Childhood emotional neglect is a type of emotional abuse that often goes unrecognized and unreported. This form of child maltreatment is not always obvious because few people talk about it or know what signs to look for.
Being emotionally neglected can be a devastating experience. Not only can this childhood trauma affect the child’s sense of self, their capacity to trust and their ability to build healthy relationships, it can also affect a child’s health. The effects of psychological abuse can carry over to one’s adult life.
In the US, child neglect includes physical, medical, educational and emotional neglect1. Parental neglect causing harm to a child through the lack of care or supervision is a criminal act as defined by Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA, 1996).
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? (Definition Of Neglect)
Child emotional neglect (CEN) is the parent’s failure to meet their child’s emotional needs during the early years. It involves unresponsive, unavailable, and limited emotional interactions between that person and the child. Children’s emotional needs for affection, support, attention, or competence are ignored.
CEN also occurs when the parent or primary caregiver exposes the child to extreme domestic violence, allows the child to engage in maladaptive behaviors, refuses to seek treatment for the child’s emotional problems, or doesn’t provide them with adequate structure.
Maternal deprivation, such as being institutionalized or placed in an orphanage, is also a form of emotional neglect. Children of absent parents may also experience similar neglect.
Effects of Emotional Neglect in Childhood
Child emotional neglect is a form of psychological maltreatment. It is also one of the most prevalent type of abuse2. Despite the lack of overt traumatic events, experiencing emotional neglect as a child can be just as damaging as abuse3. In fact, studies indicate that CEN might have the most wide-ranging negative mental health impact among all childhood maltreatment types. It is associated with adverse physical, psychological and educational outcomes.
The short-term consequences of neglect include increased risk for childhood internalizing and externalizing behavior, as well as delays in cognitive and emotional development.
Amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for learning the emotional significance. It affects arousal reaction to environmental stimuli4. When a child experiences severe forms of CEN during early brain development, such as institutional rearing, amygdala becomes bigger in volume and more reactive.
As a result, individuals raised by neglectful parents tend to have worse mental health outcomes in the long term. A child’s perception of neglect is important. When a child perceives they’re being emotionally neglected, they are twice as likely to develop psychiatric disorder at age 15, including the development of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety symptoms, panic disorder, phobias, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotionally neglected adolescents are more likely to have poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky sexual activity, and suicide attempts.
Emotional neglect is often transgenerational5. Parents who have been neglected by their own parents tend to adopt similar parenting styles when raising their own children.
Signs Of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Unlike physical neglect or abuse, neglectful parenting doesn’t have outward signs such as bruises or injuries. Despite individual differences, emotionally neglected people tend to show certain behavioral patterns. In addition, abuse experiences are often accompanied by other types of abuse, such as physical abuse or sexual abuse, which tend to have more obvious signs.
17 Signs of emotionally neglectful parents6
- Speak with a cold and unfriendly tone
- Unresponsive to the child’s feelings
- Dismiss the child’s emotions
- Don’t talk to child very much
- Spend little time with the child and make them feel they are unwanted
- Less positive feedback or praise
- Express less affection
- Show less positive social interactions
- Disengaged and uninvolved in the child’s life
- Lack of interest in children’s activities
- Persistently find fault with their child
- Ignore the child’s cues for help in problem-solving tasks
- Offer no encouragement when the child fails a task
- Verbally aggressive discipline
- Addicted to substance misuse
- Show depressive symptoms
- Suffered from emotional neglect themselves in their own childhood
20 Signs of Child Emotional Neglect in children7,8
- Insecure-avoidant attachment pattern, disorganized attachment, and, in extreme cases, attachment disorder
- Show passive, withdrawn and aggressive behavior pattern with their parents
- Suffer from child development delay, failure to thrive
- Negativity during parent-child interactions and anger towards parent
- Significantly less positive social interaction
- Delay in language development
- During free play, anger towards parent
- Avoid interactions with other children
- Poor peer relationships
- Disruptive and impulsive behavior, including aggression, hostility and oppositional
- Lower cognitive functioning
- Low self-esteem
- Shame, humiliation, and feelings of worthlessness
- Attention problems
- Higher rates of dissociation
- More behavioral issues, including conduct disorder symptoms
- Less emotional knowledge, difficulty recognizing angry faces9
- Symptoms of depressive disorder10
- Symptoms of anxiety disorder
- In severe cases, the child develops symptoms resembling autism, such as stereotypical rocking and self-soothing
Note that whether a child is emotionally neglected needs to be evaluated by qualified specialists. If you suspect or observe signs of neglect, report to the authority as soon as possible.
How To Overcome and Heal From Emotional Neglect In Childhood
Child maltreatment ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) can have a significant impact on one’s adult well-being. A child’s emotional experiences can affect their future adult relationships.
Family therapy with trained mental health professionals can help both the neglectful parents and the neglected child. Therapy can help parents understand the severe impact of their neglect. The therapist can also teach the child proper coping mechanism. Through early intervention, behaviors that lead to neglect may be modified and corrected.
The symptoms of childhood neglect usually improve when neglected children are subsequently cared for by loving family members, especially before age two.
Parents who had neglectful early childhood experiences themselves can also benefit from other’s emotional support. One study has shown that overcoming childhood emotional neglect can be achieved with parent aide counseling (lay counseling) and Parents Anonymous. These treatment options have relatively high success rates.
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- 2.Stoltenborgh M, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van IJzendoorn MH. The neglect of child neglect: a meta-analytic review of the prevalence of neglect. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. Published online July 15, 2012:345-355. doi:10.1007/s00127-012-0549-y
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- 8.Hildyard KL, Wolfe DA. Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes☆. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online June 2002:679-695. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00341-1
- 9.Tottenham N, Hare TA, Millner A, Gilhooly T, Zevin JD, Casey BJ. Elevated amygdala response to faces following early deprivation. Developmental Science. Published online February 18, 2011:190-204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00971.x
- 10.Hanson JL, Hariri AR, Williamson DE. Blunted Ventral Striatum Development in Adolescence Reflects Emotional Neglect and Predicts Depressive Symptoms. Biological Psychiatry. Published online November 2015:598-605. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.05.010