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Childhood Emotional Neglect: 20 Signs, Examples & How To Heal

Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) from parents is a type of emotional abuse that is prevalent and often goes unrecognized and unreported. This form of child maltreatment is not always evident 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 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.

Neglectful parenting may manifest as parental dismissal, hostility, rejection, criticism, antipathy, and lack of emotional warmth toward the child. Emotional abandonment impairs a child’s socioemotional and attachment development.

There are 6 types of child neglect, including physical, emotional, environmental, medical, educational, and supervision neglect. The 2 types of child emotional maltreatment are emotional abuse and emotional neglect.

The complex interaction of 4 types of risk factors leading to emotional neglect are child-related, parent-related, family-related, and environment-related factors.

In the United States, parental neglect causing physical harm through the denial of proper care or the lack of supervision is a criminal act as defined by the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA, 1996).

A sad boy hugging and leaning his face on his knees.

What is childhood emotional neglect? (Definition of neglect)

Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is the parent’s chronic failure to meet their child’s emotional needs during the early years. Emotional neglect involves unresponsive, unavailable, or limited emotional interactions between the parent and the child. Children’s emotional needs for love, support, affection, belonging, attention, and positive self-esteem 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.

What are the types of child neglect?

Child neglect is a parent’s persistent failure to provide for a child’s physical or emotional needs. A 2010 study at the University of Southern California has found that at least 13 studies since 1993 have tried to categorize different types of childhood neglect trauma but failed to come to a consensus.​1–3​

However, there are 6 types of child neglect frequently used by psychologists and researchers in studies.

  1. Physical neglect: Failure to provide a child with basic physical needs. Examples include insufficient food, water, or clothing. 
  2. Emotional neglect: Failure to fulfill a child’s emotional and psychological needs. Examples include not giving enough love, support, or help.
  3. Environment neglect: Failure to provide shelter or adequate hygiene. Examples include having trash, animal feces, or decomposed food all over the floor.
  4. Medical neglect: Failure to give medical care. Examples include not taking a child to a doctor or not administering medication when the child is sick.
  5. Educational neglect: Failure to ensure a child receives the necessary education. Examples include not enrolling a school-aged child in school or permitting chronic absence. 
  6. Supervision neglect: Failure to restrict or oversee the child’s activities. Examples include letting young children use drugs or go out alone.

What are the types of emotional maltreatment?

A 2016 study by Jitender Sareen et al. at the University of Manitoba has indicated that there are two types of childhood emotional maltreatment.​4​

  • Emotional abuse: An active type of child maltreatment involving acts of commission. Examples of active emotional abuse include threats, belittling, degradation, and hostility.
  • Emotional neglect: A passive type of child maltreatment involving acts of omission. Examples of passive emotional neglect in childhood include ignoring, being emotionally distant, and being unresponsive.

Is childhood neglect common?

Yes, childhood neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment, according to data collected through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). In 2021, 76% of reported child abuse cases were related to neglect, making neglect the most prevalent form of child maltreatment in the United States.​5​

Note that the data on neglect includes different types of neglect, not just emotional neglect.

What are emotional neglect examples?

Here are 19 emotional neglect examples.

  1. Dismissing a child’s feelings when they are upset or hurt.
  2. Being detached, cold
  3. Ignoring a child’s attempts to emotionally connect.
  4. Lack of family closeness, emotional intimacy, or warmth.
  5. Being hostile.
  6. Saying harsh or hurtful things to a child
  7. Making a child feel like an inconvenience or burden.
  8. Lack of positive feedback, praise, encouragement, affection, or nurturing behaviors.
  9. Constantly criticizing.
  10. Not providing comfort or reassurance during times of stress.
  11. Permitting a child’s maladaptive behavior, such as damaging properties during tantrums.
  12. Not spending quality time with a child.
  13. Ridiculing a child for normal emotional needs or vulnerability.
  14. Lack of interest in a child’s life or activities.
  15. Rejecting a child.
  16. Showing dislike.
  17. Exposing a child to domestic violence or abuse.
  18. Not intervening or supporting a bullied child.
  19. Neglecting a child’s need for affectionate physical touch, like hugs.
20 child neglect symptoms

What are the signs you were emotionally neglected as a child?

