Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) occurs when caregivers fail to fulfill a child’s emotional needs. This can include overt, verbal abuse, as well as passive acts of ignoring or neglecting the child’s needs. Both emotional neglect and emotional invalidation fall under the larger category of CEN and have different impacts on a child. How can you tell the difference, and what impacts do they have on a child?
Here are two examples of ways emotional neglect and emotional invalidation can manifest:
- Imagine a child wanting to tell their parents about a fight they had with a friend at school that upset them, and the parent brushing it off instead of listening and supporting them.
- Imagine another child who has a fight with a friend and wants to talk about it, and the parent responds instead by punishing the child for being “too emotional.”
Now imagine these types of scenarios happening everyday in two different families. These responses look and feel different and therefore leave different effects into adulthood. The former is emotional neglect, which is a passive action that might be difficult to notice while it’s happening. The latter, however, is emotional invalidation and is an active process of negating, criticizing, or overruling a child’s feelings.
Neither situation is ideal, and children who grow up in emotionally neglectful environments may experience one or both of these scenarios frequently. CEN happens when parents fall short in acknowledging or responding to a child’s emotions. CEN isn’t necessarily about what a parent does so much as about what the parent doesn’t do.
The impact of emotional maltreatment in childhood
Neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment. However, the realization you may have experienced CEN isn’t always obvious. Children who grow up in emotionally neglectful families might sense something is wrong but don’t know what it is. Unlike physical abuse, there are no tangible signs of bruises or marks on a child, so it is often unnoticed until its effects appear in adulthood.
“Adults who have experienced emotional neglect are more likely to have symptoms of social withdrawal, avoidance of intimacy, difficulty with relationships, difficulty managing emotions, low self esteem, hopelessness and stunted coping styles,” said Dr. Stephanie Wolf, licensed child psychologist and partner at Maven Psychology Group “They are at a higher risk for a variety of mental health disorders, including depression and social phobias. These adults are also at higher risk of developing a Borderline or Avoidant Personality Disorder.”
CEN can take many forms, like passive neglect and active emotional invalidation, so here are the distinctions.
What is passive emotional neglect?
Here are some examples of what passive emotional neglect might look like and what a child may come away from the experience learning.
1. A child is often upset. The parent doesn’t notice and brushes off any attempts the child might make to communicate their feelings.
The lesson a child takes away: Their feelings aren’t important.
2. A child makes mistakes and poor choices. The parents completely ignore the poor choices and assume they’ll figure it out on their own.
The lesson a child takes away: They don’t have an opportunity to learn properly. If there isn’t an adult there to guide them, they may become overly self-critical as an adult and attack themselves for making mistakes.
3. The family avoids any uncomfortable or emotional topics. Conversations are superficial and conflicts are avoided at all costs.
The lesson a child takes away: They never learn how to effectively communicate and articulate needs and feelings. They learn it’s best to avoid discussing feelings with others.
4. A child is angry and the parents disapprove or separate themselves from the child.
The lesson a child takes away: They believe anger is objectively bad. They learn to keep it inside or else it will drive people away.
What is active emotional invalidation?
Here are examples of active emotional invalidation, as well as what a child could learn from each scenario.
1. A child is hurt. They try to express their feelings and the parent responds negatively by calling them a “drama queen” or “overly emotional.”
The lesson a child takes away: They learn that in order to be strong, they shouldn’t have or express any emotions.
2. A child is upset and the parent overrules a child’s feelings by expressing larger and more intense emotions.
The lesson a child takes away: They are taught they are responsible for others’ emotions and that others’ feelings are more important than theirs.
3. A child is sent to their room whenever they exhibit a negative emotion.
The lesson a child takes away: They internalize the belief that negative emotions are intolerable and should be punished.
4. A child needs advice and seeks out emotional support or guidance from a parent and instead is met with rejection and their parents labeling them as “needy.”
The lesson a child takes away: They learn they shouldn’t have any needs and they should be ashamed of their feelings and emotions.
What this all means in practice
According to Wolf, “If an adult recently realized they experienced emotional neglect in childhood … this knowledge is powerful for them to be able to make significant life improvements.” Wolf continued, “I would recommend they seek therapy from a licensed clinician with expertise in trauma and emotional neglect.”
Whether you experienced passive emotional neglect or active emotional invalidation, the effects are very real. It is not uncommon for those who have experienced CEN to feel prone to self-doubt and self-criticism or have difficulty communicating and processing emotions. Passive neglect can be subtle and it might be difficult to pinpoint, which only makes self-doubt even stronger. If any of the examples listed above sound familiar to you, you may have grown up with CEN. You can also consult this checklist provided by Dr. Jonice Webb, a psychologist who specializes in CEN.
The good news is that although as a child you did not have a choice, as an adult, you do. There are ways to heal, one of which is therapy. There are many different modalities of therapy that have shown to help with childhood neglect, some of which include cognitive processing therapy (CPT), internal family systems (IFS), and trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT). Finding a therapist who lists any of these types of treatment will be helpful.
“Through therapy, they can learn more healthy patterns of intimacy and how to get their emotional needs successfully met,” Wolf said. Ultimately, it is never too late to become aware of your mental health and seek to change it. There is a path to heal, and you’re already on your way.