The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Updated on October 5, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.


Childhood neglect can be defined as parents not meeting the emotional and sometimes the physical needs of their children. It is often difficult to detect because many parents are able to put on a good masquerade of being caring parents in a loving, close-knit family. People who grew up neglected may not even realize that their struggles could be connected to childhood emotional neglect.

My story

I grew up in a middle class family. All my physical needs were met. I had three good meals a day, pretty clothes, and a nice house to live in. On the surface, we looked “normal” but behind closed doors, but things were different. My parents were overly strict and quick to punish me if they thought I stepped out of line.

I withdrew into myself, afraid of saying something that would bring on a painful spanking or hurtful remarks such as I was stupid and could not do anything right. Sometimes my hurt feelings were misinterpreted as my being rude or willful.

me around 15 or 16
me around 15 or 16

My mother could be loving at times, but was often caught up in her own life. She worked full-time, and ran a dancing school in our house several nights a week, and did all the housekeeping. She refused to give me chores, saying how much she hated them when she was a kid. In her off-hours, she was sewing costumes for our annual dancing school recital. She never seemed to have the time or energy to talk to me. My father was cold and distant. I was afraid of his violent temper.

I spent many hours alone in my room hiding out and dreaming of a different life. I never felt that my parents really knew me as a person – my thoughts, my dreams, or my personality. I thought I was not worth knowing. I became a latchkey kid around age 12 or 13.

I was bullied at school and struggled with depression. I came home from school to an empty house and longed for someone to talk to about my problems. By the time my parents came home, the need to talk ebbed. I felt my parents would not listen to me or sympathize and I was afraid of being misunderstood. My parents did not express an interest in how I was feeling or what was going on in my life.

Around this time, my school counsellor called my mother, saying that I was in a deep depression and should get treatment in a mental institution. My mother refused, saying that there was nothing wrong with her daughter. I never got help.

Despite this incident and others that showed that I needed help and emotional support, my mother lived in denial that our family was less than perfect. My father never seemed interested in me at all. I learned early on in life that I was going to have to fix my own problems if I was going to survive.

Being strong-willed and somewhat bull-headed, I did make it into adulthood. I do not think that my parents were deliberately trying to neglect me. I think that they were hurting, broken people who did not realize how their actions affected me.

Traits of adults who experienced childhood emotional neglect

Dr. Jonice Webb has created a Childhood Emotional Neglect Test that identifies many personality characteristics that arise from adults experiencing neglect as a child. I was amazed to see that many of these traits did apply to me as I approached adulthood.

Here are some of the common characteristics that seem to arise in victims of childhood emotional neglect.

Are very hard on themselves: Victims of childhood neglect often feel angry and disappointed in themselves. They judge themselves more harshly than they judge others and hold themselves to a higher standard. For example, after being in a social situation, I would mentally beat myself up for saying what I thought were stupid or wrong things. This harsh judgment could be a result of not having received enough soothing, compassion, or emotional nurturing in my childhood.

Lack a sense of belonging: Victims feel like they do not belong anywhere, even among family and friends. People close to them say that the victims are distant or aloof. Victims often just want to be left alone and feel uncomfortable in social situations.

As children grow up, their parents did not seem to notice when their children is feeling sad or needs comforting because they are upset, intensifying the sense of disconnect from the family. When children are ignored, go unnoticed, or their words or actions are misinterpreted by parents, they get the message that their feelings are unimportant, wrong, or unacceptable. When children are ridiculed as I was, they also are afraid to express themselves because they may get put down or punished. They suppress their emotions. I built an emotional wall around myself to protect myself from getting hurt.

Victims may feel more comfortable with animals than with people. I always loved my pets and tended to live in isolation in spite of my naturally outgoing nature.


Are proud of their independence: Victims are proud that they do not need to rely on others. As a result, they find it difficult to ask for help.

Feel they have not met their goals in life: Victims feel that there is something wrong with them and struggle with self-discipline. It is hard for them to recognize their needs and make an organized plan for the future.

Often feel isolated: Victims sometimes feel that they could easily live in isolation as a hermit, and often feel like they are on the outside looking in in social situations.

For me, my room was my safe place where no one would bully or ridicule me. I isolated myself because this state felt safe.

Are not in touch with their feelings: Victims may have difficulty in identifying their emotions. They often feel unhappy or irritable for no clear reason and have trouble calming down when upset. They are often unable to cite their strengths and weaknesses. They sometimes feel empty inside. Something seems to hold them back in social situations from being present in the moment. When I was sixteen, a boy wrote a poem about me that jolted me into an awareness of how disconnected I was from people. He described me as a “bird with broken wings” that hid behind a protective wall that kept me from being hurt.

Deep down, victims feel like they are frauds, hiding behind a mask of competency.

Concluding thoughts

One is the first steps to victims can take to overcome the effects of emotional neglect is to become self-aware. This involves spending time becoming more aware of what they are feeling and their emotional state. I found that taking long walks helped me focus on learning about myself. When certain emotions bubble up, I take the time to consider where they have come from.

Another step victims can take is learning to accept themselves as they are and stop being so hard on themselves. Sometimes I feel tempted to isolate myself from social situations because it feels like a comfortable, safe place for me that I know well. I push myself to take the risk of interacting with other people.

Asking for help is very difficult as well, though I am getting better at it. I grew up having to resolve my problems myself. I developed a false sense of my security in my ability to survive, even when my solutions were not that viable.

Recognizing and dealing with the effects of emotional childhood neglect has helped me to heal from the damage done. Anyone who has experienced neglect can have hope that he or she can overcome the fallout of neglect and heal from it.


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    Johnny Elkin 8 days ago

    I'm 17, and I can confidently say that this article really presents the truth about how neglect affects kids... It's a shame that I had to found this out my self just before I enter adulthood...

