Childhood emotional neglect is both simple in its definition and powerful in its effects.
It happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs while they’re raising you.
Emotional Neglect is an invisible, unmemorable childhood experience. Yet unbeknownst to you, it can hang over you like a cloud, coloring your entire adult life.
What makes Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) invisible and unmemorable? Several important factors.
First, it can happen in otherwise loving, caring families that lack for nothing materially. Second, your parents’ failure to respond is not something that happens to you as a child. Instead, it’s something that fails to happen for you as a child. Our eyes don’t see the things that fail to happen. And so our brains can’t record them.
Decades later, as an adult, you sense that something is not right, but you don’t know what it is. You may look at your childhood for answers, but you cannot see the invisible. So you are left to assume that something is innately wrong with you.
“Whatever is wrong, it’s my own fault,” you secretly believe. “I’m different from other people. Something is missing. I’m flawed.”
Yet it’s not your fault. There are answers. And once you understand the problem, you can heal. Here are seven signs you were neglected as a child that show up when you are an adult.
1. Feelings of emptiness
Emptiness feels different for different people. For some, it’s an empty feeling in their belly, chest or throat that comes and goes. For others, it’s a numbness.
2. Fear of being dependent
It’s one thing to be an independent kind of person. But feeling deeply uncomfortable about depending on anyone is another thing altogether. If you find yourself taking great care to not need help, support or care from others, you may have this fear.
3. Unrealistic self-appraisal
Do you find it hard to know what you are capable of? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What do you like? What do you want? What matters to you? Struggling to answer these questions is one of the signs you were neglected as a child and that you don’t know yourself as well as you should.
4. No compassion for yourself, but plenty for others
Are you harder on yourself than you would ever be on a friend? Do others talk to you about their problems, but it’s hard for you to share yours?
5. Guilt, shame, self-directed anger, and blame
Guilt, shame, anger, and blame — The Fabulous Four, all directed at yourself. Some people have a tendency to go straight to guilt and shame whenever a negative event happens in their lives. Do you feel ashamed of things that most people would never be ashamed of? Like having needs, making mistakes, or having feelings?
6. Feeling fatally flawed
This is that deep sense I talked about above. You know that something is wrong in your life, but you can’t pinpoint what it is. “It’s me,” you say to yourself, and you feel that it is true. “I’m not likable.” “I’m different than other people.” “Something is wrong with me.”
7. Difficulty feeling, identifying, managing and/or expressing emotions
Do you get tongue-tied when you’re upset? Have a limited vocabulary of emotion words? Often feel confused about why people (including yourself) feel or act the way they do?
Parents who under-notice, undervalue or under-respond to their child’s emotions inadvertently convey a powerful, subliminal message to the child: Your feelings don’t matter.
To cope as a child, you naturally push your emotions down, to keep them from becoming a “problem” in your childhood home. Then, as an adult, you are living without enough access to your emotions: your emotions, which should be directing, guiding, informing, connecting and enriching you; your emotions, which should be telling you who matters to you and what matters to you, and why.
And now for the excellent news of the day: It’s not too late for you.
Once you understand the reason for your forever “flaw,” and how it came about, you can heal from your Childhood Emotional Neglect by attacking it. You can establish a new pipeline to your emotions. You can learn the skills to use them.
You can finally accept that your feelings are real, and they matter. You can finally see that you matter. You can take on your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and your life will change.
Check out the video below to learn the examples and effects of experiencing emotional abuse as children:
Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website and Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.