What is Emotional Neglect in Children? How To Heal it?

What is Emotional Neglect in Children and How to Heal it?

“It cannot be when the root is neglected that what springs from it will be well ordered.” — Confucius

Child emotional neglect or maltreatment within the parent-child or caregiver-child can interfere with a child’s basic need for safety, love, and positive self-esteem. Neglect can trigger depression, distress, and Borderline Personality Disorder, to name a few, without any co-occurring physical or sexual abuse as the child enters their teen or adulthood. It is, therefore, essential to understanding what neglect is and what are its consequences.

Introduction to Emotional Neglect

Have you often observed a child always wanting to do more and putting efforts in no direction to make their parents realise that they exist? In Transactional Analysis, we say it is better to get some strokes, even if it is negative rather than no recognition. It’s normal for most parents to neglect their children’s emotional needs to some extent. A child mildly neglected emotionally will usually grow into a resilient adult. In this blog, we mainly talk about extreme emotional neglect. However, it is worth mentioning that it is a child perception or frame of reference related to emotional starvation that can lead to damaging events later in life.

Introduction to Emotional Neglect - Insightful Counselling

Parents neglect their children when they do not appreciate or notice their children’s activities, thinking and emotions. As a result, children often engage themselves in overdoing things to get seen. Parents’ continuous act of ignorance leads children to start feeling worthless and not good enough. When children’s needs are unfulfilled, they begin to question their actions and overthink, triggering anxiety and other emotions.

These children often develop a habit of putting relentless efforts into pleasing their parents and others to gain approval and appreciation.

However, it may never be satisfying. Adult survivors of emotional neglect may often ask themselves

  • “Why am I not happy?”
  • “Why is my life meaningless?”
  • “Why am I such a failure?”

Do you ask the same questions? Many of us ask these questions to ourselves. It means emotional neglect is not uncommon. It is different from physical neglect. Most of us have our physical needs met. Emotional neglect is invisible. It may not show itself physically. The levels of low self-esteem or low self-image will depend on the extent of emotional damage a child has to suffer.

Emotional Neglect is Invisible - Insightful Counselling

Research shows that parent’s negligence, dismissive attitude and discounting a child’s emotional needs and viewpoints, is a possible reason for aggression in children. Parents neglect their children for various reasons, including mental health, financial issues, and lack of time.

  • What are the factors that lead children to feel emotionally neglected?
  • Why do they need to validate their feelings, decisions, activities?
  • Why parents often unknowingly ignore their children’s emotional needs or discount them?
  • Why do parents seem uninvolved in emotional episodes their children are going through?
  • How does it impact a child in adulthood?
  • How debilitating can emotional neglect be?

What Is Emotional Neglect?

What Is Emotional Neglect?

Dr Jonice Webb, a psychologist specialising in Childhood Emotional Neglect, says, “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”. We tend to identify parents’ harmful physical actions, but we cannot recognise the subtle failure to provide for their children’s emotional needs. It’s because many times, it is not about what was said but what remained unsaid. It’s hidden, and it dwells in omission rather than commission.

What Causes Emotional Neglect?

The Absence of Emotional Validation

Can you remember from your early childhood days when your voice or opinions fell on deaf ears? or your emotions were not validated? How did you think and feel? Many times, it is cultural not be validated.

What Causes Emotional Neglect?

In my personal experience, my parents believed in pointing at my mistakes. They told them to ensure I grow up as a fine person. Every parent wants the best for their child. But sometimes their best is not the best for the child. My parents also wanted the best for me. However, I did not receive validation for my efforts, and my parents did not acknowledge my feelings. Hence my emotional neglect as a child lies in the fact that my parents forgot to validate me. They reminded me to continue putting in efforts to improve myself. As a result, I am a perfectionist, and I did not learn to praise myself. Till I took therapy, my self-esteem stayed low.

Parents don’t understand the need for validation. Hence there is a lack of responsiveness to a child’s emotional needs. Many parents have little or no emotional investment in their kids. They deem necessities like food, shelter, and financials are enough for children to survive and prosper in their lives.

There can be numerous reasons why parents usually ignore or neglect their children’s activities and emotional needs, like work overload, personal relationship issues, their health issues, psychological problems like depression, and more.

Why Is Emotional Negligence Harmful?

Why Is Emotional Negligence Harmful? - Insightful Counselling

This lack of affection or emotional neglect can often lead children towards internal pain and loneliness. They may grow up wondering about their self-esteem and value.

The need for validation and approval continues to grow, even as adults and can drive their actions. These needs give rise to anxiety and other ailments. When there is a lack of listening ear when their emotional needs are discounted and not given importance, it can lead to psychological issues and trauma. They live their adult life, questioning their decisions and actions.

Childhood emotional neglect is avoidance of parent attention towards their children emotional and developmental needs. The signs of children’s emotional neglect are, most of the times, not visible. The effects may manifest at various stages of development – child, teenager or adult. Some outcomes of children’s emotional neglect include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Appearing uncaring or indifferent
  • Shunning emotional closeness or intimacy
  • Drug use

Emotional neglect could severely impact adulthood and leave long-term effects. Parents are mirrors, and the behaviour can be inter-generational. Children replicate their parents. They will treat their children similar to their treatment by their parents, and the cycle can continue. Adult survivors of neglect possess various characteristics like emotional unavailability, low self-discipline, anger and aggressive behaviours and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How Is Emotional Neglect Identified?

