Many of the things that we deal with as adults can sometimes be linked back to the lack of emotional attention and validation we received when we were kids. If, during your childhood, you didn’t have someone who was really there for you or have a safe place to talk about things, it can leave lasting emotional wounds.
Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is different from abuse and trauma because it is not about what happened to you as a child, but a failure of something happening. Your guardians may have unknowingly failed to respond enough to your feelings when they raised you.
Since a child is dependent on their guardians for nurture and protection, they don’t have the intelligence yet to realize that they are not responsible for the lack of attention and love that they received. Similarly to how a plant that isn’t watered will wilt and die, a child’s emotional needs being unmet leads to an emptiness in the place of emotional validation, discussion and awareness. Because this love was omitted in childhood, you might feel like something within you is missing or incomplete. This may lead to an even heavier and omnipresent belief that you aren’t good enough.
Growing up in an emotion-free environment, you may have had to wall off your feelings to cope. But the most vital part of CEN recovery involves welcoming your blocked off emotions back into your life. When you start to identify your feelings, it allows you to begin using them for what they are intended for : messengers about your current state of being and environment.
Self-talk is an amazing coping technique and a habit well worth the time to cultivate and practice. It involves talking to yourself through a painful moment, a scary challenge, or a difficult situation. While your childhood may have led you to believe that you’re not good enough, smart enough, or are unlovable or irrelevant, self-affirming talks can help override this. The possibilities of mantras are endless but they must be tailored specifically to you. Some examples to say to yourself include: You can do this, you are important and you matter, you are enough, you are loved and lovable.
Years of emotional unfulfillment may result in a myriad of emotional blockages that become as normal to you as blinking. You may secretly feel that you are inexplicably flawed or awkward and may even have a hard time expressing how you feel towards others. There may also be a chronic sense of emptiness and internal numbness that clouds your ability to see who you really are and what brings you pleasure or self-fulfillment.
A helpful exercise is to start identifying your likes and dislikes. By taking special note of the things that bring you joy – no matter how small, medium or large – you can start planning for it and incorporating it into your life. This leads to the desired wholeness within. This practice sets you up to be able to make yourself happier as a certain need is being met and validated.
Since it becomes difficult to identify your emotions, whether positive or negative, you may struggle to respond accordingly, like knowing when to self-soothe in times of distress or to identify feelings of joy and pride during moments of success. Life’s challenges to you may seem more magnified and you may end up turning to unhealthy methods of coping, such as substance abuse, promiscuous behavior or heavy alcohol abuse to get by.
This internal disconnect you experience may result in you feeling different from other people, as you may struggle more to connect with them and to maintain your relationships with them. You may not feel secure enough in your relationships, which can lead to anxiety or emotionally unavailability where you struggle to express your discomforts.
Our need to protect ourselves follows us into our different relationships. We may struggle with communicating our feelings and we may come off as cold and distant. For example, when you’ve gotten into a disagreement and you don’t know how to express your anger, you might resort to giving them the silent treatment or avoiding intimacy and affection. As a result of years of these habits you might unknowingly commit one of the cardinal sins from your childhood: to act without the consideration of the other person.
A way to combat unhealthy expressions of anger towards your partner is to start practicing sitting with your “negative” feelings. As you learn to identify your feelings and to make space for stronger emotions like anxiety and anger, it increases your tolerance for heavier emotions. As you become more aware of your emotions, you can express them and be in better control of yourself so that you don’t have to run away from having arguments or to close off the outside world.
Your unmet childhood needs can also follow you into the workplace. While your employers and colleagues are not your parents, you may still carry the dynamics of that gray upbringing with you. This can look like giving a lot and asking for little in return and not feeling comfortable and deserving about your professional needs, such as vacation days, a raise or a day off. To avoid being branded as weak or incompetent, you might even avoid asking for help from those wiser than you.
The biggest tragedy, however, may be that because you never learned how to pay attention to your true nature and to have received feedback about who you are, you may have a harder time choosing a career that’s enjoyable and fulfilling. Instead you may have opted for the safe and usual path. A necessary tool in the workplace when you struggle with CEN is learning how to be more assertive. Pick up a book about assertiveness or watch a video about it. It’s a way to get people to hear what you feel and need. It also helps make others value you more.
Childhood emotional neglect can leave you feeling unwell inside, even years after you’ve moved away from home. Thankfully, you don’t have to suffer at the hands of this hollowness for the rest of your life. While you may struggle with some parts of your healing journey, it’s well worth the benefits and the life that awaits you on the other side of the healing.
It’s necessary for both your mental and physical well-being to take stock of the unmet needs you have that stemmed from childhood to understand yourself more and to commit a large part of your future to meet these needs to be able to enjoy an emotionally fulfilling life and better relationships around you. It is important to practice and develop self-compassion, just as if you were interacting with your childhood self. You now have the opportunity to treat yourself with the kindness and love that you would have received as a child.
*Counseling, T. L. (2022, February 12). 10 strategies for coping with childhood emotional neglect. TLHCOUNSELLING SG. https://www.tlhcounselling.com/post/10-strategies-for-coping-with-childhood-emotional-neglect
*de Botton, A; Howarth , S. (2021). How unloving parents generate self-hating . YouTube. School of Life . Retrieved August 7, 2023, from https://youtu.be/ujhn1JdOSB4.
*de Botton, A; Howarth, S. (2018). The impact of early emotional neglect . YouTube. School of Life . Retrieved August 7, 2023, from https://youtu.be/aymvX-OrlS0.
*Gillette, H. (2022, July 13). Childhood emotional neglect and romantic relationships: The link. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/relationships/childhood-emotional-neglect-romantic-relationships#challenges-related-to-emotional-neglect
*Webb, J. (2022, October 28). How childhood emotional neglect affects your adult work life. Dr. Jonice Webb | Your resource for relationship and emotional health. https://drjonicewebb.com/how-childhood-emotional-neglect-affects-your-adult-work-life/#:~:text=When%20it%20comes%20to%20the,is%20a%20double%2Dedged%20sword.&text=You%20give%20a%20lot%2C%20and,a%20vacation%20or%20a%20raise.
*Webb, J. (2021, December 4). The lingering harm of childhood emotional neglect. Google. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/childhood-emotional-neglect/202112/the-lingering-harm-of-childhood-emotional-neglect%3famp
* Webb, J. (2020, May 31). 6 healing habits of adults who recover from childhood emotional neglect. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/childhood-neglect/2020/05/6-healing-habits-of-adults-who-recover-from-childhood-emotional-neglect#1