Childhood Emotional Neglect: Learning How to Heal

Many of us have fond memories of our childhoods. But for some, these wistful recollections may mean a reliving of past hurts and trauma instead.

For Jennifer, thinking about her childhood generates a mixed bag of emotions. “My mom grew up in a family where her dad was a violent alcoholic. Chaos was her normal and that transferred into our home life,” she reveals. “My mom suffered from depression, and probably anxiety and ADD too, although these weren’t diagnosed. All of those things together combined to create a situation where, as loving as she is, she was emotionally unstable and didn’t know what to do with the emotions she had. She would cry, yell, lash out and have meltdowns.”

Jennifer’s father, too, had suffered enormous trauma in his life. When he was 19 years old, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and served in combat for a year.

“When you’re experiencing unexpected and unpredictable death over and over again, your life is constantly in danger and you’re in a situation where you might have to kill other people, the coping mechanism is oftentimes to shut down emotionally,” she says. “If your friend gets blown up next to you—which my dad experienced—you have no time to grieve. There’s literally no time to process it, so you shut down on the inside.

“My dad was also a tunnel rat. In Củ Chi, the Viet Cong had dug tunnels underground and had whole systems where they kept weapons and other supplies, so whenever his company came across one of these tunnels, he was one of the guys who had to go down, even though it could be booby-trapped or someone could be waiting to shoot them. So that added a whole other layer of trauma to him … there was fear and utter terror.

“When he came back to America, war veterans like my dad were completely hated and spit on. That caused a lot of emotional shutdown as well, because there’s not even a place where you can be supported in your home area for the sacrifices you’ve just made.”

These wartime experiences culminated in Jennifer’s father being emotionally detached from his family. “My dad was never abusive. He’s a super gentle man. He wasn’t mean, but he didn’t know how to talk to us,” she explains. “I have lots of memories of him out in his workshop every night working on projects that he was interested in and not engaging with the family. And I remember feeling like he cared more about his canoe or his art projects.”

What is emotional neglect?

Unlike physical abuse, emotional neglect is difficult to spot. Psychology Today defines it as “consistently ignoring, rejecting, verbally abusing, teasing, withholding love, isolating or terrorizing a child.”  Dr. Jonice Webb points out that it is “a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs (as well as) a failure to notice, attend to or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”

In 2003, neglect was the most common form of child maltreatment reported to social workers in Canada. More than a decade later, such cases are still alarmingly frequent.

“A large percentage of our clients experience it in some form. What we usually see is a ‘combination’ of different types of trauma, including emotional neglect,” says Sandeep Bhandal, the clinical counselling programs team leader at ACT 2, a not-for-profit registered charity in Vancouver, B.C. that provides counselling, education, housing and other support for children, youth and adults.

What are its effects?

The effects and outcomes of feeling emotionally neglected as children are complex and far-reaching.

Having an emotionally absent father and an emotionally unstable mother created a deep inner despair within Jennifer. “I’ve always struggled with a sense of belonging, even with my own family,” she says. “When your parents are in survival mode all the time, they don’t really have the ability to see their children as people and engage with them. My interests and outlook are very different from everyone else in my family and my parents didn’t have the capacity to figure out how to interact with me in a way that felt like I was being embraced in my family.”

Grace Lee* is also no stranger to feeling lost and alone while growing up. “My mother was always busy with church and I felt like she rarely had time to talk to me,” she shares. “She would usually ask about me while she was cooking in the kitchen, but even though I knew she was trying to be considerate, I felt like that wasn’t enough. I felt a sense of loneliness in my life because, besides my mother, I had no one else to talk with and she had little time to talk to me.”

How serious is it?

Bhandal emphasizes that emotional neglect is in itself an element of trauma. “Children will remember feeling isolated from a young age. That will stay with them. It shows you their level of attachment to themselves and to other people around them as they get older.”

“…Neglecting children when they are young makes them try so hard to please others. This will also affect their identity and relationship with God, because they try so hard to please him and forget that salvation is a gift that Jesus has paid for us.”

Jennifer’s adult life reflects this tension, especially when it comes to being inter-dependent. “I’ve struggled to form good, healthy friendships where I’m asking for things that I need. I haven’t known how to be there for people or let other people be there for me. I’ve also dated a lot and have been in some long-term relationships, but when there’s any whiff of rejection or neglect, I oftentimes very much overreact. I think it’s because of how my dad interacted with me—I have this deep-seated fear and I see neglect even when it isn’t there.”

She has also wrestled with mental health issues as a result. “From the time I was in my mid-teens, I struggled with pretty serious depression. For several decades, I was depressed all the time,” she discloses. “I struggled with suicidal thoughts a lot. I never attempted suicide, but I spent a couple of decades with that almost always in my mind, wishing that I had never been born and feeling like I belonged with no one and nowhere and why God was torturing me by making me live.”

