Childhood emotional neglect is a failure of parents or caregivers to respond to a child’s emotional needs. This type of neglect can have long-term consequences, as well as short-term, almost immediate ones.
Understanding why childhood neglect happens is important for parents, teachers, caregivers, and more. It’s also good to know what it looks like in a child who is experiencing it, and what can be done to correct it or help a child overcome it.
Keep reading to find out why this happens during childhood, and what it means for adulthood.
Childhood emotional neglect occurs when a child’s parent or parents fail to respond adequately to their child’s emotional needs. Emotional neglect is not necessarily childhood emotional abuse. Abuse is often intentional; it’s a purposeful choice to act in a way that is harmful. While emotional neglect can be an intentional disregard for a child’s feelings, it can also be failure to act or notice a child’s emotional needs. Parents who emotionally neglect their children may still provide care and necessities. They just miss out on or mishandle this one key area of support.
One example of emotional neglect is a child who tells their parent they’re sad about a friend at school. The parent brushes it off as a childhood game instead of listening and helping the child cope. Over time, the child begins to learn that their emotional needs are not important. They stop seeking support.
The effects of emotional neglect in children can be quite subtle. It may be hard for parents to know they’re doing it. Likewise, it may be difficult for caregivers, such as doctors or teachers, to recognize the subtle signs. Severe cases are easier to detect and may draw the greatest amount of attention. Less severe ones may be overlooked.
Understanding the symptoms of emotional neglect in children can be important to getting the child and parents help.
Symptoms of childhood emotional neglect can range from subtle to obvious. Much of the damage from emotional neglect is silent at first. Over time, however, the effects may begin to appear.
The most common symptoms of emotional neglect in children include:
- failure to thrive
- developmental delays
- low self-esteem
- substance misuse
- withdrawing from friends and activities
- appearing uncaring or indifferent
- shunning emotional closeness or intimacy
People who are emotionally neglected as children grow up to be adults who must deal with the consequences. Because their emotional needs weren’t validated as children, they may not know how to deal with their emotions when they occur.
The most common effects of childhood neglect in adulthood include:
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- emotional unavailability
- increasing likelihood for an eating disorder
- shunning intimacy
- feeling deeply, personally flawed
- feeling empty
- poor self-discipline
- guilt and shame
- anger and aggressive behaviors
- difficulty trusting others or relying upon anyone else
Adults who experienced childhood emotional neglect may also become parents who neglect their children emotionally. Never having learned the importance of their own emotions, they may not know how to nurture emotions in their children.
Effective treatment and understanding their own experiences of neglect can help people of all ages overcome the effects of emotional neglect in the short-term and prevent future complications as well.
Treatment for childhood emotional neglect is likely the same whether it’s experienced as a child or faced as an adult who was neglected as a child. These treatment options include:
A psychologist or therapist can help a child learn to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. If a child is used to suppressing their emotions, it may be difficult to recognize and experience emotions in a healthy way.
Likewise, for adults, years of suppressing emotions can lead to difficulties expressing them. Therapists and mental health professionals can help both children and adults learn to identify, accept, and express their emotions in a healthful manner.
If a child is being emotionally neglected at home, family therapy can help both the parents and the child. A therapist can help parents understand the impact they’re having. They can also help a child learn to cope with the issues they may already face. Early intervention may be able to both modify and correct the behaviors that lead to neglect and the consequences that can arise.
Parents who neglect their child’s emotional needs could benefit from parenting classes. These courses help parents and caregivers learn the skills necessary to recognize, listen to, and respond to a child’s emotions.
Where to find help if you think you may be emotionally neglecting your child
- National Parent Helpline — Find local and national sources for a variety of parenting needs.
- Pediatrician — Call your child’s doctor and ask for local resources that may help you with parenting skills and emotional development.
- Therapist— Connect with a psychologist, social worker, or other mental health expert, and make an appointment to discuss your concerns.
As with the causes of child abuse, the causes of neglect are multifaceted and often difficult to understand. Most parents try to be the best parents they can be and don’t mean to neglect their child’s emotions.
Adults who neglect their children may be experiencing:
- substance misuse
- mental health disorders
- anger or resentment toward their child
- a personal lack of emotional fulfillment
- a history of neglect from their parents
- a lack of healthy parenting skills
Neglectful parents frequently come from families where they were neglected as a child. As a result, they may not have the parenting skills necessary to fulfill their child’s emotional needs.
In some cases, parents who emotionally neglect their child are emotionally neglected themselves. Caregivers who do not have strong, emotionally satisfying relationships with adults in their own lives may not be able to respond appropriately to their child.
Likewise, anger and resentment can bubble up in a parent and lead them to ignore their child’s pleas and questions.
There is no test that can detect childhood emotional neglect. Instead, a diagnosis may be made after symptoms are discovered and other issues are ruled out.
A doctor, for example, may notice a child’s failure to thrive or their lack of emotional response during an appointment. As part of caring for the child, they may also notice the parents’ lack of interest in their child’s health and well-being. This may help them connect the dots between the visible symptoms and the invisible neglect.
Adults who experienced childhood neglect may eventually learn what’s causing their complications, too. A therapist or mental health expert can help you examine the events of your childhood and the consequences you’re facing today to understand the likely issues.
What to do if you suspect a child is being neglected
There are resources available to help if you are concerned about a child you know.
- Family Services Agency — Your local child welfare or family services agency can follow up on a tip anonymously.
- Pediatrician — If you know the child’s pediatrician, a call to that doctor’s office may be helpful. Though privacy laws would prevent them from confirming they treat the child, they may be able to use your information to begin a conversation with the family.
- National Child Abuse Hotline — Call 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453). Emotional neglect may be accompanied by other forms of neglect, too. This organization can connect you with local resources for adequate help.
- Prevent Child Abuse America— This organization supports child well-being through programs designed to provide parental support.
Childhood emotional neglect can damage a child’s self-esteem and mental health. It teaches them their feelings are not important. The consequences of this neglect can be deep and last a lifetime.
Treatment for childhood emotional neglect can help children who were neglected overcome the feelings of emptiness and inability to handle their emotions. Likewise, parents can learn to better relate to their children and prevent the cycle from happening again.