Childhood Emotional Neglect: When Struggles Come from What Didn’t Happen

By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC

Anxiety, depression and addiction are the most common mental health issues. But many struggle much of their lives feeling inadequate, different, empty, or disconnected from others. Some wonder, “Why on earth do I have this problem? There’s just no reason for me to feel this way.” And so, on top of that problem, they shame themselves for it. For those who grew up in a physically or emotionally abusive home, the struggle is understandable. But what if nothing points to childhood trauma? That can be a psychological double-whammy.

Mental health professionals are increasingly aware of what didn’t happen in childhood. It often involves neglect, a concept usually associated with physical neglect: parents unable to attend to a child’s basic needs, such as feeding, clothing and bathing, because of drug use or some other serious issue. Emotional neglect, though, can be just as damaging, if not more so, because its impact is unseen. Parents who failed to notice and attend to their children’s feelings (whether positive or negative); were emotionally distant, overworked or unavailable; struggled too much with their own issues to pay attention to their child’s; failed to effectively discipline; or always put on a happy face, may emotionally neglect their kids, something that could affect them much of their lives.

In an emotionally healthy family, parents mirror their children’s feelings by reflecting them back. For example, if Johnny is crying because some other kid ran off with his toy, a parent might say, “Wow, that made you really sad, didn’t it?” Done consistently, such responses help the child see that his feelings make sense. And if the child can rely on having her feelings met with acceptance and understanding, she will learn that her feelings count, and most importantly, that she counts. This is how self-esteem develops. There are, in fact, nerve cells in the brain that become activated when our feelings are validated and mirrored by another person. When that doesn’t happen, the child is likely not to learn the importance of her feelings and develop a sense of shame. This emotional trauma can lead to difficulty in forming healthy relationships or cause depression characterized by excessive guilt and self-blame. It also can cause anxiety, marked by a sense of disempowerment and inability to cope, or addiction in which one attempts to avoid feelings by using chemicals.

In emotionally neglectful families, parents don’t notice or minimize the child’s feelings, may not be soothing or compassionate toward the child, may fail to ask him about his wants and needs, or fail to provide discipline. These are all behaviors of absence, not likely to be remembered as an adult. There is no traumatic event or abuse to point to as an explanation. In fact, people suffering the effects of childhood emotional neglect frequently say their childhood was just great and yet struggle greatly with feeling alone, unworthy, guilty and ashamed. They may have a hard time finding enjoyment due to perfectionism and difficulty meeting their own needs. Or they may struggle with self-discipline due to lack of structure and guidance in their upbringing.

Healing from childhood neglect is possible, and is not, by the way, about blaming parents, but rather about understanding what happened, its impact and how to proceed with more self-compassion. For more information, read “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Neglect” by Dr. Jonice Webb,

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