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What is Emotional Neglect?
Emotional neglect is a topic that is rarely discussed, even by psychologists, and most people would not recognise it as a problem. Emotional neglect is so easily misunderstood because, unlike with emotional or physical abuse that features an identifiable negative action, emotional neglect is actually a lack of action. In short, emotional neglect refers to a person’s failure to respond adequately to another’s emotional needs.
Dr. Jonice Webb succinctly defines it this way: “Emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings”. Emotional neglect is not something that happens, but something that fails to happen. This makes it a difficult concept to understand and discuss because emotional neglect is intangible. It is easy to identify the harmful actions of a parent who yells, smacks or criticises, but much harder to pinpoint the wrong actions of a parent who fails to provide for certain needs.
Emotional neglect also occurs in adult relationships between intimate partners. How often have you heard people saying, “He/she is emotionally unavailable or absent”? Emotional neglect is the opposite of emotional attunement. When a couple is emotionally attuned to each other, they experience emotional connection and emotional intimacy. In a relationship or marriage emotional neglect is when a partner consistently fails to notice, attend to, and respond in a timely manner to a partner or spouse’s feelings. In both instances, it has far-reaching negative consequences for the relationship.
As humans, we are relational beings. While you cannot point to the specific behaviours of your parents or partner that makes you feel unloved and affect your self-esteem; not being noticed, attended to, or responded to appropriately and in a timely manner affects both children and adults. Inadvertently, the lack of attentiveness and responsiveness, speaks volumes – your feelings and emotional needs don’t matter. In children, this translates into ‘you don’t matter’ and in adults ‘your needs/you don’t matter.
Emotional neglect is common. It happens in the majority of families in today’s busy lifestyle and society. Most parents love their children. Most adults love their partners. This is not about love or the lack of love. It is about bringing into awareness something that we may not be aware of, and about acting it.
As Psychologists and relationship Counsellors, we see many individuals, couples and families who suffer the consequences of emotional neglect. Good people of all ages with a void in their lives, longing for this invisible emotional attention.
How Emotional Neglect Affects Children
Emotional neglect can happen in the most common of family situations. Imagine Thomas coming home from school angry, throwing tantrums, seeking attention and fighting with his sibling. It is easy for a stressed-out or busy Mum to not respond appropriately. Mum may view Thomas’s behaviours superficially, e.g., seeing anger and tantrums simply as tiredness, ‘naughtiness’ or defiance, so Thomas is sent to his room for time out.
Mum’s emotional inattentiveness, failure to notice (accurately interpret and understand) attend to (provide comfort, soothing) and respond appropriately (help Thomas understand) will mean Thomas missing out on crucial learning - how to make sense of his feelings and behaviours. Thomas also misses out on the experience of empathy from Mum, which impairs his ability to develop empathy for himself and others around him. Over time, Thomas learns his feelings are either irrelevant, don’t matter or are bad. He copes by learning to supress or disconnect from his feelings and emotions with little to no understanding of them. His behaviours will either escalate or he will become withdrawn and shut off. When children grow up in an environment of emotional neglect, they often internalize this neglectful behaviour and become emotionally disconnected as adults.
Certain types of parenting styles are more likely to result in emotional neglect. Authoritarian parents are more interested in whether their children obey instructions than in how children feel or what they need. Perfectionist parents set extremely high expectations of grades and other performance, with little empathy for the intangible details of children’s emotional status. Parents who are permissive or ‘laissez-faire’ tend to be hands-off to the point of being disconnected from their children’s emotional lives. Narcissistic parents, whose focus revolves around their own needs, prevent children from learning to identify their own feelings.
Other parents may be forced by circumstance to be emotionally absent from their child’s life due to marital conflict, divorce, depression or anxiety, illness, overwork, or other life challenges. Sometimes this can lead to emotional parentification- when a child feels the need to meet the emotional needs of the parents and siblings. In most cases, parents who were emotionally neglected as children do not realise they are being emotionally neglectful to their children. How would they? For example, parents cannot provide comfort or soothing when they have not experienced being comforted or sooth in times of feeling upset.
