Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Childhood emotional neglect is invisible to the eye. It is a disorder that is silent and unseen by most people and even trained psychologists. The reason childhood emotional neglect goes unseen is due to there being few physical signs of it. A child that is physically abused or neglected shows visible signs such as bruises, malnutrition and being underfed, and potentially unwashed. There are no such signs for an individual that experiences childhood emotional neglect.

Unfortunately, childhood emotional neglect doesn’t usually appear in individuals until they are adults. Since it takes years to manifest in a person, childhood emotional neglect doesn’t show until adulthood for most people.

How does Childhood Emotional Neglect form?

A child can develop emotional neglect in different ways. It is usually due to a parent or guardian and the dynamic of the relationship the two possess. Childhood emotional neglect can form due to a parent not listening or concentrating on their child. Expectations of a child can be unrealistically high putting enormous amounts of pressure on the youth. This develops a sense of never being good enough. The parent may also negate any positive emotional experience the child has which builds self-doubt.

Emotional neglect forms when there is no positivity shared between the parent and child. The young individual develops a negative sense of self rather than a positive one. As the child grows up, these emotional issues become stronger and challenges are created.

Unlike physical abuse, emotional neglect is not always intentional. Of course, parents can be intentionally neglectful emotionally to their children. However, it can also occur without the parent realizing they are doing it. Parents may not act upon their child’s needs. Although emotional neglect can occur, a parent may still provide their child with appropriate necessities and care. The parent just merely fails to support the child emotionally.

What Causes Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Oftentimes, individuals who were emotionally neglected as children do the same as adults to their child. It can be a cycle in which generations of children are emotionally neglected. Adults can also neglect their children emotionally due to anger and resentment issues.

Other causes of childhood emotional neglect include:

  • Depression
  • Drug ands alcohol
  • Mental health issues
  • Lack of emotional fulfillment
  • A lack of healthy parenting skills


Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Parents may not realize they are emotionally neglecting their children. The symptoms of emotional neglect can be subtle. As the signs are subtle, it can be difficult for psychologists and doctors to diagnose the issue in children. A mild case of childhood emotional neglect can be easily overlooked. Meanwhile, severe cases of the disorder are able to be diagnosed more easily.

Most symptoms of emotional neglect will appear in adulthood. They can include, but are not limited to:

  • “Numbing out” or feeling cut off from feelings
  • Possessing a feeling that there’s something missing, but unsure of what it is
  • Feeling hollow or empty inside
  • Easily overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged
  • Possessing low self-esteem
  • Expecting everything to be perfect
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection
  • Lacking clarity about others’ and own expectations
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Apathy toward a subject or live in general
  • Drug and/or alcohol misuse
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Shunning emotional intimacy with others


How are Adults Affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect?

As previously stated, childhood emotional neglect shows in individuals during adulthood.1 Adults who were emotionally neglected as children must deal with the issues, they developed. Individuals may not understand how to deal with their emotions resulting in a variety of problems that affect them and those around them.

Adults can experience a number of problems resulting from childhood emotional neglect include:


Childhood neglect can result in a cycle in which a person that experienced it as a child becomes a parent that neglects their own children emotionally. A person that suffered from emotional neglect as a child may not understand how to nurture their own child emotionally.

An individual that experienced emotional neglect can overcome its effects through proper treatment. Effects can be treated short-term and prevent further issues in the future.

What Treatment is Available for Childhood Emotional Neglect?

There are three main treatments to help alleviate and potentially end the effects of emotional neglect. Treatments include:

  • Therapy – A child can understand how to cope with emotions in a healthy way through therapy sessions with a psychologist or therapist. Children may suppress their emotions and years of keeping them inside can make it difficult to express emotions as adults. A therapist can help children and/or adults identify, accept, and express emotions in a healthy way.
  • Family therapy – A child and parent can both receive help through family therapy sessions. Parents may discover how their emotional neglect is impacting the child. In addition, a child can learn how to cope with emotional neglect issues in the home. If emotional neglect is spotted early, the behavior of the parent can be altered resulting in a positive outcome.
  • Parenting classes – Parents can improve their skills by attending parenting classes and learn how to provide better emotional support. Classes teach parents and caregivers how to listen to and respond to their child’s emotional needs.


Childhood emotional neglect can be treated in adults who experienced parental neglect as a child. Individuals experiencing neglect can even have it altered by therapy. If emotional neglect is caught early, it can be altered. Unfortunately, there is no visible sign of childhood emotional neglect and it can be difficult to see with the naked eye.

References: Childhood Emotional Neglect

1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV) 4th edn. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1994. []

2. Chapple CL, Tyler KA, Bersani B. Child neglect and adolescent violence: Examining the effects of self-control and peer rejection. Violence and Victims. 2005;20:39–53. [PubMed] []

3. Colvert E, Rutter M, Beckett C, Castle J, Groothues C, Hawkins A, et al. Emotional difficulties in early adolescence following severe early deprivation: Findings from the English and Romanian adoptees study. Development and Psychopathology. 2008;20:547–567. [PubMed] []

4. Egger H, Costello AJ, Angold A. School refusal and psychiatric disorders: A community study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2003;42:797–807. [PubMed] []

5. Glaser D. Child abuse and neglect and the brain – a review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2000;41:97–116. [PubMed] []

6. Jensen P, Rubio-Stipec M, Canino G, Bird H, Dulcan M, Schwab-Stone M, et al. Parent and child contributions to diagnosis of mental disorder: Are both informants always necessary? Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 1999;38:1569–1579. [PubMed] []

7. Rutter M, Kim-Cohen J, Maughan B. Continuities and discontinuities in psychopathology between childhood and adult life. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2006;47:276–295. [PubMed] []

8. Wilhelm K, Niven H, Parker G, Hadzi-Pavlovic D. The stability of the Parental Bonding Instrument over a 20 year period. Psychological Medicine. 2004;35:387–393. [PubMed] []

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Childhood Emotional Neglect
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Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood neglect can result in a cycle in which a person that experienced it as a child becomes a parent that neglects their own children emotionally. A person that suffered from emotional neglect as a child may not understand how to nurture their own child emotionally.
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