How Is Emotional Neglect Identified? - Insightful Counselling

Identifying emotional neglect is crucial to put a stop to it. However, there are no such reliable metrics to identify children’s emotional wreckage. According to research, the main signs of children’s emotional neglect include:

  • Numbing out from feelings
  • Feeling lonely
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Appearing uncaring or indifferent
  • Shunning emotional closeness or intimacy
  • Drug use
  • Feeling empty inside
  • Getting easily demotivated
  • Having trust issues
  • Overacting in difficult situations
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Self-doubt
  • Easily triggered
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionistic personality
  • Lack of clarity in what to expect from others

The above are just indicators. They do not mean a child experiences emotional neglect. It is usual for a child to have many of the above signs; however, if family members or others believe that something may indicate neglect, do take an expert opinion.

How Parenting Style Impacts Emotional Neglect?

How Parenting Style Impacts Emotional Neglect?

We know that parents have the best intentions for their children. They want their children to do their best in school and their life in general. It is also noteworthy that most of the parents have themselves been survivors of emotional neglect. And like I said earlier, unconsciously, we mirror our parent’s parenting styles. There are certain types of parents that are most likely to be emotionally negligent towards their children. These types of parents include:

Authoritative parents

These parents want their children to follow everything they tell them to do. They do not listen to their children. As a result, children who are raised by authoritative parents either become extreme submissive or rebels.

Parents who are non-restrictive

Non-restrictive parents tend to have a laissez-faire attitude towards children. They let children do pretty much everything. As a result, children may find it challenging to set boundaries for themselves in adulthood.

Narcissistic parents

Narcissistic parents want to control their children and manipulate them. They prefer themselves over their children. Due to this, they often fail to protect their children and meet the needs of their children.

Uninvolved Parents

Uninvolved Parents, as the name suggests, are not involved. It could result in various short-term and long-term effects on children’s mental and physical capabilities. Children are exposed to great emotional rides, like not doing well in studies, not having friends, feeling isolated, lonely, depressed and more. Uninvolved Parenting is detrimental to a child’s development.

Parents who are a perfectionist

These parents believe that their children should outperform every aspect of their lives. The perfectionist parents expect their children to bring out the best and perform well in exams. Due to this, they set high expectations that children are unable to achieve most of the time.

Absent parents

Parents are absent due to various reasons, such as death, illness, divorce, or work. Parents may be struggling with issues like depression. As a result, children end up raising themselves. And if they are the eldest child, they may also be responsible for raising their younger siblings. Children overburden themselves and get affected by the worries.

As a Parent, How to Manage Emotional Neglect?

As a Parent, How to Manage Emotional Neglect?

No parent is perfect. And no childhood is perfect. As a parent, I am the first one to admit, I have made many parenting mistakes, including neglecting my children’s emotional needs sometimes. When I talk about emotional neglect, it is not to shame parents or make them feel guilty. It is, however, about can we make changes to our parenting style with awareness?

Since childhood neglect and its effects are highly subjective, there are no fixed metrics, codes or measures to deal with them. Nonetheless, there are few ways through which we can diagnose the symptoms and deal to mitigate the adverse impacts.

Realising beyond the necessities

Parents need education about the children’s psychological and physiological needs. Food, shelter and security are basics but not enough to nurture a child to its fullest. Often, we have a set of loving parents, but they cannot identify and cater to their children’s emotional needs. As I said, these are hidden needs. A parent may fail to identify these needs. For example, a child bullied in school, or a child compared at home may want a listening ear. But parents may to soothe their child, say, “It will get ok”. Unconsciously a child’s need is ignored and discounted. A simple tip to parents is to encourage their children to talk about their feelings. For example, “What happened? “, “Tell me more.”, “What are you feeling”. Do not step in to advise when you are listening.


When emotional neglect is significant, it impacts children as well as adult survivors. Therapy helps children to cope with their feelings and overcome psychological health issues. A psychologist/counsellor/psychotherapist can identify the triggers to the specific problems and help overcome them through various techniques.

Lookout on your sides

Most of us suffer from some after-effects of childhood neglect. As adults, we can keep a lookout in our family or friends, and if we notice signs of neglect in children, as mentioned above in this blog, we can talk to parents. We can also give our listening ear to the children and encourage them to share what they experience and feel. Listening helps a person feel important, and it affirms them. Active listening and empathy help sort many problems and reduces their gravity.

Parenting classes or webinars

We are not born as parents. It’s a learning journey. Parenting classes or webinars guide to make desired changes to parenting styles. Courses can be in a group, or you can learn these skills individually.

Be appreciative

Parents need to appreciate the little efforts put up by their children. For children, parents are their god. They only need recognition and affirmation from them. When parents affirm children for tasks done right, they learn to manage their emotions well. It is also important to appreciate them unconditionally, for who they are and not necessarily for what they are doing. “I love you” is an unconditional appreciation. Conditional, as well as unconditional strokes, help children build their self-worth.

The Takeaways

Healing From Emotional Neglect - Insightful Counselling

Childhood emotional maltreatment can be as damaging as other forms of abuse. It can have lasting consequences over youth and into adulthood.

Like I mentioned, we are not born with the skills of Parenting. Each one of us may have experienced emotional neglect at some point. We still grew up emotionally resilient without any reasons for concerns. However, attention to children and adult survivors of neglect who experience a ‘starvation’ of emotions is essential.

Research says the necessary emotional and social skills of children have fallen considerably in the 21st century. One big reason is financial stability. I have met parents who feel guilty about not spending enough quality time with their children since they need to earn to support their family is equally or perhaps more important. One way to balance work life with Parenting is to prioritise and have good time management skills.

One way to ensure a child’s emotional growth is to look at your parenting style. A change starts with self-awareness. What is your parenting style? Does it need a change? What changes are you willing to make? Reflect on these questions.

When a parent fulfills a child’s need to be heard and feels nurtured, the child grows to be self-confident and resilient. Their emotional quotient is relatively reasonable, and they can distinguish between right and wrong. They grow with positive self-esteem.

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