The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
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.
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.
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.
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.