assumptions you make of your world can help you revert negative patterns.
“Ask yourself if you have objective evidence for your thoughts,” says Goguen. “Recognizing and changing patterns of assumptions is not easy but with practice and help from a therapist, you can do it.”
Correcting your own negative statements can also help.
“The next time you hear yourself saying that you’re not good enough, for example, try saying ‘I’m just as good as everyone else.’ If you say to yourself that you’re a bad person, try reframing that to ‘I’m just a person’,” says Hockridge.
“These neutral, almost observational statements can take the edge off of negative thoughts.”
Put it in writing
Discovering your intrinsic value is important for healing, says Pitts. She often asks her clients to make a list of positive traits, even when the exercise can be difficult for someone who was an unloved child.
“I’ll sometimes suggest […] they write something they’ve accomplished, that they’re proud of, or a personality trait that they believe makes them a good person,” she explains.
“On the difficult days when they need to be reminded that they’re good people deserving of love, they have a list of what they believe makes them worthy, in their own handwriting.”
Overcoming the hurts of being an unloved child is possible. It starts with awareness of the effects it’s had on your life, and continues with a conscious effort to heal your pain, relationships, and how you see yourself.
“Healing takes time. But, you can heal,” says Tappana. “And you deserve to heal. So be patient with yourself and find a support system that you can be open and vulnerable with throughout the healing process.”