Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.
Definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood neglect is defined as parents not meeting the emotional, mental, or physical needs of their children in a manner that has a negative effect on their self-esteem, self-image, and physical well-being. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in seven children have experienced child abuse and, in many cases, neglect.
Neglect is often difficult to detect because many parents are able to put on a masquerade of being caring parents in a loving, close-knit family. Many people do not realize that their emotional or physical struggles as adults could be connected to the neglect they experienced as children.
In her informative book Running on Empty, Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Jonice Webb calls childhood neglect "an invisible force that may be at work in your life."
I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents met all my physical needs. I had three good meals a day, pretty clothes, and a nice house to live in. On the surface, my family and I looked “normal,” but behind closed doors, things were different.
My mother could be loving at times but was often caught up in her own life. She worked full-time, ran a dance 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 sewed costumes for our annual dance school recital. She rarely seemed to have the time or energy to talk to me. My father was cold and distant. He was often behind a newspaper or out of the house.
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. My parents could be verbally and physically abusive, so I tried to be quiet around them to avoid sparking their violent tempers.
I became a latchkey kid around age 12. I was bullied in middle 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 went away. I felt my parents would not listen to me or sympathize, and I was afraid of being misunderstood. My parents did not express any interest in how I was feeling or what was going on in my life. I learned early on that I was going to have to fix my own problems myself if I was going to survive.
Being strong-willed and somewhat bull-headed, I did make it into adulthood but had my fair share of struggles. Looking back, I do not think that my parents were deliberately trying to neglect me. I believe that they were hurting, broken people who did not realize how their actions affected me.
The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test
Dr. Jonice Webb, a PhD in clinical psychology, has created a Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. The test identifies many characteristics that arise when adults experience neglect as a child. I recognized that I had many of these traits while I was growing up.
Characteristics of Adults who Experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect
They Experience Low Self-Esteem and Shame
My parents did not teach me the life lessons I needed to learn to cope with life, so I felt inadequate and ashamed of my inferior state. They never praised me when I did something well, so I often did not recognize my accomplishments.
Without positive reinforcement, I suffered from low self-esteem. I felt I was not good enough to receive praise. I could not trust my feelings and judgment. My parents often ignored and invalidated my feelings, making me feel worthless. This lack of self-worth can also lead to poor self-care or self-neglect in some people.
They Are Very Hard on Themselves
Victims of childhood neglect often feel angry and disappointed in themselves. They judge themselves more harshly than 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 remarks. My harsh judgment of myself could be a result of not having received enough compassion or emotional nurturing in my childhood.
They 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. They may feel disconnected from their family.
As children grow up, their parents do not notice when their children are feeling sad or in need of comfort. When children are ignored, go unnoticed, or their words or actions were misunderstood by their parents, kids respond by feeling that they 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 despite my outgoing nature.
They Are Proud of Their Independence
Victims are proud that they do not need to depend on others. As a result, they find it difficult to ask for help. They have trouble trusting other people because experience has taught them that people are unreliable and will probably not meet their needs. Some individuals are afraid of relying on others because people have let them down in the past.
They 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 their future. They may feel powerless to change their situation because their needs were not met in the past.
They 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 on 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.
They Are Not in Touch With Their Feelings
Victims may have difficulty identifying their emotions. They often feel unhappy or irritable without a clear reason and have trouble calming down when upset. They are often unable to list their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, they feel empty inside. Something seems to hold them back from participating in social situations.
I struggled with regulating my emotions because I had to suppress them in childhood to avoid angering my parents. I was not taught how to manage my feelings in a healthy way. 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 to keep myself from being hurt.
They Are at a Higher Risk of Mental Health Conditions and Addictions
I suffered from chronic depression and other mental challenges as a teen and young adult. Other individuals may experience mental health conditions such as PTSD and attachment difficulties. Some people who experience neglect may turn to substance abuse or other addictions to deal with unmanageable emotional pain.
Steps to Overcoming the Effects of Childhood Neglect
If you have experienced neglect in childhood, here are some steps you can take to overcome the harm that was done by your parents.
Become More Self-Aware
Self-awareness involves spending time analyzing how you are feeling and determining your 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. Talking to other people about what I was going through also helped me to gain insight.
Accept Yourself as You Are
Another step adults who were neglected as children 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 being alone was a comfortable, safe place that I know well. I push myself to take the risk of interacting with other people. I strive to stop putting myself down.
