By Andrea Watson February 24th, 2021
Many of us, especially from my generation, know what it is like to grow up neglected. Today I’m talking specifically about emotional neglect. Even though it is often seen as the same thing, emotional neglect is different than other types of neglect and abuse, because it is often done unintentionally (psychologytoday.com). It is often the case that the parents do their best and love the child deeply, and are still unable to identify their emotional needs and care for them. It happens a lot with parents who were neglected themselves. This is the type of thing that does as much long-lasting damage as any other trauma and can be the reason why we are the way we are. Emotional neglect leaves us incapable of identifying feelings as adults among other things. Today we are going to go over signs of emotional neglect in childhood as well as a few ways to start healing.
Some of these phrases may seem familiar to you: “It wasn’t that bad”, “You don’t really feel that way”, “It’s not worth getting upset about”, or “Stop being so dramatic”. If any of these phrases hit you deeply or in a way that brings back memories, you may have experienced emotional and neglect as a child. As children, we learned that our feelings don’t matter when a parent or both parents devalues, ignores, or questions our emotions when we express them. This can also teach us that there is something deeply wrong with us on a basic level and cause us to transform the unacceptable emotions like anger into an acceptable emotion such as anxiety. This is something we carry into adulthood.
There are signs to look for when you’re questioning whether or not you grew up with an emotional neglect. Some of these are the following:
1. You’re afraid of relying on others and often reject help or support.
2. You have low self-esteem.
3. You believe you are deeply flawed, even though you cannot put your finger on what specifically is wrong with you.
4. You feel guilt or shame about your feelings, you blame yourself almost exclusively for any bad thing that happens, or you turn your anger inward and bury it.
5. You feel numb, empty, or cut off from your emotions and are unable to identify or express them.
6. You don’t have compassion or understanding for yourself and your harder on yourself than you would ever be on a perfect stranger.
7. You just can’t seem to identify your strengths or weaknesses or even your life goals.
8. You’re extra sensitive to rejection.
9. You are easily overwhelmed and often give up quickly.
If any of these things apply to you, then there’s a chance that you grew up experiencing emotional neglect. I remember personally being told as a child that my emotions were too excessive and that I should realize that I wasn’t actually feeling the way I was. Anytime I would cry my mother or sometimes even my father when he was there, would tell me basically to suck it up, that my tears were invalid because I was just being overly dramatic or sensitive. I know now that there were certain things that I lacked developmentally as a child that contributed to my “hypersensitivity”. My parents, aunts, and uncles did not know this just as I didn’t when I was growing up. All they knew is they had a weepy, forlorn child who hated human touch and craved human compassion at the same time.
During my adult years they have mentioned to me how “difficult” of a child I was. Their attitude about my emotions remains the same. When I try to tell them how hard life was for me, how I could not identify or process emotion, or how things hurt, they respond with a roll of the eyes and a nasal snort which tells me that they will never believe that my emotions are valid. Because of this, I have learned the hard way that I cannot rely on any person to do anything for me or with me. I’m absolutely independent and I often reject help and support even when it’s offered and even when I desperately need it.
I grew up mainly with my mother, as my father wasn’t there due to frequent divorces from my mother. They got married, then divorced, then remarried, then divorced again, then remarried once more. This back and forth undoubtedly damaged me somewhat. And my mother just couldn’t seem to care for the emotional needs of me or the three of my sisters. I don’t know if it’s because she had too many kids and just couldn’t handle it, or if she herself was deeply damaged and that caused the problem. All I know is what I have learned through my interaction with my parents or lack thereof, and that is that I am on my own forever.
According to psychologytoday.com, there are some things you can do to start healing from emotional neglect. First, learn to identify your emotions. I know this is way easier said than done. But the experts tell us that without feelings, decision-making is impossible. They say that how we feel directs how we act and the choices that we make. Feelings tell us how we think about the world around us and the people in it. In order to recognize your own feelings, you will likely need the help of a therapist, which is one of their other suggestions for healing. Find a good therapist, and they can help you through dealing with the trauma that the neglect left you with and move on to the greener pastures of recognizing how you feel.
The third and final suggestion from psychologytoday.com about healing from emotional neglect is to identify your needs and ask somebody to fill them. They say they say you should start small, doing things like asking your best friend for a hug when you need one. After you master the small steps, you may feel more comfortable moving on to bigger needs. The point is that we are all valid and that everybody equally deserves to have their needs met. It can be hard as an adult who deals with this type of trauma to manage any type of interpersonal relationship, but it does happen. We often do have partners, friends, and acquaintances that we can turn to when we need to. It’s just hard for us to do so. Breaking down these barriers can be a difficult process and can seem impossible at times. But to start healing, it needs to be done and we need to learn to allow our needs to be met by other people at some point.
Emotional neglect leaves children with psychological scars that last a lifetime. Well it is true that many parents don’t purposely do this, it is nonetheless devastating. Look for the signs that you think I apply to you, and if they do, then know that you are not alone and you can turn to others for support-you just have to be willing to. It will take a lot of hard work, just like anything else worthwhile in life. But after you start to see progress, hopefully your spirits will be lifted and you will start believing in yourself more and more. Everybody deserves to have their emotional needs met, even you, and even me. Until next time,