Peggy Loo, PhD on Mar 05, 2023 in Mood and Feelings
I am lucky to have an outdoor patio. In the spring, there is a great exodus of plants to the patio, and caring for my plants becomes a daily source of joy, wonder, and quiet satisfaction. I repot, prune, propagate, and congratulate new leaves for sprouting.
I wasn’t always a green thumb — in fact, I used to reliably kill any plant that was gifted to me. I would place my new plant by a window and water it, only to discover a wilted or shriveled mess within a few weeks. I assumed plant people had some kind of connection to the earth I must be lacking.
Later on, I discovered it was nothing of the sort. Taking care of plants is doable for anyone if you know what the plant needs and you respond. I had no clue about the basics of plant care. I assumed water and light were sufficient to keep any plant alive; I treated every plant as if it had identical needs. Once I actually took the time to identify what kind of plant I had and its requirements for growth, things changed rapidly. I learned about sunlight direction, soil types, how to recognize when a plant is stressed, root-bound, overwatered, or in need of some pruning. Each plant is different. When I created the right environment, observed how a plant responded in my home, and adjusted its care accordingly, it began to grow and mature under my care. Now I have dozens of happy plants. Even though all plants need some amount of sunlight and water, they need attentive support that matches their individual needs for growth.
What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
This can be a helpful analogy for childhood emotional neglect. Childhood emotional neglect occurs when parents or caregivers regularly fail to provide basic emotional support and affection required for a child’s emotional development and well-being. While all parents are sometimes distracted, stressed, and imperfect in responding to their children, childhood emotional neglect is a pervasive pattern of dismissal or indifference to a child’s emotional distress or feelings. It is chronic misattunement to a child’s emotional world.
Emotional neglect is often minimized, even rejected as legitimate trauma because it is so frequently eclipsed by other co-occurring types of trauma. It is a real trauma. The disregard for it is ironic but understandable, as emotional neglect is about the omission, or lack of what was needed, rather than the presence of maltreatment which characterizes other forms of abuse. Physical and sexual abuse are embodied, horrific experiences of harm — there is a physicality to it that you can point to. Even emotional abuse can be recognized by the existence of a serious wrong, such as degradation, threat, shaming, or manipulation.
But childhood emotional neglect is different — it is an absence of warm nurturance, attunement, and responsiveness to your emotional experiences and needs. How does a child point to an injury caused by something that failed to happen? As adults, they often don’t. I see my adult patients struggle to name emotional neglect or label it as traumatic. Sometimes it’s because other traumas take center stage, but sometimes it’s because they had a “fine” enough childhood with parental provision and educational opportunity. It can be hard to acknowledge the negative effects of emotional neglect if their parents “did their best,” “other people had it worse,” or “nothing happened to me.”
Emotional Support Is Essential to Health & Wellbeing
Therein lies the problem. Nothing happened. In the research, emotional neglect is hard to define — which make sense because you’re pointing at a gaping hole as the issue. Emotional connection isn’t easily measured, nor does it manifest in one way. Add to that the range of cultural differences in parenting, parent-child relationships, and emotional expression, and it gets even more challenging.
Instead of spending too much time debating whether or not something is considered negative, neglect, or traumatic, I often paint a picture of what should more or less be happening. Did your parents or caregivers convey interest in you and your experiences? Did they recognize strengths and make you feel loved, valued, seen, and heard? Did they notice your emotional distress and respond with compassion? Did they validate a range of emotions or were certain ones unacceptable? While emotional support may be less visible and hard to fully define, the negative effects of emotional neglect are undeniable.
The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Our emotional development and wellbeing comes from our emotional selves receiving nourishment, guidance, and acceptance. When our parents notice and respond to our feelings as an important part of who we are and our experience, we can become adults that view feelings as valuable and worth reflecting on. When our feelings are ignored, dismissed, or deemed unacceptable as children, we often end up doing more of the same with our emotional experiences as adults. While there are many consequences to emotional neglect, here are a few:
You have difficulty experiencing your emotions.
You may struggle with many aspects of experiencing emotions — naming, validating, understanding, or managing them. You may not have a wide emotional vocabulary. In a survey of over 7,000 people*, the average number of emotions that people can identify while feeling them is three. You may label some emotions as good and others as bad and then try to control, suppress, or reject the bad ones. You may be self-critical when you experience intense emotions. You may struggle with self-reflection or having empathy for yourself. You may not know how to integrate your emotions into your daily life and feel somewhat disconnected from your internal world.
You tend to seek reassurance about your feelings.
If you were never told that your feelings were valuable and a wonderful, hard-wired internal compass we all have to navigate life, it can feel like you’re walking around lost. If you don’t know how to use your emotional experiences to provide you a sense of direction, you are likely to look towards others for reassurance, validation, or comparison to make sense of your feelings. You may have trouble making personal decisions, trusting your instincts, taking appropriate risks, or allowing yourself to feel something without explicit permission from someone else.
You avoid connecting emotionally with others.
