This is a disclaimer that this article is for informative purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Please reach out to a qualified healthcare provider or mental health professional if you are struggling.
Child abuse doesn’t always leave marks and bruises but instead makes you grow up with invisible scars. Even if this kind of abuse doesn’t show on the outside, it can impact your whole life, even after you’re long gone from your childhood home. This kind of abuse is called childhood emotional neglect, a dark place where a child is ignored, not taken seriously, told their feelings don’t matter, and treated like they’re not even there.
This can be a difficult and devastating experience. It can affect the way you see yourself and others, ruin your relationships with other people and even impact your emotional and physical health.
Because this form of abuse is often unrecognized and unreported, it could be difficult to spot the signs. This can be confusing when you grow up with emotional problems, and you’re left wondering why am I like this?
If you feel you might have been emotionally neglected as a child, feel free to keep reading.
1. You have trouble understanding your emotions
When your feelings were ignored as a child, you never learned how to feel them and express them in healthy ways. Instead of talking to you and supporting you, your parents told you “it’s not a big deal”. Or maybe they just completely ignored you while you tried to pour your heart out. Now as an adult, maybe you find it hard to recognize the emotions you feel, let alone express them to others. In psychology, this is called alexithymia – difficulties in identifying, decoding and communicating one’s own emotional state. Research article from 2013 found that early emotional neglect in childhood plays a role in developing this problem. This can be hard to handle because if you can’t communicate your emotions, you’ll have a harder time dealing with them. And dealing with your emotions is an important step when it comes to overcoming the difficulties from your childhood.
2. You avoid social situations
The home you grow up in represents the baseline for forming meaningful and fulfilling relationships. By hanging out with your parents, you learn to have conversations, to express your opinion, joke around, and have fun with others in general. But if you experienced neglect, your opportunity to learn and socialize was neglected as well. A 2019 study has shown that growing up without a sensitive and responsive caregiver, who provides emotional support and security, has negative effects on social functioning. Today as an adult, you may be afraid of people and try your best to avoid social gatherings in general. Maybe you feel like you don’t know what to do or say, or you’re simply afraid that you’re going to be rejected by others, just like you used to be when you were a kid.
3. You have low self worth
As a child, you depend on your parents, and your views of the world also depend on those of your parents. They are here to teach you not only about the world but also about yourself. In a way, you internalize your parents’ perception and make it your own. So when your parents neglect you and ignore you, they’re sending you a message that you don’t matter. And because you don’t know any better, you believe that message and start feeling like you don’t matter. This is where your self-image and self-esteem get damaged, and often you carry those feelings with you as you go through life. You may feel like you’re not good enough for anybody, you don’t love yourself and you don’t feel like taking care of yourself.
4. You’re trying to please everyone
Children who grew up in emotionally neglected households often had to pay attention to their parents’ emotions instead of their own. They had to make sure they didn’t make their parents sad or mad. If you had to be careful around your parents, you may have grown up to be a people-pleaser, too. Maybe you’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, preoccupied about what others think and feel, fearful of saying no because you don’t want to appear mean or neglectful of your own needs. This behavior takes a toll on your mental health sooner or later, leaving you stuck in relationships where you give more than you get, overworked because you feel too much responsibility or exhausted and burned out from trying to take care of others.
5. You feel unexplained resentment towards your parents
Sometimes parents are not intentionally neglectful. They may at least make sure you have a roof above your head, access to education, and food on your table. They give you every material thing you need, but forget you need love as well. In cases like these, when you grow up, you may feel unexplained anger or resentment towards them. Maybe you avoid them or don’t like visiting them. This can make you confused because you’re not sure why you feel that way – after all, you can’t say they deprived you of basic human needs or abused you. But even if you didn’t recognized the emotional neglect, you felt it for sure. You knew something was missing, and you still feel it today, even if you’re not sure how to explain it.
If you recognized yourself in some of these signs, there’s one important thing you should know: it was never your fault! It wasn’t your fault that you were neglected, and it is not your fault if you feel the consequences now. Nobody deserves to be ignored when they need it the most. And no matter how hard it is, it is possible to recover. Getting professional can help could help you learn about your needs and emotions, gain self-confidence and get your life back.
Aust, S., Alkan Härtwig, E., Heuser, I., & Bajbouj, M. (2013). The role of early emotional neglect in alexithymia. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 225–232.
Cikanavicius, D. (2018, May 14). 5 Ways Childhood Neglect and Trauma Skews Our Self-Esteem. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/psychology-self/2018/05/childhood-self-esteem#6
Li, M. P. S. (2022, April 28). Childhood Emotional Neglect – 37 Signs, Effects and How To Overcome. Parenting For Brain. https://www.parentingforbrain.com/childhood-emotional-neglect/
Müller, L. E., Bertsch, K., Bülau, K., Herpertz, S. C., & Buchheim, A. (2019). Emotional neglect in childhood shapes social dysfunctioning in adults by influencing the oxytocin and the attachment system: Results from a population-based study. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 136, 73–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2018.05.011
Stoneson, A. (2021, November 17). What makes a people pleaser? Labyrinth Healing LLC. https://labyrinthhealing.com/blog/what-makes-a-people-pleaser