Emotional neglect, that which never was…


Emotional neglect often goes unnoticed. It usually happens quietly and out of sight as opposed to physical neglect where the signs are recognizable, such as bruising or undernourishment. Emotional neglect is not so easy to identify. People generally also don’t recognize within themself it until the symptoms appear in adulthood. Adults when becoming a parent or comparing their own upbringing to that of others, begin to realize that they have missed out on something as a child. This can be an indication of emotional neglect. It’s all about something which never was. Something was missing.

Upbringing and relationships

In childhood, emotional neglect can already begin at birth. Premature or sick babies who require being put in an incubator are deprived of the initial bonding phase with the mother. This can leave an imprint of anxiety and loneliness on the brain, which can continue to be felt in adulthood. 

In a later developmental phase, emotional neglect can manifest as as finding it hard to tune into the child’s own emotions. A young child is not able to identify, let alone name its own emotions. Successful parenting young children is about tuning into a child’s needs and feelings. Resonating with the child in order to ‘translate’ what the child wants to communicate. This way a child can learn from the parent what it means to experience different emotions.

When this doesn’t happen, a child is left on its own to make sense of the emotions that are being experienced. This is where things often go wrong. When there’s no tuning in, a child internalizes the absence of the translating parent as rejection or, ‘there’s something wrong with me’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. When there is a consistent lack of tuning in, feelings of rejection, insecurity and self-criticism begin to take hold in the the child’s identity.

Emotional neglect in an adult relationship

Emotional neglect can also occur in an adult relationship. For instance, if your partner is unable to tune in and understand your feelings, you find yourself stuck in endless explaining or ‘yes it is/no it isn’t’ discussions. Feeling lonely, misunderstood and unheard within the relationship is very common. You are emotionally starving, so to speak. Research shows that most men find it more difficult to tune into their partner emotionally than women do. They find emotions confusing and feel they are being held responsible for feelings they can’t ‘solve’. For both partners, the disadvantage of not being able to share or take emotions seriously will eventually have a negative effect on intimacy.

What also happens is that emotional neglect experienced in the past results in an extreme longing for connection. This may cause some people to make the wrong choice in marriage. Feelings of loneliness, ‘emotional starvation’ or lack of real connection has been part of your identity for so long that you don’t even realize that you’re not getting what you need from this unsuitable partner. Lack of identity, not knowing what you need, low self-esteem and emotional starvation can make you latch onto an unhealthy form of attention or love which can result in a series of broken relationships.

Parental emotional neglect

Parental emotional neglect can take many shapes. A parent with unrealistically high expectations or who doesn’t listen attentively can diminish a child’s ability to understand its own emotions, resulting in self doubt. Invalidation or denial of the child’s emotional experiences contributes to this as well. The ability to understand your own feelings is a skill that you learn from a parent and is something that you needed in order to grow emotionally. A sense of self-worth can only develop when you feel that your emotions and feelings are taken seriously. The good news is that you can learn attunement to yourself in adulthood.

Healing begins by learning how to to identify feelings. Learning to accept and take your emotions seriously is a great skill to help you grow. Feelings and emotions are there for a reason and they have a lot to tell about yourself. Although there are no ‘wrong’ emotions, there are effective and less effective ways to deal with them.

Therapy can be very helpful in during proces.

Author: Natasja Paskas

Certified therapist.


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