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How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Show Up in Our Adult Life

While everyone may perceive neglect differently, emotional neglect in childhood generally refers to when a child doesn’t experience emotional security or support from their guardian figures. Our emotions may have been completely ignored or invalidated—purposefully or unconsciously—or we might have been explicitly shamed for expressing our feelings.

This form of neglect can occur when a caregiver is not present, but when they are present they are emotionally unavailable, if the parent is ill-equipped to handle childhood emotions, or if the parent is purposefully dismissive.

“Emotional neglect is considered a form of trauma, as it can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being,” says therapist Daniel Rinaldi, MHC. He adds that chronic emotional neglect can shape our emotional landscape as adults by affecting our self-esteem and impacting our interpersonal relationships.

How Do I Know If I Was Emotionally Neglected as a Child?
Raising children is highly nuanced and inherently difficult; there’s no doubt that our parents or caregivers made mistakes along the way. However, chronic emotional neglect is not the norm, and its ripple effects follow us well into adulthood.

“Emotional neglect can be hard to spot because it is not always visible—even to a professional,” says Aurisha Smolarski, LMFT, founder of Cooperative Coparenting. “It is also hard to spot because it tends to be based less on what a parent does and more on what they don’t do.”

Some parents emotionally neglect their children because they’re uncomfortable with emotions in general and are unsure of how to respond to the complex feelings a child experiences.

Other parents are too overwhelmed with the stress in their own life—including struggles with addiction, work-life balance, child-rearing, and mental health issues. Smolarski also notes that parents who experienced abuse or neglect themselves may be more likely to neglect their own children.

What Are Some Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Here are some signs of childhood emotional neglect. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it provides a general idea of what emotional neglect looks like:

  • Punishment for expressing negative emotions like sadness, frustration, or anger (e.g., being told to go to your room or be quiet)
  • Lack of shared celebration or joy when experiencing a positive emotion like happiness or excitement (it might even present as zapping the positive emotion with a negative response)
  • Being told your feelings or experiences aren’t valid or worth further examination (example phrases might include “You’re too sensitive,” “Stop acting like a baby” or “Don’t worry about it.”)
  • Dismissed or ignored feelings because the parent is focused on themselves or another situation
  • Withholding or not showing affection, whether it is explicitly requested or not
  • Failure to intervene or find a solution in situations when a child is under emotional stress
  • Not acknowledging difficult emotions like grief after losing a pet or embarrassment after being bullied (often because the parent struggles to recognize or process these emotions themselves)

How Does Emotional Neglect in Childhood Affect Us as Adults?
Those of us who were emotionally neglected as children often develop behavior patterns or coping mechanisms. Any of the following might be indicative of emotional neglect in childhood.

Difficulty Expressing and Processing Emotions
Childhood emotional neglect can cause us to avoid emotions altogether in adulthood. We may struggle to identify our feelings or find it difficult to process big feelings.

There might also be a general sense of “numbness,” which is ultimately a form of self-protection. Smolarski adds, “They may choose to leave a relationship or situation instead of asking for something they need because that feels safer than the risk of rejection.”

People-Pleasing Tendencies
On the other side of the coin, Smolarski says that if we’ve been emotionally neglected as kids, we might end up becoming the “caretaker” or “burden holder” of our friends and family.

Essentially, addressing other people’s emotions and needs allows us to feel worthy, loved, needed, and good enough. This can backfire if we end up focusing so much on others that we fail to prioritize ourselves.

We May Have a Super Hard Time Trusting Other People
Sometimes it feels safer to put up walls so that no one else can get in and potentially hurt us. We’re simply trying to protect ourselves.

Vulnerability and opening up to other people may feel scary too which limits the ability to connect with others. “They may withdraw or isolate from social or peer groups because they feel different and because they fear being asked to talk about how they feel,” Smolarski notes.

She adds that some might even self-sabotage their relationships to avoid feeling abandoned, rejected, or neglected. And those who find themselves in close relationships may struggle to access or voice their own emotions, which can negatively impact the relationship.

Our Self-Esteem May Take a Hit
Rinaldi says that chronic childhood neglect can often cause people to have low self-worth. If our self-esteem is low, we might write off our own emotions or even let people walk all over us.

Low self-esteem may also cause struggles with self-compassion and self-love.
We May Try to Cope in Some Not-So-Healthy Ways
In some cases, childhood emotional neglect can present with poor coping techniques as an adult. Bonnie Scott, LPC-S, founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling, says this is often because people who’ve been neglected have trouble trusting their own experience of emotions and needs.

“They may meet those needs in maladaptive ways, like becoming codependent on people who aren’t good for them or showing people-pleasing behaviors to keep people around,” Scott says. They might also rely on drugs or alcohol to get them through a difficult emotion or become addicted to shopping, porn, online usage, risky sex, or food.

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