You may have trouble choosing intimacy in relationships as intimacy comes from sharing feelings and responding to each other’s emotional needs — in real time. I’m not talking about situations where you’re still feeling someone out as trustworthy or seeing if a boundary is a healthy step to take. I’m talking about the relationships you have where opportunities for intimacy and closeness exists, but you avoid taking them.
If your own emotional needs were ignored, it may be hard to believe that someone is genuinely interested to hear how you’re feeling. You may prefer to be self-reliant. You may prioritize others’ emotions over your own and create a dynamic where you are emotionally caretaking (this may feel connecting for them, but caretaking is not the same as mutually connecting). You may share what you felt in a situation only after it’s been resolved, not while it feels “messy” or when you’re still feeling vulnerable.
There may be other reasons that you are experiencing the above. However, if you were subject to childhood emotional neglect, acknowledging that those experiences during your formative years affected you deeply (and may even have been traumatic) may be an important connection for you. This can help you view your struggles through a lens you hadn’t thought of before.
Multicultural Considerations About Defining Emotional Neglect
A note about multicultural differences, and perhaps to people of Asian descent, as an Asian-American psychologist: I often hear people invalidate experiences of real hurt from childhood because “You know, Asian parents” or some culture-bound explanation of why the way they were treated as a child was no big deal. (First of all, let’s get curious about what’s happening when we’re rationalizing anything away, especially someone else’s behavior.)
There is an important difference between a cultural norm of emotional restraint and emotional neglect. One has to do with acknowledging the diversity of values when it comes to emotional expression in the world. This can include emotional composure in certain contexts or a cultural preference for less effusive displays of affect. Emotional neglect is about emotional indifference, rejection, or withholding towards someone you have a responsibility to. This is devaluing someone’s feelings entirely (when your role includes the expectation of emotional availability), not about degrees of emotional demonstrativeness or sometimes the real need for cross-cultural translation. (Of course, one can be emotionally neglectful by being emotionally reserved, but they are not necessarily synonymous). I would argue that it is possible to be emotionally responsive to another person while behaving in a manner that appears externally restrained by some points of reference. For anyone who has grown up with a family member where there was a profound language barrier or simply traveled to a country with obvious cultural differences from your own, you know that warmth, connection, and empathy can be expressed even without shared language, expressions, or customs.
Taking the Time To Separate Intention From Impact
One of the the most insidious ideas I’ve heard that prevents someone from acknowledging a traumatic experience, especially of childhood emotional neglect, is that “they didn’t mean it.” There are many reasons why a parent or caregiver may have been emotionally neglectful without intention, perhaps even with genuine contrition. They may have struggled with mental health concerns, illness, addiction, their own trauma histories, poverty, toxic masculinity, even a lack of knowledge — all real contributing factors to emotional unavailability.
We need to take the time to separate intention from impact. Even if emotional neglect was not intentional, it carries impact. A lack of intention does not erase impact. Intent is certainly relevant, especially for relationship dynamics — but it is not the deciding factor of whether or not impact occurred. If you were drinking water from a hose and someone accidentally stepped on the hose, cutting off the water supply, you would go thirsty whether it was on purpose or not.
What Can I Do if I’ve Experienced Emotional Neglect?
Start validating your feelings by identifying them.
I’m here to tell you that your feelings matter so very much. And I’m sorry you have ever felt otherwise. A basic step forward is taking the time to name your feelings without judgment. At the end of a day, pause and try to describe some of the emotions you experienced. We legitimize our emotions through the process of giving them undivided attention and putting language to them — something as simple as “I felt X today, and that’s okay.”
If you’re not sure what you’re feeling, find a resource to help. There are countless feeling wheels, handouts, podcasts, and books to learn from.
Start sharing your feelings with others.
This does not mean go share the most vulnerable part of yourself with someone else. Try sharing some kind of honest emotional reaction you had in your day with someone else. Part of what is so damaging about emotional neglect is the inherent relationship disconnection it represents. Connecting with others on an emotional level is a great start. It could be something like: “I was feeling nervous about X today” or genuinely answering the question “How are you?” instead of defaulting to “Fine” or describing what you’ve been doing instead of how you’re feeling.
Consider therapy for trauma.
It may be helpful to process the effects of childhood emotional neglect with a trauma-informed therapist. (Or if you’re unsure how to make sense of your childhood experiences, it can be clarifying to discuss them with a mental health professional.) It can feel overwhelming to acknowledge what may have been traumatic experiences and address it on your own. Being in therapy can help you learn more about the effects of emotional neglect, make connections, and try new skills with consistent support. Simply committing once a week to being self-reflective with someone who gives their undivided attention as you discuss your internal world may be healing in and of itself.
If you are already in therapy but have not spoken about this, try bringing it up to your therapist as a possible new focus for sessions. Something like: “Can I bring in a new topic for our sessions?” or “I know we’ve been focusing on X, but I was curious if we could talk about how my feelings overall were treated as a kid.”
About the Author: Dr. Peggy Loo is a licensed psychologist and the director of Manhattan Therapy Collective. If she weren’t a therapist, she would consider a career in writing children’s books about emotions.