Emotional neglect can have a surprising physiological effect on our developing brains in childhood. When children are regularly neglected or exposed to other hardships they are prone to a ‘toxic stress response’ that impairs normal development in the brain and other organs. Specifically, important executive brain functions such as self-control, memory, and the ability to shift attention appropriately are learned skills that must be supported by a child’s growing environment. ‘Toxic stress’ is disruptive to the development of these skills and also makes it difficult for children to acquire the ability to self-manage in challenging circumstances. This lack of development will continue to impair a child well into adulthood. Emotional neglect in childhood is frequently the cause of many undiagnosed learning disorders in adults. Sadly, these adults grow up believing they are not good enough or at an extreme there is something wrong with them, they have something to be ashamed of.
Children of Emotional Neglect as Adults
The symptoms of emotional neglect are generally unrecognized until they begin to appear in young adulthood. Adults exposed to emotional neglect as children often have problems but remain oblivious as to their origins. They tend to struggle to with knowing who they are, what they expect of themselves and what others expect of them. For example, a classical pianist may be technically brilliant, but somehow his music fails to move others. And a high achieving CEO, expert in his field and superior intellectually (IQ) scores low on emotional intelligence (EQ).
Feeling like a fraud, hiding behind a mask; or feeling disconnected from self
Perfectionism with acute sensitivity to feelings of failure
Sensitivity to feelings of rejection
Viewed by others as being distant, aloof or arrogant
Pervasive feelings of emptiness, unhappiness or lack of joy
Suppressing emotions or being disconnected from emotions has physical consequences that many do not know about. It increases stress on our bodies and increases chances of heart disease and diabetes. It affects our immune system exposing us more to illness, stiff joints and bone weakness. Recent research also shows a strong connection between avoiding emotions or being shut off from emotions and poor memory. People who regularly suppress their emotions may find it challenging when communicating with others. Thomas, mentioned earlier, may grow up having difficulty in picking up social cues, verbal and non-verbal in daily conversations, exposing him to feeling left out or misunderstandings in social settings.
Emotional Neglect in Adult Intimate Relationships
Emotional neglect has a powerful influence on the quality and longevity of adult intimate relationships. Unfortunately, emotional neglect is also common.
Couples often attend Couples Counselling wanting to improve on their communication skills. Their frustrations have a similar theme: they simply cannot resolve differences or conflicts which tend to resurface again and again. This is largely due to partners missing emotional cues and failing to notice, attend and respond in a timely manner. Additionally, when one or both partners engage in regular emotion avoidance they simply end up in intellectual arguments focusing on the facts rather than the more vulnerable emotions evoked.
Here’s a basic example. Jane had a long and difficult day at the office, as she had heard that soon some people would be made redundant. As she got into the car with her husband Mark, the first thing she said was that she was afraid she might lose her job. Jane then looked at the time and added that she felt anxious that their nanny would be angry if they were late again. Meanwhile, Mark was perky and excited, wanting to talk about how he received a great appraisal for the year. Jane asked Mark, ‘Did you hear me?’ Instead of acknowledging Jane’s news about possibly losing her job, Mark replied, ‘Okay, I will drive faster’. Mark then noticed the angry look on Jane’s face, and before she could say another word, he snapped defensively, ‘What’s your problem?’ Jane felt unsupported and alone in her worries.
Whether Mark intended it or not, his behaviour was emotionally neglectful. He failed to notice, attend to, and respond appropriately to Jane’s feelings of worry and anxiety. Additionally, he offered his own feelings of excitement at his own job at a time when Jane needed his support and reassurance. His offer to drive faster may have addressed the nanny’s need, but there was no addressing of Jane’s feelings and emotional needs. Lastly, when he saw Jane’s face, he acted defensively and further pushed away Jane’s need for reassurance and comfort.
