Have you been emotionally neglected?
Do you often feel empty, lonely and not connected?
Are you missing a sense of fulfillment in your life?
Do you often wonder what’s the value of life for you?
You might have been emotionally neglected in your childhood – without being aware of it.
Many people have been emotionally neglected in their childhood, but are not aware of it.
Childhood emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
Emotional neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse. Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to act. That is what Dr Jonice Webb says, author of the book “Running on Empty”).
Emotional childhood neglect is a form of complex, structural traumatization that often is not recognized. Children don’t remember childhood neglect experiences, because it is about things that did not happen but should have happened. Childhood neglect is about the emotional needs of the child being unmet by the parents. It did not happen and therefore it is not remembered.
Instead the child experiences feelings of emptiness and loneliness and a sense of not being fulfilled.
And these symptoms may occur later in adulthood as well. Even if someone who has been emotionally neglected seems to be pretty okay, and maybe even if they seem to be succesful. But there is a sense of emptiness, the absence of fullfillment in life, and people don’t know why they can’t have fullfillment in life. They may even feel depressed but don’t know why.
If you ask them about their childhood education they say: I had a good childhood, we had a beautiful home, I had my own room, or I shared my room with my sister or brother, we had toys, and pets, we went on holiday we went to school had good clothes and good food…… but I simply feel empty and not fulfilled.
They may think: “Maybe I was abused and maybe I just don’t remember it. Could this be true?”
This emptiness and sense of not being fulfilled emotionally, and not knowing how to create emotional fulfillment: that is a symptom of emotional neglect.
It’s not about what parents have done to their children, but it’s about what parents failed to do for their children. And that brings the feelings of emptiness and unfulfillment in the child and later in the adult as well.
Let me give you some examples:
1. May be that your parents don’t allow themselves to feel their emotions and therefore they don’t know how to deal with your feelings either.
2. Or your parents may have been what is called “self absorbed”. They have insufficient time and attention for what’s going on inside you because they need all their time for themselves.
3. Or your parents are too permissive:
Let me give you an example:
I remember a mother with her son. Her son was asking her things and tried to get her attention, but she ignored him completely, and told others that she gave him complete freedom. That was the way she covered up for her emotionally neglecting style of dealing with him. He could do whatever he wanted and she was fine with it, as long as she felt free to do what she wanted instead of taking care of the emotional needs and the requests of her son.
4. Or were your parents are abusive, maybe they are pathological narcissists, and the emotional neglect is only a part of the entire traumatization that their children undergo. The child may in addition to the emotional neglect have to face mental and emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse.
If your parents were/are emotional neglecting and not abusive, you still may perceive your childhood as great, and everybody else may even be jealous of you, because they think you have such great parents…. but YOU do feel emotionally unfulfilled. And if this is your inner truth you probably are the only one who is aware of it.
What are effects of emotional neglect?
As an effect of structural emotional neglect, children start to reject or hide their own emotions about the unmet needs. And that becomes their survival strategy and their normal way of being in the world and in their relationships – with all its consequences like depression and anxiety or concentration problems, learning problems, problems with relationships and more.
Why do you have all these feelings and emotions?
The point is that all your feelings have a function. Even your suppressed or unacknowledged emotions and needs and desires have functions:
1. It helps you to know what you want, and to go for it, which motivates you to get into action. Getting what you want may help you to feeling fulfilled, gratefull, or proud that you have accomplished something. It breeds self respect, a positive self image and self esteem. In time it breeds confidence that you are able to deal with life, whatever life throws at you.
2. This motivation helps you to develop your talents and capacities
3. It helps you to prevent damage
4. It is needed to be able to feel connected with others, and with self and build relationships
When these feelings have to be suppressed and rejected because they are not met, this also creates a lot of confusion. You may ask: Why do I feel this way? Why am I depressed? Why does life seem to be without value for me? You may tend to procrastinate, and you may have not much self-discipline, because that happens to you when you are not connected to the feelings and emotions that motivate you to go for what you really want.
In time it is the pain of the emptiness and the loneliness and the lack of connection that may bring you in action. Finally, hopefully it gets you to start a quest to figure out what’s going on and what’s needed to overcome all this emptiness and senselessness and feeling of being alone, and unconnected…..
