Did you or your spouse face emotional neglect as a child? Are you concerned that emotional trauma from your past could be contributing to the conflict you’re experiencing in your marriage today? The parallels between the things you experienced in your childhood and how you behave in your your adult life are unmistakable. People who experience emotional neglect as children often have a hard time trusting their partners, showing affection, and maintaining close relationships. Plus, they are more likely to have adverse health affects such as anxiety and depression.
Healing from old wounds demands vulnerability, courage, and honest communication, and the support and guidance of a licensed mental health counselor can be invaluable if you and your spouse are starting this healing journey together. But educating yourself about emotional neglect and its potential impact on emotional development and interpersonal skills helps, too. Read more.
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Childhood emotional neglect is defined in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics (Fourth Edition) as “a relationship pattern in which an individual’s affectional needs are consistently disregarded, ignored, invalidated, or unappreciated” by a parent, guardian, or other loved one.
Emotional neglect is often considered a mirror opposite of emotional abuse. In the former, a parent or caregiver “fails to act” appropriately; in the latter, a parent intentionally “acts” in a harmful way, such as by making insults, criticism, threats, rejection, or purposefully withholding love. Of course, we can certainly think of neglect or “failure to act” as an act in itself—an act of omission1, let’s say, which we know can be harmful to a child’s long-term psychological and physical health.
Examples of Emotional Neglect
To give some specific examples, childhood emotional neglect might look like:
- Being told, directly or indirectly, that certain feelings are “bad” or “shouldn’t” be felt (e.g., a child who is upset about something may hear things like “You’re fine,” “Don’t cry,” or “We don’t get angry in this house”)
- Not being “allowed” to discuss feelings or talk about emotionally painful subjects; conversations in the household may seem largely surface-level or superficial
- Never been asked about what you’re feeling nor prompted to explore why you’re feeling a certain way and what to do about it (e.g., an emotionally neglectful parent would be unlikely to say: “I notice you’re crying. Are you mad about having to share your toy? It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hit. Let’s try something else, like stomping your feet or taking three deep breaths.”)
- Not being shown support, consolation, or empathy
- Having a parent who is emotionally unpredictable and unreliable
- Not having good modeling about how to name and express emotions
- Having a lack of clear and appropriate boundaries and discipline
No family gets it “right” all the time. We can all probably think of moments from our childhood when we felt ignored, misunderstood, or invalidated by our parents or caregivers. The key to recognizing whether you were emotionally neglected is to gauge whether these “failures to act” were exceptions to the rule or the status quo for your family. Again, working with a therapist can be invaluable as you try to make sense of your childhood experiences and unpack their emotional weight.
How Emotional Neglect from Childhood Manifests and Echos In Adult Relationships
So, how does an emotionally neglected child think and act as an adult? People who were emotionally neglected as children tend be anxious and avoidant in relationships. For one thing, we know that emotional neglect in childhood is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems later in life, such as anxiety and depression, which can impact interpersonal relationships.
Research, including a February 2018 peer-reviewed paper2 published in Child Abuse & Neglect, also tells us that a person who experiences emotional neglect as a child is more likely to have an anxious-avoidant attachment style as an adult. The anxious-avoidant attachment style can look like:
- Struggling to trust one’s partner, and being unnecessarily jealous, paranoid, or fearful of abandonment
- Lashing out at their partner when they feel vulnerable or anxious
- Fluctuating between wanting to be close to their partner and wanting to flee or push their partner away
- Codependency in Relationships
An adult who survived emotional neglect as a child may also experience vague feelings of disconnection, numbness, emptiness, “other-ness” or “not enough-ness.” They may lack self-discipline, and because they never learned how to properly identify and express their own emotions, they may rely on maladaptive strategies such as drinking, eating, or other harmful behaviors to cope with their feelings.
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Importantly, adults with a history of emotional neglect often struggle to identify emotions in others and fail to recognize how their actions (or inactions) may be contributing to those emotions. For couples, this can create a lot of confusion, resentment, disconnection, and conflict.
The Good News
Not all children who faced emotional neglect grow up to have significant relationship problems—and even if they do, it is possible to unlearn maladaptive strategies and build new interpersonal skills. Specific approaches like imago therapy that are based on attachment theory can help people of all backgrounds heal their relationships and strengthen their bond with their intimate partners.
If you and your spouse are ready for help, contact The Marriage Restoration Project today or book a free 30 minute clarity call to find out what’s been going on in your relationship and how we can help you.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Acts of omission: An overview of child neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved September 5m 2022 from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/acts.pdf
- Cathy Spatz Widom, Sally J. Czaja, Sandra Sepulveda Kozakowski, Preeti Chauhan, “Does adult attachment style mediate the relationship between childhood maltreatment and mental and physical health outcomes?”, Child Abuse & Neglect, Volume 76, 2018, Pages 533-545, ISSN 0145-2134, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.05.002. Retrieved September 5, 2022 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213417301989