Another form of emotional neglect is the ‘silent treatment.’ When a partner emotionally withdraws into silence it can be said he/she is manipulating the other person into changing his/her behaviour or punishing the other partner for a perceived wrongdoing. Unfortunately, the ‘silent treatment’ can have similar effects on the physiology of the adult partner as emotional neglect does on a growing child.
Even as adults, our brains are hard-wired to interpret this type of emotional holdback as rejection. Rejection is painful. In fact, this kind of experience activates the same pain receptors in the brain that are triggered by physical injury. Feelings of rejection and abandonment sends a signal to the amygdala part of our brain that triggers intense fear – fear that we are not good enough, unacceptable or unlovable. It is moments like these we need our partner the most. Unfortunately, if our partner fail to notice, attend and respond in a timely manner, over time, we start to feel insecure and unsafe in the relationship. We start feeling we cannot rely on our partner.
Is there emotional neglect in your relationship? Some signs of emotional neglect in adult relationships
Your ‘go to’ person is a friend or other rather than your partner
Lack of clarity about what your partner wants from you
Feelings of being ‘alone’ in your relationship
Lack of desire to engage in social activities as a couple
Preferring periods of solitude over time with partner
Difficulty in self soothing when facing stress or conflict
Your partner shuts down or withdraws when you raise issues
Prone to ‘numbing out’, or ignoring and suppressing your feelings
Easily overwhelmed; sense of helplessness/powerlessness
Excessive feelings of need to control your partner, finances etc
Experiencing consistent feelings of not belonging when with family and friends
Tending to procrastinate with plans, i.e., having children, travel, setting long term goals
Feeling you cannot be yourself with your partner
Just as it is a function of parents to provide emotional attunement and emotional responsiveness, it is necessary for our partner to provide emotional connection for a healthy relationship. Our needs to be noticed and attended are natural attachment needs. Humans never grow out of the need for a significant other to have our back.
As a Relationship Counsellor and Marriage Counsellor, I frequently ask questions on each partner’s background. Many couples say they had a perfect childhood. Some even say they have little recollection of any distressing incidents. On the other hand, they express deep feelings of not being understood, of feeling pressured or overwhelmed at their partner’s demands. They describe experiencing anxiety or depression as well as fears of rejection or abandonment. Inevitably, as I get to know the couple, I discover that one or both partners in their childhood have experienced some form of childhood emotional neglect. Even in the most affluent of families (and sometimes particularly in the most affluent of families, where children are seen not heard), children’s emotional needs were not adequately met.
Emotional connection is not just about sharing positive feelings of warmth or affection. It also means that when there are problems, you are able to hold uncomfortable feelings, trusting that you as an individual and couple can get upset and yet work through the problems with your sense of self and the relationship intact. Emotional connection includes sharing the more tender, raw and vulnerable parts of ourselves, such as feelings of aloneness, fear of our own inadequacies, and our biggest fear of all – rejection and abandonment.
Some couples can spend many years in an unfulfilling relationship or marriage due to emotional neglect, and not quite understand or pinpoint why they are unhappy. There is a good reason for this. There are no overt signs of emotional neglect. In abusive relationships (whether physical or emotional), the signs are clear because the behaviours of the offending partner are overt. In contrast, because emotional neglect involves failure to act, it is hidden, invisible to the untrained eye or ear. An emotionally neglectful partner or spouse who does not verbally criticise or attack; does not complain or put you down; does not erupt in anger or harass you; does not display any form of aggression. It’s difficult to point to an emotionally neglectful partner, because after all, he/she does ‘nothing wrong’. This makes it harder, much harder, to identify what is missing or wrong in the relationship.
Coincidentally, in my years of working with couples, I have found it harder to help couples that don’t argue. In my opinion, the lack of fighting is either signs of emotional fatigue, trauma or signs of emotional neglect. Fighting may not be an effective way to get one’s needs met; however, it does signify an interest and intent to connect.