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    DebRae123 10 days ago

    Thank you for your kindness, Carola. Yes, I'm learning a thing or two about acceptance! I can't change him or force him to see what I observe, I can only choose how I handle it. I really appreciate your words of wisdom.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 10 days ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing your situation with me. I am not a mental health professional, but I have been involved in Christian ministries that help people broken by abuse and neglect like myself. I understand that it is difficult to see someone who is hurting because of their painful past. It is natural to want to rescue people we love from themselves and fix their problems. Ultimately, however, it is up to individuals themselves as to how they deal with their pain. That is out of our control. People who are hurting tend to go into denial and/or turn to coping behaviors such as isolation, workaholism, or substance abuse. Ultimately, they need to make the decision for themselves to step out of denial, process their hurts and begin a healing journey. We can voice our concerns, love them unconditionally, accept, encourage them, and support them but we cannot force people to change. In some cases, counselling can help us to deal with the frustrations of this type of situation. I wish you all the best on this difficult journey.

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    DebRae123 10 days ago

    Thank you for the helpful article, Carola.

    I'm realizing more and more that my partner suffers from childhood emotional neglect. The more I ask him about it or try to understand him on an intimate level, the more he pushes me away and uses work, online shopping, and other activities as a way to avoid intimacy. He can't handle any form of critisism and is very reluctant to change. I love him and I want his attention! What can I do?

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    tomorrow jones 11 days ago

    Carola, i made the effort to sign up just to thank you for sharing.

    i’m past middle age and just beginning to research and understand why i’m the way i am. this article helps

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    amymill21 8 weeks ago

    Thanks for the article.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 3 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    I am sorry you are going through this complex situation. I suggest that you seek counselling to help you. As a woman of faith and someone who has been through a lot, I do believe that prayer and lots of love go a long way to heal these challenges.

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    dariodiaz 3 months ago

    My wife and I are grandparents to a child that we feel is being emotionally neglected. It just so happens that we believe the parents were both victims of CEN. My step daughter the child's mother was neglected by her dad. My wife was a single mom and in my opinion was an excellent mother. My grandson is now 5 and at a very young age appeared to hide his affection and preference to us from his parents. This has now caused huge problems that I feel need review. The relationship with child and us was special beautiful and admired by friends and family. However his parents disagree to an unbelievable point. We pray daily for our Lord to guide us and for us to see the motive. Can you offer any help or advise? I am reading J. Webb and several other publications. I am ultimately trying to stop CEN from repeating itself. I know for certain my step daughter has it though she denies it.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    I found there is not much written about this subject, but the main research has been done by the founder of I suggest you google the subject as well. I feel that for the most part, I have overcome these negative effects, so keep hope alive. Your girlfriend is lucky to have someone to support her. In the end, though, she has to do the work herself to overcome her issues.

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    JCT5960 4 months ago

    Your article was amazing and helped me to better understand my girlfriend who was emotionally abandoned. Are there any articles or resources that can help me be the most supportive boyfriend and help her? She goes to therapy as do I but just would like to know if there are articles that can tell me what, if anything, I can do to help .

    Much thanks

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 8 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments. If you want to see more of my articles, click on my name on the article, and then on the profile icon on the right side. This will bring up a list of other articles I have written. I have written a lot of articles based on my personal experiences.

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    JohnnyTJ 8 months ago

    Hi Carola,

    Thank you so much for this article. I never resonated with a story as much as I resonated with yours. I was wondering if you wrote any other article on who you overcame it all. The biggest challenge I face is the shame of how much isolation I was left in. I always feel like an alien whenever I am around my friends and peers. I feel as if I lived a completely different life than they have.

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    Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

    This is a lovely article, highly readable and well informed. I must follow you:)

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    Summer LeBlanc 2 years ago from H-Town

    How brave to share this- hope it will help someone else. Thanks for sharing. -Wendi

  • Lynn Kelly profile image

    Lynn Kelly 2 years ago from Florida

    WOW, this really hit home for me. Thanks for being brave and sharing your story because I can relate to this in so many ways. Nice to know you're not the only one.

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing, mothersofnations. I am far from perfect, but I can say that I have healed from many of these negative effects.

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    Mothers of Nations 3 years ago

    Voted up and shared! God bless you.

  • mothersofnations profile image

    Mothers of Nations 3 years ago

    Wow, this is a very powerful article. I'm so sorry you experienced the emotions you did. Too many don't realize the longterm effects of their actions (or non-actions.) I believe you're healing and I'll pray for you.

    My childhood wasn't very easy either. But over time I have learned to forgive, "for they do not know what they do". I have given it all to the Lord and He's helped me heal tremendously. I know there are still some things I have to work on and the Lord is carrying me in His arms, holding me tight as He heals the old wounds, in Jesus' name.

    The Lord will do the same for you, for you are His child as well.

    You have a lot of courage to share these things with the world. I was always afraid to open up but over time I have, as I needed to. This is one of those times... Thank you for sharing.

    *God bless you*

  • Carola Finch profile image

    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments. Thanks for sharing, Denise. I was aware that some of my personality traits came out of emotional neglect, but did not realize the extent of it until I saw the research on the subject.

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    Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    Emotional neglect is a little known and recognized condition that has affected many. I know, for myself, my teenage years were like what you have described here. A series of unfortunate events left our family numb from the roller coaster ride. There was very little support and strength. Each person went their separate ways. My younger siblings have different memories than I of their last years at home. By then, things had calmed down enough that they were able to have better relationships with our parents. I have many of the traits that you describe here, and have had to work hard to overcome these things.

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    Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

    Voted Up! So much misconduct and non-productivity can be traced to this dilemma. I'm glad that you are able to help yourself survive. Thanks for being so courageous to share from your own experience.