Childhood emotional neglect from parents 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, capacity to trust, and their ability to build healthy relationships, but it can also affect a child’s health conditions.
The effects of psychological abuse can carry over to one’s adult life.
In the United States, child neglect includes physical, medical, educational, and emotional neglect1.
Parental neglect causing physical harm through the denial of proper care or the lack of 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 types of childhood abuse.
Despite the lack of overt traumatic events, experiencing emotional neglect as a child can be just as damaging as abuse.
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 emotional significance. It affects arousal reaction to environmental stimuli2.
When a child experiences severe forms of CEN during early brain development, such as institutional rearing, the amygdala becomes bigger in volume and more reactive.
As a result, individuals raised by neglectful parents tend to have worse mental health outcomes and long-term effects.
A child’s perception of neglect is important.
When a child perceives they’re being neglected emotionally, they are twice as likely to develop psychiatric disorders by age 15, including the development of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Adolescents with their emotions neglected as a child are more likely to have poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky sexual activity, and suicide attempts.
Emotional neglect is often transgenerational3.
Parents who have experienced a lack of nurturing in childhood from 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.
Symptoms of emotional neglect in a child are subtle. Despite individual differences, 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 parents4
- Speak with a cold and unfriendly tone
- Unresponsive to the child’s feelings
- Dismiss the child’s emotions
- Don’t talk to the 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 Common Signs of Child Emotional Neglect in children5,6
CEN signs include:
- Insecure-avoidant attachment pattern, disorganized attachment, and, in extreme cases, attachment disorder
- Show passive, withdrawn, and aggressive behavior patterns with their parents
- Suffer from child development delay, failure to thrive
- Negativity during parent-child interactions and anger towards the parent
- Significantly less positive social interaction
- Delay in language development
- During free play, anger toward the parent
- Avoid interactions with other children
- Poor peer relationships
- Disruptive and impulsive behavior, including aggression, hostility, and oppositional
- Lower cognitive functioning
- Low self-esteem and self-compassion
- Shame, humiliation, self-blame, and feelings of worthlessness
- Attention problems
- Higher rates of dissociation
- More behavioral issues, including conduct disorder symptoms
- Less emotional knowledge, difficulty recognizing angry faces7
- Symptoms of depressive disorder8
- 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.
Also see: Family Estrangement – Why Children Reject Their Parents & How To Mend
Also See: Phubbing – How Parents Contribute to Teenage Cell Phone Addiction
How To Overcome and Heal From Emotional Neglect In Childhood
Child maltreatment ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) can have an adverse impact on one’s adult well-being and family life. A child’s emotional experiences can affect their future adult relationships.
Family therapy with trained mental health professionals can help both the neglectful mother, neglectful father, and neglected child.
Therapy can help parents understand the severe impact of their neglect. A good therapist can also teach the child proper coping mechanisms.
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.
Check Out: Free Therapy
Parents who had neglectful early life experiences themselves can also benefit from others’ emotional support. One study has shown that overcoming childhood emotional neglect can be achieved with parent aide counseling (lay counseling) and Parents Anonymous.
These effective treatment options have relatively high success rates.
Check Out: Emotionally Abusive Parents and Mentally Abusive Parents
Research indicates one in five individuals grew up in a family environment where caregivers deprived them of love and attention without abuse9.
Neglected adults who have experienced emotional abandonment as a child are at elevated risk for internalizing distress and substance abuse.
Getting professional help to address the long-term effects of emotionally unavailable parents is especially important.
It is common for adults to avoid seeking help. They prefer to handle problems on their own.
However, overcoming childhood abuse is not a matter of willpower.
Even as adults, abused children can have a hard time coping with a traumatic past. With the help of an experienced mental health professional, you can speed up your healing process.
The Best Book on Childhood Trauma
- 1.De Bellis MD. The Psychobiology of Neglect. Child Maltreat. Published online May 2005:150-172. doi:10.1177/1077559505275116
- 2.Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H, Damasio A. Fear and the human amygdala. J Neurosci. Published online September 1, 1995:5879-5891. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.15-09-05879.1995
- 3.Champagne FA. Epigenetic mechanisms and the transgenerational effects of maternal care. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Published online June 2008:386-397. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2008.03.003
- 4.Strathearn L. Maternal Neglect: Oxytocin, Dopamine and the Neurobiology of Attachment. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. Published online October 18, 2011:1054-1065. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2826.2011.02228.x
- 5.Ney PG, Fung T, Wickett AR. The worst combinations of child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online September 1994:705-714. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(94)00037-9
- 6.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
- 7.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
- 8.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
- 9.Cohen JR, Menon SV, Shorey RC, Le VD, Temple JR. The distal consequences of physical and emotional neglect in emerging adults: A person-centered, multi-wave, longitudinal study. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 2017:151-161. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.11.030