Adults who have experienced childhood emotional neglect tend to demonstrate consistent patterns of withdrawal from the stress and conflict of daily living, whether within a relationship or outside of one. They reach for escapes into addictions (including overworking, numbing behaviours like excess drinking/overeating/over exercising, or excess time spent in front of screens) and seek out other solitary activities to withdraw into. They may also tend to under achieve, stay in jobs they dislike but frozen unable to see ethier way through change. The people who are in relationships with them (their spouse, children, or siblings) are left feeling the emotional distance or lack of presence with their loved one.
Sometimes adults with childhood emotional neglect can act like a child, throwing tantrums instead of being able to verbalise, especially if the situation triggers strong emotions. This is where emotional neglect can turn into emotional abuse. The partner with childhood emotional neglect fails to understand his/her own emotions and, feeling out of control, acts out in destructive anger.
Being emotionally connected requires behavioural and physical actions as well as emotional ones. Kissing, touching, hugging, and sex are physical actions that grow emotional connection as our body produces oxytocin – the hormone that bonds us. A relationship featuring emotional neglect demonstrates an ongoing failure to meet the emotional needs of your partner. It may not necessarily be neglectful to refuse sex after having an argument with your partner; however, a consistent pattern of saying no to sex or insisting on certain conditions being met can be described as emotional neglect. How often have you heard this saying? “Children (or intimate partners) need quality time… not quantity”. That is simply untrue. They need both. One does not make up for the other.
Parents and partners, realize that you are selected or have chosen—to be the most important person in the lives of those who count on you. And they count on you to ‘show up’ for the relationship. It is as simple as that. In that way, emotional neglect can be viewed as the lack of emotionally ‘showing up’ for your loved ones.
Ask yourself this question - Is your partner your ‘go to’ person for emotional support? Or do you seek out your close women friends, your buddies from the cricket club, BFF (best friend forever) or Mum instead of your partner? Or do you turn inward, go into your own bubble to self-comfort, believing that no one really understands you and can be there for you?
Feeling alone is the biggest red flag of an emotionally neglectful partner. Feeling alone sits uncomfortably when you have a partner. It not only raises self-doubt but is a palpable mismatch. On one hand, you have a partner who’s intelligent, has a good sense of humour, is generous and kind-natured, shares common goals and interests with you—and yet you still feel alone. It’s a good relationship on the surface but lacks emotional substance.
Emotional connection is the backbone of a relationship. Without that, the relationship has a hollowness to it. This hollowness tends to echo louder in times of stress or conflict, just when you emotionally need your partner the most.
How Counselling & Psychotherapy Helps Emotional Neglect
The many clients I see who have been impacted by emotional neglect are some of the most likeable and lovely people I’ve met. And yet, they feel most alone, even when they are surrounded by people and relationships. They are competent, salt of the earth, good people, typically high achievers and yet they feel somehow displaced, disconnected with themselves and with others. The missed step is the ability to fully feel emotions (fully feel themselves), understand their emotions (fully understand themselves) to then join the seemingly different parts within and to feel whole.
Parents, your children will always need and want you in their lives, no matter how old they grow. There is still time to notice, attend to, and respond to their feelings and emotional needs. As a Family Counsellor I’ve had the privilege to help adult children speak openly to an aging parent. I’ve witness many tender loving moments when an aging parent makes amends to an adult child. These healing conversations are not about digging up the past. There are about repairing missed steps in a relationship for loving connections into the future.
Partners, it may be that your partner is not your ‘go to’ person simply because he/she does not know how to be that person for you. It may be that your partner’s strong reactions have prevented you from fully showing up for yourself and your relationship. The good news is that these skills can be learned experientially through couples or marriage counselling.
If you are questioning whether childhood emotional neglect may have affected you, be proactive and locate an attuned individual counsellor, psychologist or psychotherapist to help discover your suppressed or disconnected emotions. Your emotions can become your new compass in discovering the 'whole' of you. You will realize just how present you can be to yourself & others. And more importantly how very much your emotional needs do count and how very much you do matter.