Signs you were emotionally neglected as a child may include symptoms associated with personality disorders or alterations in self-perception, reflecting the impact of psychological maltreatment experienced during formative years. 

Here are 20 signs you were emotionally neglected as a child.

  1. Low self-esteem
  2. Self-criticism
  3. Low self-worth
  4. Depression
  5. Anxiety
  6. Feelings of shame
  7. Difficulty regulating emotions
  8. Sensitivity to criticism
  9. Feelings of emptiness or loneliness
  10. Difficulty discerning or expressing emotions
  11. Emotional unavailability
  12. Poor social skills
  13. Struggle to connect with others
  14. Difficulty trusting others
  15. Isolation
  16. Relationship challenges
  17. Fear of abandonment or rejection
  18. Impulsive behavior
  19. Aggression
  20. Substance abuse

Note that whether a child is emotionally neglected needs to be evaluated by qualified specialists. Neglecting a child can seriously affect their development. If you suspect or observe signs of neglect, contact the local child protective services or authorities immediately.

What are the signs of emotional neglect in a child?

Unlike physical neglect or abuse, parental neglect doesn’t have outward signs such as bruises or injuries.

A 2013 research published in the JAMA Pediatrics reviewing 28 studies indicated the following 10 signs of emotional neglect in a child.

  1. Aggression, such as disruptive behavior, oppositional behavior, and impulsivity
  2. Withdrawal or passivity, some transition from passive to increasingly aggressive behavior
  3. Anxious or avoidant behavior
  4. Poor emotional knowledge and regulation
  5. Difficulties interpreting emotional expressions in others
  6. Negative self-esteem
  7. Developmental delay due to neglect, such as language delay, failure to thrive, cognitive function development delay
  8. Poor peer interaction and social skills
  9. Insecure attachment, some transition from ambivalent to avoidant attachment
  10. Dissociation

It’s important to note that while these study findings provide valuable insights, any signs or symptoms of dissociation or depression, especially in children, should be thoroughly evaluated and diagnosed by healthcare professionals. Self-diagnosis or assuming a diagnosis based on these findings alone is not recommended, as professional assessment is crucial for accurate identification and appropriate treatment of any mental health concerns.

What is neglected child syndrome?

Neglected child syndrome refers to the effects on a child’s development and psychological well-being when their basic physical and emotional needs are persistently unmet by their caregivers over an extended period.

This child maltreatment often leads to developmental delays, attachment issues, behavioral issues, emotional problems, and poor physical health. 

Children who are neglected often exhibit difficulties in forming healthy relationships, struggle with self-esteem, and may have poor cognitive and social skills. They are at high risk for mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder later in life.

Is emotional neglect abuse?

Yes, emotional neglect is considered a form of psychological abuse. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) includes neglect, involving the failure to meet a child’s emotional or psychological needs, under the definition of child psychological abuse. 

The DSM-5 states that “nonaccidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result or have reasonable potential to result in significant psychological harm to the child” constitute abuse. Persistent child emotional neglect that impairs a child’s emotional, cognitive, or social development would fall under this definition of psychological abuse.​6​

Is emotional neglect trauma?

Yes, emotional neglect is an adverse childhood experience that can cause complex trauma in children.​7​

Is emotional neglect worse than physical abuse?

Both neglect and abuse are harmful to children, and their damaging effects should not be minimized. However, some research does suggest emotional neglect may have worse outcomes compared to physical abuse in certain aspects.

