Childhood emotional neglect may impact your adult relationships by making it hard to trust and become close to others, and increasing your chance of experiencing depression and anxiety.
Neglect is the most common form of child abuse. It can be defined as any failure to meet the basic physical or psychological needs of a minor.
Emotional neglect is a form of emotional abuse. It can be identified as repeated patterns where a child’s emotions are ignored, invalidated, dismissed, or minimized.
Emotional neglect can happen when a caregiver is unresponsive, unavailable, or not comfortable with their own emotions.
For example, growing up with a dismissive parent who doesn’t respond to the child’s affection and need for attention may be considered a form of emotional neglect.
Emotional neglect during childhood can affect the way a child perceives their world and themselves, and it can leave lasting scars. This form of neglect can also influence your type of attachment style.
What is an attachment style?
Attachment style vaguely refers to the way you conceive relationships and the type of bonds you tend to form with other people. It’s based on the relationships you had with your primary caregivers.
The concept was originally outlined by John Bowlby in the 1950s as part of the attachment theory.
According to the theory, there are 4 types of attachment styles, divided into secure and insecure types:
- secure: healthy bonds that cause minimum distress
- insecure: relationships that may lead to great distress or friction
- disorganized (fearful-avoidant)
- avoidant (anxious-avoidant, dismissive)
- anxious (anxious-ambivalent, preoccupied)
Childhood emotional neglect is often associated with insecure attachment styles.
The quality of your bond with your primary caregivers in childhood may determine the level of security you have forming adult relationships.
Research from 2016 and 2018 suggests that childhood emotional neglect is most commonly linked to adult anxious-avoidant attachment style. Here’s how:
As a child, when someone you rely on isn’t responsive, your ability to trust others can be impacted.
As an adult, you may experience fear of intimacy or become emotionally unavailable. In some cases, your distrust may lead you to be suspicious of other people’s motives and actions.
Caregivers that aren’t present emotionally may cause you to develop a fierce sense of self-reliance and independence.
In time, you may start having difficulty asking for help or relying on others. You might even prefer not being in committed relationships. If you are, you might act dismissive toward a romantic partner, or feel you don’t need to involve or include that person in your projects.
When you haven’t been exposed to a wide range of emotions as a child, it may make it harder to recognize emotions in others and yourself. Expression of these emotions may also be compromised. This is often referred to as emotional dysregulation.
A lack of exposure to emotions as a child can mean you never learned how to mimic these emotions, explains Rachel Kaplan, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist from New York City.
Modeling behavior or imitating others is one of the main ways children learn about the world.
Eventually, as an adult, you may be unable to identify, acknowledge, or respond to your own emotions or your partner’s.
You might feel uncomfortable in the presence of vulnerability, intimacy, or emotional situations. Or you may have a hard time expressing emotions.
Children who don’t receive, or inconsistently receive, reassurance may never feel totally safe, explains Dr. Judy Rosenberg, a psychologist from Los Angeles.
This can translate to a lack of confidence, despite feeling self-reliant. As an adult, you might be less willing to move out of your comfort zone, avoiding new experiences with a romantic partner.
Not everyone experiences emotional neglect in the same way. What may be significantly distressing for you may not be for someone else.
The effects of childhood neglect on adults may depend on many factors, including:
- emotional support the child may have received from other people
- professional support as the neglect happened or later in life
- exposure to other potentially traumatic experiences
- other role models in the child’s life
Rosenburg and Kaplan explain possible signs of childhood emotional neglect in adults may include:
Some people who’ve experienced childhood emotional neglect may develop personality disorders. For example, histrionic personality disorder.
Dramatic, over-the-top displays of emotion may be a way of gaining attention and the result of low emotional regulation. This may lead someone with histrionic personality to act in specific ways in a relationship.
Emotional neglect may also affect your ability to empathize with others and have insight into your emotions and behaviors. This is why it may also be possible for some people to develop symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
Unclear sense of self
Clouded or unexpressed emotions can make you unsure of what brings you pleasure or self-fulfillment.
You may experience low-self esteem and a sense of disconnect from the world around you. Not having a clear sense of self may cause you emotional distress and friction in relationships.
Underdeveloped coping skills
Being unfamiliar with the act of comforting, you may not be able to self-soothe in times of distress. You may also have a hard time coping with life’s challenges and may resort to unhealthy habits like emotional drinking or substance use.
Depression and anxiety
Not having your emotional needs fulfilled as a child may eventually make you more likely to develop symptoms of depression or other mood episodes. This may also be related to emotional dysregulation.
Not feeling secure in your relationships can also lead you to experience high levels of anxiety. For example, you could develop an urge for perfectionism.
“You may experience panic attacks with agoraphobia; keeping your home very tidy, obsessively cleaning and washing; or being unable to throw anything away because it might be helpful in the future,” says Rosenberg.
Kaplan explains that adults with childhood emotional trauma often have a hard time forming deep, emotionally expressive relationships. They may not be in touch with their feelings and this makes it difficult to fully connect with others’ emotional experiences.
Experiencing the effects of childhood emotional neglect may make you more likely to experience emotional neglect in your adult relationships.
For example, you might be emotionally neglectful toward your partner due to emotional unavailability, or you may enter into relationships with others who are, themselves, emotionally neglectful toward you.
Signs of emotional neglect in a relationship include:
- routine miscommunication or lack of communication
- feeling lonely in the presence of your partner
- inability to comfort others or be comforted during times of distress
- avoiding topics that might lead to emotional conversations
- preferring to be alone or do things alone
- acting without consideration of the other person
- avoiding emotional intimacy or moments of affection
- using the silent treatment to express your disagreement
The effects of childhood emotional neglect on romantic relationships can be challenging to resolve. You might not recognize the impact they’re having on your life. It’s highly advisable to seek the help of a mental health professional.
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) has been effective in helping manage insecure attachment styles.
You can practice recognizing and acknowledging emotions by working on your emotional vocabulary.
“With more words to name your feelings, you can then learn to acknowledge, respond to, and regulate your emotional experience,” says Kaplan.
You can start this process by jotting down a list of possible emotions and assigning them to events throughout the day.
Journaling may also help you identify patterns and practice unfiltered emotional expression.
Cultivating relationships skills
Rosenberg recommends adding meaning to life by focusing on meaningful relationships.
You can help cultivate these bonds, especially with romantic partners, by identifying positive things about the other person.
To help open the emotional connection, you can then take it a step further and explore why you consider a trait, behavior, or hobby they have as positive. Does it bring your joy, as well? Do you find it intriguing? Does it impress you? Do you admire them?
Allowing yourself to experience joy
It’s OK to experience pleasure and enjoyment. If you “like” something, allowing it to become a passion may be a fulfilling experience.
“Often adults with childhood emotional neglect were never given the space to cultivate these parts of their identity, which contributes to this feeling of being lost or unfulfilled,” Kaplan explains.
You can start by identifying one activity you like and dedicating some time during your week to do it, focus on it, and explore it.
Childhood emotional neglect can impact your adult relationships by making it hard to be open, intimate, and trusting with others. Among the many possible effects, you may have developed an anxious attachment style or a personality disorder.
But overcoming the effects of childhood emotional neglect on adulthood is possible.
Practicing emotional recognition, cultivating people skills, and opening yourself to personal experiences of joy can help you reconnect with emotions you weren’t able to experience as a child. Seeking the help of a professional is also advised.