How Emotional Neglect in Childhood Impacts Adulthood

Emotional neglect in childhood leaves negative traces on the personality. It also affects the way relationships are managed in adulthood.
How Emotional Neglect in Childhood Impacts Adulthood
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 23 November, 2022

You’re largely the product of how you were raised. Indeed, the role of your parents was much more relevant than you probably think. They didn’t only attend to your physical needs but also shaped your emotional world. Therefore, if you only received poorly adaptive emotional experiences in this environment, due to systematic emotional negligence during your first years of life, you’ll have found your adulthood compromised.

You can observe the traces of emotional neglect in yourself or those close to you, but you have to know where to look. That’s because, as a rule, those who suffered emotional neglect in childhood appear to be fine and seem to have everything under control.

In fact, they’re usually kind, generous, and conciliatory people, who are pleasant company. However, if you look deeper, you’ll see cracks, wounds, and shortcomings from their past. Moreover, there continue to be consequences in the way they deal with what’s happening to them now.

Sad boy
Emotional neglect occurs when children’s needs are ignored.

Emotional neglect

You may not be familiar with the concept of emotional neglect as it’s not that easy to detect. On the other hand, when active abuse or assault occurs, it’s often clearly visible and usually includes yelling, insults, and threats.

Emotional neglect implies a lack, something that was necessary, that should’ve been, but wasn’t. There were certain needs that weren’t covered and whose ignored demand was probably not so easily detected.

Emotional neglect occurs when caregivers:

  • Ignore their child’s needs, especially emotional ones.
  • Ridicule and belittle their emotions.
  • Reward forms of coping or emotional management that aren’t adaptive. For example, violence or indifference.
  • Rarely or never make the child feel protected or make them believe that they’re in control over their environment.
  • Rarely show affection or unconditional love. Phrases like “If you don’t…, I won’t love you anymore” can be extremely effective in getting a child to do what the parent wants, but also extraordinarily dangerous for their internal dialogue.

Based on these experiences, the child learns that their emotions aren’t important and that they’re not acceptable. They understand that no one will accept them and that by expressing themselves, they’re upsetting the people they love. Thus, in order to survive, (and bearing in mind that they’re totally dependent on the adults around them), they choose to disconnect from themselves and repress their thoughts.

Signs that a person suffered emotional neglect in childhood

Research has proven that insensitive and receptive caregivers cause insecure attachment bonds to develop between them and their children. This marks a child’s personality, confidence, and way of managing the events that occur in their social environment. It’s manifested in behaviors and attitudes that have a really important impact on adult life.

Here are some of the signs that an adult suffered emotional neglect in childhood:

  • They’re good people. They really want to please others and tend to behave exactly as others would expect of them. This is their most powerful reinforcer, and they may carry it out consciously or unconsciously.
  • They expect conflict and systematically give in to others.
  • One of their main fears is that someone might consider them to be a bad person. This makes them really sensitive to criticism. For example, when someone expresses disgust or disagreement, they feel really uncomfortable. Even if the person who’s complaining isn’t identifying them as responsible, they often apologize, both for themselves and the accused. In effect, they don’t want conflict with them, but they don’t want them around them either.
  • They rarely talk about their emotions. Nor do they share how they feel.
  • They have a great deal of difficulty really trusting others.
  • They live with a constant feeling of sadness and emptiness that seems to follow them wherever they go. It’s like a kind of shadow.

Defense mechanisms

These attitudes reflect the main ideas that the individual extracted from their childhood. The idea is that their emotions aren’t important or valid and that by sharing them they’ll only annoy others or they’ll reject them for doing so. These defense mechanisms may have been useful at the time but today they’re a burden and a limitation that can affect their personal well-being and relationships with others.

How to act on it

Fortunately, there are several steps that can be taken to reverse the situation and heal the wounds of emotional neglect in childhood. If you’re in this predicament, here’s what you should do.

  • Understand what happened and accept it. Understanding the concept of emotional neglect, knowing that you were a victim of it, and informing yourself about it can be extremely useful for understanding what’s happening to you now. With this understanding, you can embrace your wounded child and take charge, today, from your position as an adult.
  • Work on your emotional intelligence. This is a fundamental factor that you lacked in your childhood, but that you can now address. Therefore, it’s essential to expand your emotional vocabulary, learn to identify your emotions, and acquire resources to express and regulate yourself.
  • Start prioritizing yourself. Learn how to connect with what you feel, want, desire, or need before asking yourself what others need. Set boundaries, make the necessary requests, and seek your own well-being. This isn’t selfish but healthy, since (despite what others have made you feel), you have the right to make a noise, inconvenience others, and have both a voice and vote.
  • Practice self-disclosure and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Talking about yourself and your worries, fears, and dreams is essential to create emotional intimacy with others. Until now, fear has led you to lock yourself behind a wall, but it’s time to lower your guard and gradually open yourself up to others.
  • Offer yourself the emotional validation that you lacked. You need to work and improve your relationship with yourself, strengthen your self-esteem, and give yourself the support and affection that you lacked in childhood. Learn to welcome your own emotions and understand that they’re valid and permissible. Don’t blame yourself or force yourself to feel something different. Just be yourself and make sure you show yourself compassion.
Woman looking in the mirror
Working on emotional management and validation is essential.

Accompany the healing

Those traces of emotional neglect will begin to fade the moment you identify them. However, as we mentioned earlier, it isn’t an easy task, since this kind of neglect can be camouflaged in many different ways.

Patients who’ve suffered emotional neglect usually attend therapy with a practically unanimous complaint. They say they’ve been feeling bad for years, but don’t know why. Many of them say they have people around them whom they love and who love them, a good job, and aspirations for the future. However, there’s something that, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit.

If this sounds like you, you need to identify the ways in which negligence, if it exists, is continuing to have an influence on your present. You must intervene in a conscious way in that influence. It isn’t an easy path to take, so we recommend that you seek the help of a professional.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Müller, L. E., Bertsch, K., Bülau, K., Herpertz, S. C., & Buchheim, A. (2019). Emotional neglect in childhood shapes social dysfunctioning in adults by influencing the oxytocin and the attachment system: Results from a population-based study. International Journal of Psychophysiology136, 73-80.
  • Wark, M. J., Kruczek, T., & Boley, A. (2003). Emotional neglect and family structure: impact on student functioning. Child abuse & neglect27(9), 1033-1043.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.