A 2002 study titled “Child Neglect: Developmental Issues and Outcomes” by researchers at The University of Western Ontario examined the developmental impacts of neglect using data from the Minnesota Mother-Child Project. The study found that neglect occurring alone was associated with more severe language problems in children than when neglect occurred alongside physical abuse.

The researchers also observed that infants who experienced emotional neglect alone showed the steepest declines on tests of cognitive development between 9-24 months.

However, more research is still needed to further understand the nuanced distinctions between the potential impacts of different maltreatment types. The damaging effects of both emotional neglect and physical abuse should be taken very seriously.​8​

What causes emotional neglect?

There is no single identified cause for parental emotional neglect. A joint study at the University of Tuzla and the University Clinical Centre Tuzla in 2020 has found that child neglect results from a complex interaction of risk factors and protective factors. Parental neglect is more likely to occur when a child is exposed to risk factors combined with limited protective factors.

The 4 types of risk factors are child-related, parent-related, family-related, and living environment-related.​9​

Child-related risk factors

Child-related risk factors are characteristics of children who are associated with a greater risk of neglect. The presence of these factors does not mean the neglected child is in any way responsible. The responses of neglectful parents to these factors determine whether the child is neglected or not.

Here are the 5 child-related risk factors.

  1. Infant or younger children
  2. Externalizing behavior
  3. Poor social competence
  4. Behavior disorders
  5. Disability, including physical, intellectual, mental, multiple impairments, or complex medical needs

Parent-related risk factors

Here are 15 parent-related risk factors that increase the likelihood of a neglected childhood.

  1. Younger parents, such as teenage parents
  2. Difficulties in emotional regulation
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Social isolation or anti-social behavior
  5. Drug abuse
  6. Alcohol addiction
  7. Criminal activities
  8. Depression
  9. Somatic problems
  10. Childhood abuse
  11. Lack of parenting knowledge and skills
  12. Gambling problems
  13. Parental insensitivity
  14. Unrealistic expectations of the child
  15. Parent is emotionally unavailable due to preoccupation with personal needs

Family-related risk factors

Several studies have identified the following 6 family-related risk factors associated with family neglect.

  1. Domestic violence
  2. Single parent
  3. Poor parent-child relationship or dysfunctional family dynamics
  4. Parental perception of the child as problematic
  5. Poverty
  6. Poor socio-economic status

Environment-related risk factors

Researchers have found 5 living environment risk factors.

  1. Poor community support
  2. Inaccessible soci lsuport services
  3. Alcohol availability and widespread consumption
  4. Unstable environment
  5. Cultural and social norms
  6. Child institutionalized or placed in an orphanage

What are the effects of childhood emotional neglect on adults?

