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Imagine you’re a child and your feelings are ignored or discounted when you turn to your parents for support.
Now imagine you’re a child who gets punished or yelled at when you express how you feel.
If you had to choose one, which would you rather experience?
Neither option sounds pleasant. Children who grow up in emotionally neglectful homes experience one or both scenarios many days of their lives. Since it’s not something they are consciously aware of as it happens, children think this treatment is normal and right.
Childhood emotional neglect occurs when your parents under-attend, under-respond, and under-validate your feelings throughout your upbringing.
In the simplest form, childhood emotional neglect is something you didn’t receive as a child— emotional attention, validation, and education. But emotional neglect does not always show up in its simplest form. Below I will introduce you to two ways emotional neglect can rear its head: passively or actively. They look different, feel different, and leave different marks in adulthood.
It’s important to note that the realization you grew up with emotional neglect may feel bittersweet. With the sadness that comes from knowing you’ve been emotionally neglected, there may also come great relief and understanding. Some have labeled their discovery of emotional neglect as the missing piece they needed to start living their lives fully.
Passive Emotional Neglect: 5 Examples and Takeaways
1. Parents don’t seem to notice when their child is upset, angry, confused, or anxious.
The Takeaway: You learn that your feelings are unimportant.
2. Conversations in the family are superficial and lack substance. Whenever there is conflict or disagreements, the family goes to great lengths to avoid the discomfort that is sharing feelings.
The Takeaway: You learn that talking about deeper topics is uncomfortable and should be avoided. You never get a chance to learn how to effectively communicate or to articulate how you feel or what you need.
3. When a child expresses anger, parents may be disappointed, disapproving, or even separate themselves from the child.
The Takeaway: You learn that anger is a bad emotion that is to be kept inside, and that anger repels others.
4. If a child makes a mistake or chooses poorly, they are left to figure out what to do on their own without guidance or support.
The Takeaway: You are not given the chance to learn from your mistakes. It’s your parent’s job to talk you through a poor decision, and help you learn from it and how to move forward or choose differently next time. If this is properly modeled, you can eventually do this independently. Without learning this skill, you may instead develop a harsh inner critic that beats you down for every mistake you make in the future.
5. A child dealing with bullies at school has to keep it to himself, knowing his parents would not be helpful.
The Takeaway: You learn you are alone in the world and cannot rely on others for support.
You may notice from these examples that passive emotional neglect lurks beneath the surface. It’s not that your parents did something to you, it’s that they didn’t do the things you needed them to do. This is why you may have difficulty identifying examples from your own childhood.
Active Emotional Neglect: 5 Examples and Takeaways
1. When a child expresses an emotion, they may be met with degrading responses like “You’re too emotional” or “Don’t be such a drama queen.”
The Takeaway: You learn that it is weak to feel, and in order to be strong you need to be emotionless.
2. Parents attempt to override their child’s feelings by having bigger, stronger emotions.
The Takeaway: You learn that you are responsible for the feelings of others.
Your parent may respond to your angry feelings by saying, “If you don’t want me to be mad, you better stop being angry!” or to your sad feelings with “You have no idea what pain really is.” This makes your feelings seem threatening or insignificant. You keep your feelings inside for fear you will upset others.
3. When a child expresses anger, they are punished.
The Takeaway: You learn your anger is offensive and wrong.
4. A child seeking emotional support or guidance may be met with rejecting parents that label the child as needy or even pathetic.
The Takeaway: You learn that having needs is unacceptable. You may begin to believe that expressing your feelings, the foundation of who you are, will lead to rejection.
5. Each time a child displays an emotion that is not “positive,” they are sent to their room.
The Takeaway: You learn that your negative emotions are bad and should not be tolerated or expressed to others. In fact, you may be punished for them.
Where to Go From Here
Whether you experienced passive childhood emotional neglect, active childhood emotional invalidation, or both, the messages you took away from your childhood have made a lasting impact on who you are today.
Since passive emotional neglect is subtle and tricky to recall, you are prone to doubting yourself and your experiences. Perhaps you blame yourself for struggling and attempt to hide your feelings from the world, believing that your feelings are unimportant.
Experimenting active invalidation comes with harsh and sometimes cruel ways of being treated. So, now you may be hard on yourself and direct your anger within, at yourself, rather than toward people that treat you poorly.
It’s not too late to become aware of the emotional neglect that was present in your childhood home, to notice your feelings and the important messages they tell you, and to use these feelings to enrich your relationships with others and, most importantly, yourself.
It is unfair that you missed out on emotional presence and validation from your parents when you were (and are) so deserving of it. Even so, you couldn’t choose whether you were emotionally neglected as a child.
What you can choose is a path forward. You can choose to give yourself what your parents couldn’t. You can choose the path to healing.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.