Ask for Help to Overcome Physical and Emotional Harm
I grew up having to resolve my problems myself. I developed a false sense of security in my ability to survive, even when my solutions were not viable. Inside, I felt insecure. Asking for help is very difficult as well, though I am getting better at it.
Recognizing and dealing with the effects of emotional childhood neglect has helped me deal with and overcome the damage done. Individuals who have experienced childhood neglect can have hope that they can overcome the fallout of neglect and heal from it.
Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
9 Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect, and 3 Ways to Heal, Psychology Today
8 Signs of Emotional Neglect in a Family, Psychology Today, Jonice Webb
6 Important Facts About Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), PsychCentral, Jonice Webb PhD
The Long-Term Impact of Neglectful Parents, Psychology Today, Karyl McBridge, Ph.D.
Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test, Psych Central, Dr. Jonice Webb
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you know of any texts that cover childhood emotional neglect and the path to healing? I am having trouble finding the right thing.
Answer: When researching this article, most of the research was done by Dr. Jonice Webb. She has written two books: "Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect" and Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children." There are several books you can find on Amazon by searching for "emotional childhood neglect." These publications may deal with more specific subtopics such as absentee fathers, etc.
© 2014 Carola Finch
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 31, 2018:
Thanks for sharing your stories. This is a difficult and painful suibject for some people
Jamie1123 on July 06, 2018:
Thank you for this. I have struggled with every single one of these traits my whole life - especially feeling like I never belonged anywhere. I was ignored my whole childhood - the tv was my only friend. No one in my family showed an ounce of interest in me. I have a tough road ahead of me still, but I am hopeful there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 30, 2018:
I am sorry that you went through such a painful experience. I am not a mental health professional, but I have meet a number of people who grew up in similar circumstances. I have seen how emotionally devestating abandonment, especially by a mother, can be. That being said, I think that people are individuals who vary greatly in how they are impacted by neglect and abandonment. I am hesitant (and am not qualified) to put labels on anyone. I have benefited from counselling in the past for my issues and recommend it as a way to deal with concerns.
Cheryl Wold on May 30, 2018:
When I was an infant my mother gave me to my grandparents to raise without any explanation until I was in my 40s of why cuz all kinds of problems for me growing up. When I became a mother myself I found that I did not have that same intensity of love for my baby that other mothers did I read that there was somewhere that there was a reason for this and a condition for it and I'd like to know what that was called thank you
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 26, 2018:
I am a lefty myself, but fortunately, no one made me use my right hand. It is so tough when you can't get your needs met. As Dr. Phil says, sometimes you have to give yourself what other people should have given you. It is possible to overcome the harmful effects of neglect. The impact does not go away entirely, but I am self-aware enough to deal with them. I wish you the best on your healing journey.
jeff2626 on April 26, 2018:
When i was an infant my babysitter would lock me in a closet when i cried. no one reported it to the police. I had no memory of it I had to be told about it. i was born left-handed but my mom made me write with my right hand. my mother was always wrapped up with her own life to care about me when i was like 8 my cousin used to hit me, my cousins, my sister, and i with his belt when we were too loud. I grew up feeling like my needs didn't matter, and i always cared about others in the hopes that id run into someone like me and my needs would be met. my mom was a hardcore alcoholic and almost killed herselfabout 6 years ago . at least i can get help now.
Johnny Elkin on April 12, 2018:
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...
DebRae123 on April 10, 2018:
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 (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 10, 2018:
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.
DebRae123 on April 10, 2018:
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?
tomorrow jones on April 09, 2018:
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
amymill21 on February 23, 2018:
Thanks for the article.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on January 17, 2018:
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.
dariodiaz on January 17, 2018:
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 (author) from Ontario, Canada on December 20, 2017:
I found there is not much written about this subject, but the main research has been done by the founder of emotionalneglect.com. 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.
JCT5960 on December 20, 2017:
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 .
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 16, 2017:
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.
JohnnyTJ on August 16, 2017:
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.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 16, 2016:
This is a lovely article, highly readable and well informed. I must follow you:)
Summer LaSalle from USA on June 01, 2015:
How brave to share this- hope it will help someone else. Thanks for sharing. -Wendi
Lynn Kelly from Florida on May 08, 2015:
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 (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 05, 2014:
Thanks for sharing, mothersofnations. I am far from perfect, but I can say that I have healed from many of these negative effects.
mothersofnations on September 05, 2014:
Voted up and shared! God bless you.
mothersofnations on September 05, 2014:
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 (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 14, 2014:
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.
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on August 14, 2014:
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.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 14, 2014:
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.