Criticizing your parents about emotional neglect or not?
When you go into therapy, you might feel a need to protect your parents against criticism by the therapist, because you still believe that you have had a great childhood. You only wonder why do you feel so rotten? It can’t be your parents! And it may be true that in many aspects your parents were great towards you. This really might be true. You also may feel guilty or ashamed to criticize your parents and maybe you even believe it makes you a bad child to feel so negative.
The point is that parents of emotionally neglected children often have had the same experiences themselves in their own childhood. In other words: their parents did screw it up for them as well. Often these problems run through families from generation to generation to generation. Therefore it would be hard to say that they are to blame. It’s often nobody’s fault, allthough there are people with really bad intentions and they are to blame for what they intentionally do. But… whether it is your parents fault or not, it definitely is your challenge to find a way to deal with it, and make the difference not only in your own life, but as well in the life of your personal environment and if you have children yourself: for the next generation.
A lot of emotionally neglecting parents are people who really do what they can with their children. They love their children. So your parents might have given you everything they could when it comes to materialistic things, and education, and holidays. But they failed to recognize and value your emotional needs. They have blind spots.
Examples of neglected emotions:
For example: they were unable to comfort you when you were in tears or frightened, or they were unable to hug and cuddle you when you needed it.
You have to be able to learn to accept the explanation that your problems came from your parents, even if you don’t want to blame them, because if you don’t, you will blame yourself for having your problems and that is not going to help you. That is just another way to hurt yourself.
How can you recognize if there is emotional neglect in your family?
One of the ways you may recognize emotional neglect is when in the family no one talks about the feelings of loss when somebody has died. Whatelse do they not talk about? Whatelse do they not recognize nor acknowledge? If parents who don’t talk about the loss of their own parents: their sadness or fear is not acknowledged.
For example: To experience pain is not speakable. This for instance counts when parents have had warcamp experiences: pain is not acknowledged after horrible war traumata. After wartrauma parents often do care physically, but not emotionally. That capacity maybe got lost in the war, or it maybe has been lost before the war and is part of the family tragedy.
In some families it’s only the negative emotions that are not allowed, and in some families the positive emotions are not accepted either.
“When will you finally take me into account instead of being so happy” or instead of celebrating or instead of being excited about something. “Don’t dance, because I don’t like how I feel when you dance.”
What are the consequences of emotional neglect?
When even your positive emotions also are not acknowledged nor respected, what is left for you to use to build your motivation? Of course you get to procrastination and to a loss of motivation, and to a loss of personal discipline.
People who have been emotionally neglected often have difficulty to assert themselves to get what they want. They perceive other peoples wants and needs as more important than theirs. They give themselves up, or move themselves out of the equation and accept situations just as it is- however unsatisfying it may be for themselves.
Other symptoms of emotional neglect may be very quickly feeling guilty about something, like wanting something. Or feeling shame about self when they want something. They blame themselves for wanting something.
Many people feel ashamed for having feelings. They fight their feelings and don’t want to feel them. They think something is wrong with them because they feel something when actually it says something about the way their parents were unable to deal with their feelings, emotions, needs and wants. And when children (and adults) start to suppress and ignore their own feelings, emotions, needs, wants and desires themselves, they repeat what their selectively ignoring parents have done to them.
How to recognize emotional neglect?
How can you recognize what type of emotional neglect is done to you? You can by observing how you do the same to yourself. In other words: observe how you neglect your own emotions, and bodily sensations.
And when you observe how you do the same, you can learn how to change that. And that will make all the difference in the world. First do it for yourself by reclaiming all your emotions and by revalidating them. These emotions will give you a lot of necessary information. It helps you to know what you want, what you need, it points out a path for you through life so you can have a valuable life and enjoy it. Your feelings have a function: they have a message for you, and it’s up to you to decode the message and to decode who you are at your deepest levels. If you do, it helps you to become authentic.
And when that happens, you can acknowledge true feelings and emotions an desires in others in your environment as well. This way you will generate your own circles of influence around you. People who pick this up and start to acknowledge their own full range of emotions and feelings will start to influence others as well and gradually a culture will change into a bigger sensitivity to feelings, emotions, needs, wants and desires, so these can be experienced openly and assertively while being connected to self and others.