Emotional neglect can also impact our faith. “What a friend told me is so true—neglecting children when they are young makes them try so hard to please others,” says Lee. “This will also affect their identity and relationship with God, because they try so hard to please him and forget that salvation is a gift that Jesus has paid for us.”

What are the signs and symptoms?

Because emotional neglect can take many different shapes and forms, it’s not easy to detect in children. One way to identify it is when “the child is withdrawn and refraining from opening up,” says Bhandal, who is also a child and family therapist. “When children go to a playroom, they’ll often be quick to play. But when we notice that they’re quite hesitant or withdrawing from play, that’s a huge sign (of emotional neglect) for us.”

Another indication, says Bhandal, is if they are “not in touch with their emotional selves  — for example, if they’ve lost their mom or dad, but aren’t expressing any emotional awareness of that, emotional stability isn’t being shown. Rather, the child is emotionally detached.”

How a child relates to others in everyday situations, Bhandal adds, can also provide further insight. “How do they function at school or in the community and are they involved in extra-curricular activities? If they’re showing a withdrawn nature once again, that would be another sign that something has happened to the child that needs attention.”

Adults may find it challenging to realize that they have experienced emotional neglect during their childhoods. You may come from a happy, loving home that has provided for your every need, but if you find it difficult to connect emotionally to other people and express your own feelings, or have had to manage your parents’ emotions more than your own, you may have experienced emotional neglect to some degree.

How do you treat it?

Recognize that you have been hurt

One positive first step is to acknowledge that hurt has been caused. “I spent many years focusing on my dad and mom’s experiences, not excusing it, but feeling like they’ve been through so much and not even realizing what it was doing to me,” says Jennifer.

“I skipped over myself and was always focusing on them and what they experienced. So it’s taken me this long into in my adult life to realize that this is a real thing that has affected me and I need to tend to it well. It doesn’t mean that I’m not compassionate toward my dad or mom, but it means that I can say, ‘I need care, too, and these are the ways you have wronged me.’”

Go for counselling or therapy

Counselling or therapy sessions will help to uncover your struggle with emotional neglect and create a safe space for you to work through issues arising from it.

Bhandal’s work at ACT 2 centres on a parent-child approach. “Let’s say we’re working with a child and learning more about this level of emotional neglect and how it’s coming up in our therapy with them. Parents are often brought in at the end of the session or at an alternate time to learn what’s going on. We’re constantly keeping parents informed and offering education on signs and symptoms,” she explains.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy here. For young children, Bhandal recommends play and expressive art therapy. Other approaches include focusing on cognitive behavior or on body awareness.

“You want the child to connect to that experience (of emotional neglect) themselves,” continues Bhandal. “Once they understand it, you give them the language (to explain it): ‘I was in pain’ or ‘No one talked to me.’ Then we’ll bring up the word ‘neglect’ or ask questions like, ‘What do you do at home? Are you telling me you’re on your own? What is that like?’ It’s about being inquisitive and curious and letting them come up with their own answers.

“Essentially, you’re helping the child come up with their own narrative around what emotional neglect means, so they can understand the impact and further connect to the trauma surrounding that and learn how to overcome it.”

Have conversations with God

Being honest and open in talking to God about your hurt can be a form of release and relief. We don’t need to fear judgment or only go to him when the trauma is too great to bear. Constantly confiding in God, whether verbally, silently or through practices like journaling, will help you remember that you are not alone in your suffering.

For Jennifer, being aware that her cries are always heard by a loving God has made a world of difference. “When I was depressed and suicidal and saying all sorts of things to God, God was constant and let me have my pain and was near to me in those times. That’s who God is. He is big enough to handle the worst things that we might go through or say to him or struggle with. He’s not here to condemn us. He’s here to uphold us and carry us through in constant faithfulness … so it’s the opposite of neglect. He can handle anything and He will not go away.”

Channel your pain into your purpose

How can we “redeem” painful, traumatic experiences such as these? Being vulnerable and open enough to share your story— in the right setting and at an opportune time — may very well help others who are going through something similar.

It may also inform and clarify your passions in life, like in Lee’s case. “God has given me a big heart for children,” she divulges. “I want to make a voice for the children, tell parents they should listen to their children and understand them well and that they matter most in their children’s lives.”

Established in 1980, ACT 2 Child and Family Services works with children, youth and adults who have experienced the effects of sexual abuse, violence and trauma. There are currently three counselling programs located in Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Surrey, B.C.

*An alias; she declines to reveal her real name.

No one should have to go through a battle alone. If you or someone you know needs help, please see the list of resources we put together just for you. If you are currently in a crisis situation, please seek immediate intervention by reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

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Isabel Ong
Isabel Ong

Isabel is a writer, wanderlust-er and worshipper of Jesus. She shares about faith, lifestyle and travel on her blog and Instagram account @izzabelle_co.

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