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August 13, 2019 Tuesday 10:18:48 AM IST

Childhood Emotional Neglect


Deepa, a 19- year- old college student was brought to counselling, with much persuasion and pressure from her parents. On arrival, Deepa said, “I don’t have any problem”, and then she began to cry. The parents, however, presented a plethora of problems such as their daughter’s poor eating habit, irregular sleeping habit, emotional disconnect from family, irritable nature, over-use of mobile phone, etc.

Later, during a confidential consultation, Deepa accepted the fact that she had been feeling lonely and lost, emotionally distanced from her family, feeling adrift in life’s flow, and unable to find meaning to life. Closer examination and study brought to light some critical facts about Deepa’s childhood.

Her father is a caring dad, but doesn’t express his affection overtly. Besides, he works in a faraway place, so she doesn’t get his company as much as she wants.

Deepa’s mother is a very loving and caring mom, but she doesn’t find time to relax with her children. She works overtime to keep the family going, and between the office and the household chores, seldom takes time to relax.  A tragic outcome of this mother-child emotional disconnect is the daughter’s inability to tolerate a mother’s touch, let alone kisses and hugs! And that breaks this mother’s heart. Of late, Deepa started complaining about her best friends who deserted her without any reason! That loss has devastated Deepa emotionally.

The case of Deepa is not an exception; on the contrary, there are many clients, young and old who suffer from Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Dr.Jonice Webb, a practising psychologist, has conducted extensive studies on this significant subject.  

What is CEN, and how does it affect our lives? 

Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s Childhood Emotional Needs. Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse. Whereas mistreatment and abuse could be parental acts, 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. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.

Emotional Neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives (Webb Jonice, 2012).

Children who are emotionally neglected may grow up to have a particular set of struggles. Because their emotions were not validated as children, they may have difficulty knowing and trusting their own emotions as adults. They may have difficulty understanding their own feelings, as well as those of others. Because an important part of themselves (their emotional self) has been denied, they may find themselves feeling disconnected, unfulfilled or empty. They may have difficulty trusting or relying on others. Many describe feeling that they are different from other people; like something is wrong with them, but they’re not sure what it is. CEN is not a disease or a mental illness. It’s really only a natural response to something vital that was missing in your childhood. However, CEN, if not addressed, can predispose the individual to mental health problems, such as depression, addiction, etc.

 CEN’s long-term Impact

The way you are treated emotionally by your parents determines how you will treat yourself as an adult. This has been proven over and again in various studies.

Emotion is an undeniable part of your biology. If you ignore your emotions, you will feel ignored on some level, no matter how much care you give yourself in other ways. Emotion is the substance of all relationships. If you are not attending to your emotions, you are by-passing a vital source of connection and joy. This has a trans-generational implication. 

People who received emotional validation from their parents in childhood are generally able to provide it automatically to their own children. People who haven’t received it enough themselves are likely to struggle to provide it when they become parents. It is important to note that many parents who emotionally neglect their children are not cruel or heartless but actually love their children. 

CEN is one of the most surreptitious, destructive influences on the health and happiness of our society. Its invisibility not only increases its power, it also allows it to self-propagate stealthily from one generation to the next (J.Webb). It is vital to recognize what you didn't get yourself so that you can make a conscious effort to learn the missing skills, fill your own blind spots, and give your children what you didn't get.

How do you know that you are affected by CEN? Answer the following questions with Yes or No.

Do You...

1. Sometimes feel like you don’t belong while you are with your family or friends?  (Yes)    (No)

2. Pride yourself on not relying upon others?

3. Have difficulty asking for help?

4. Have friends or family who complain that you are aloof or distant?

5. Feel you have not met your potential in life?

6. Often just want to be left alone?

7. Secretly feel that you may be a fraud?

8. Tend to feel uncomfortable in social situations?

9. Often feel disappointed with, or angry at, yourself?

10. Judge yourself more harshly than you judge others?

11. Compare yourself to others and often find yourself sadly lacking?

12. Find it easier to love animals than people?

13. Often feel irritable or unhappy for no apparent reason?

14. Have trouble knowing what you’re feeling?

15. Have trouble identifying your strengths and weaknesses?

16. Sometimes feel like you’re on the outside looking in?

17. Believe you’re one of those people who could easily live as a hermit?

18. Have trouble calming yourself?

19. Feel there’s something holding you back from being present in the moment?

20. At times feel empty inside?

21. Secretly feel there’s something wrong with you?

22. Struggle with self-discipline?

Look back over your YES answers. These answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced Emotional Neglect as a child. The more questions you answered "Yes", the more likely CEN has affected your life.

Two key factors make life feel meaningful, and both are supported by research:


1. Your Emotions: Your emotions drive, motivate, direct and inspire you.

2. Your Relationships: Various studies have shown that it’s your connections to others that both anchor and stimulate you.

Three deceptively simple steps can make a huge difference in how important your life feels to you. 1. Try to feel: This may sound strange but it actually works. Making an effort to have an emotion will start to yield results. You will start to feel more.

2. Tune in to your feelings: Chances are, you’re having feelings all the time, but you are simply not aware of them. All it takes is focusing your attention more on what you’re feeling. Several times a day, pause and focus your attention inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” 3. Increase your feeling word vocabulary: An important part of getting in touch with your feelings is being able to put words to them.

The fuel of life is feeling.

If we’re not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults…

Otherwise we will find ourselves running on empty (J. Webb, 2017).

         Start to take note of your own true nature. What do you like, dislike, get angry about, feel afraid of, or struggle with? Observe these aspects of yourself in a non-judgmental way so that you become more in tune with yourself, and who you really are inside and out.

Strive to get in touch with what you are feeling, including your pain. Never judge yourself for what you’re feeling. It’s what you do with a feeling that matters.

Judge yourself only for your actions, not your emotions. Remember, many parents who emotionally neglect their children are not cruel or heartless but actually love their children and yet are unable to provide the emotional support necessary due to factors possibly from their own childhood.  Don’t start an emotional war with your care givers, saying, “If it weren’t for your Neglect…”. 

No blame game will fix our problems.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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