Here are 13 effects of childhood emotional neglect on adults.​10–26​

  1. Depression: Major depressive disorder, marked by persistent sadness, hopelessness, and impaired daily functioning, is linked to childhood psychological neglect.
  2. Shame: Self-blame and self-criticism, often rooted in childhood emotional neglect, can manifest a harsh inner voice and feelings of unworthiness. A 2019 University of North Texas study involving 244 adults confirmed that such neglect led to lower self-compassion, increased shame, and depression in adulthood.
  3. Personality disorders: Personality disorders, classified into three clusters, are often linked to childhood emotional neglect. Studies by Maastricht University and in Personality and Mental Health showed that emotional neglect could disrupt attachment and emotional regulation development. The study found that emotional neglect in children was linked to histrionic, borderline (Cluster B), avoidant (Cluster C), and schizoid (Cluster A) personality disorders.
  4. Anxiety: In 2013, researchers conducted a study assessing 160 adolescents and young adults in London who experienced parental antipathy involving rejection, criticism, hostility, and scapegoating. The findings revealed that such experiences in childhood were strongly associated with the development of an anxious attachment style involving fears of rejection and abandonment. This insecure attachment style significantly increased the likelihood of them developing anxiety disorders.
  5. Low self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that their actions will produce positive results. Researchers investigated the psychological effects of not being heard as a child on self-perception. They noticed that adults who were neglected as children often perceived themselves as having lower self-efficacy. These individuals tended to have lower beliefs in their abilities to accomplish goals and deal with life’s challenges.
  6. Insecure attachment and intergenerational trauma: Emotional neglect is linked to insecure attachment styles like anxious, avoidant, and disorganized, impacting caregiving behaviors in adulthood. A 2019 Stanford and Tel Aviv University study found that such neglect in childhood leads to lower maternal attachment, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational neglect. In extreme cases, reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or disinhibited social engagement disorder DSED may result.
  7. Emotional dysregulation: Difficulties with emotional regulation are closely associated with childhood emotional neglect. Without healthy emotional models, parental support, and guidance, neglected children cannot develop proper emotional awareness, clarity, and regulation abilities. 
  8. Social dysfunctioning: Social dysfunction is the impairment of the ability to form friendships, get along with different people, help others, and be sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs. Adults with early-life neglect issues often have reduced levels of plasma oxytocin, a hormone linked to emotions and social bonding. They tend to have a greater fear of social situations and avoid them.
  9. Alexithymia: adults with childhood emotional neglect were significantly related to higher alexithymia levels, a personality trait marked by difficulties in recognizing and expressing personal feelings.
  10. Drug abuse: There is a heightened risk for illicit substance use among those who had endured emotional neglect in their childhood.
  11. Aggression and delinquency: A 2010 research was conducted using London’s Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD). The result indicated childhood neglect was associated with future adult delinquency. A study conducted by the University at Buffalo in 2015 confirmed that chronic neglect was related to aggression and delinquency.
  12. Diminished economic well-being: Adults with childhood neglect often have lower levels of education, employment, earnings, and fewer assets, according to a 2013 study published in Child Maltreatment. Researchers reported a 14% gap between neglected and non-neglected individuals in the probability of employment in middle age.
  13. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A 2016 study published in BMC Psychiatry indicated that individuals who experienced emotional neglect at ages 4-5 were associated with increased symptoms of dissociation and, by ages 8-9, linked to heightened symptoms of depression.
girl sits alone with teddy bear on the ground showing childhood emotional neglect symptoms and neglected child syndrome

How to heal from childhood emotional neglect

To heal from childhood emotional neglect as an adult, here are steps.

  1. Validate your own experiences: Recognize that what you went through was real and hurtful, even if it wasn’t physical abuse. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
  2. Self-compassion: A common feeling inside adults neglected as a child is that they are not worthy of love. That is not true. You are worthy of love, and being neglected was not your fault. Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion.
  3. Identify your needs: Adults who were neglected as a child lack the opportunities to develop a strong sense of self. Discover what makes you feel nourished versus depleted. Engaging in healthy activities that make you feel good (self-compassion!), like walking, cooking, or learning a new skill.
  4. Build emotional awareness: Neglected adults often don’t get the chance to learn how to understand or express their emotions. Practice reflecting on your feelings by meditating or journaling.
  5. Set healthy boundaries: You may need to limit or cut off contact with family members who are still dismissive of your feelings.
  6. Develop healthy relationships: Relationships where you feel safe, heard, and cared for can be healing. Reach out to trustworthy, empathetic friends and partners. A support group can also help you connect with those having similar experiences.
  7. Attend to physical health: A healthy body will enhance your pursuit of a healthy mind. Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep are crucial to feeling physically and mentally sound.
  8. Get help for abusive relationships, drug use, or mental disorders: If you have an abusive relationship, addiction, or mental disorder, seek help immediately.

Seek professional help: Talk therapy for childhood emotional neglect can help you process your neglect wound, grieve what you didn’t get as a child, and learn healthier coping mechanisms. In the U.S., mental health services are considered essential health benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all ACA-compliant health insurance plans are required to cover them. Check out the information at for more information.


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