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Defining & Exploring What Emotional Neglect Is and Its Importance

When asked to think about what constitutes adverse childhood experiences (stressful or traumatic events), physical abuse, violence, and addictions are some things that may automatically come to mind. But, emotional neglect is often, well… neglected. In this series, we will go through what is emotional neglect, the symptoms of emotional neglect and how it affects us into adulthood.

What is Emotional Neglect?

This involves failing to provide emotional support that one should provide, given one’s relationship to the other. Commonly, it is thought that the parent or caregiver emotionally neglects a child when they fail to show the child the level of affection or attention that they should (even when physical needs of the child like food, clothing, shelter, are being provided for). Emotional neglect occurs when a parent either purposefully or simply unknowingly overlooks the signs that a child needs comfort or attention which includes withholding love, rejecting a child, and ignoring a child’s emotional needs.

 

Invisible & Silently Damaging

Childhood emotional neglect tends to be a little bit more subtle, nuanced and harder to pinpoint, thus also harder to recognize and understand. Emotional neglect has been overlooked. Because it’s invisible, unmemorable, and the absence of something (emotional validation), it can easily be thought of as unimportant. Emotional Neglect is like the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious while it does its silent damage to people’s lives. The failure to respond is not something that happens to you as a child. Instead, it is something that fails to happen for you (the absence). Since our eyes don’t physically see the things that fail to happen, our brains can’t necessarily record them as tangible events or occurrences. Years later, as an adult, you may sense and feel something is not quite right but can’t also pinpoint what it is. You may look at your childhood for answers, but you can’t see the invisible. So, you are left to assume that something is innately wrong with you.

Emotional Neglect vs. Emotional Abuse

It is also different than emotional abuse. Emotional abuse involves doing things to another that can be emotionally hurtful or traumatizing. For example, name-calling, attempting to control emotions through blame, accusations, criticisms. Emotional neglect, however, is omitting to do things, or rather the inaction of things, to promote emotional well-being.

Unique to Your Experience

Lastly, emotional neglect can actually “play out” in different ways depending on the individual and the family. Sometimes it means a lack of attention and care. Other times, it is a lack of boundaries, rules, and structure. It can be a lack of encouragement and a failure or inability to provide tools and lessons needed to navigate the world as a child and as an adult. It can also be parents who are overly busy and distracted and simply fail to see their child and attune to them in the way the child needs to be seen. More importantly, emotional neglect is generally unrecognized by the child until symptoms begin to appear in adulthood.

Now after reading what emotional neglect can entail, you may be wondering “did I experience emotional neglect? How do I know if I have? How do I recognize signs in my friends and loved ones too? Will this affect my current (and future) relationships with others?”. In the next parts of this series, we will be exploring the signs and symptoms of emotional neglect as well as how this affects us into our adulthood! Feel free to also reach out and call us today for support, information or simply conversation surrounding emotional neglect.

 

Written by therapist Tina Choi

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