Resolving childhood neglect as an adult
When our parents neglect us emotionally, it has serious consequences on our adult lives for decades to come.
Photo by Harris Ananiadis on Unsplash
by: E.B. Johnson
The relationships held between parents and their children is a sacred one, and the formative pieces on which we base our core beliefs about life. The bonds with share with our caretakers are special, but when those bonds are disrespected, dismissed, or we are injured beyond repair by the ones who claim to love us “above all else” — it can be hard to heal and let go of the anger you feel toward them (subconscious or not).
Feeling as though you were never emotionally safe or connected with your parents can lead to some serious symptoms later on in life that go a long way to undermine our longterm happiness and fulfillment. While we can heal this neglect in our adult lives, it’s a process that takes a lot of digging, brutal honesty, and commitment to facing up to emotions and memories that might make us uncomfortable.
What is emotional neglect?
Thinking about our childhoods, we don’t always consider the full extent of the emotional traumas that are inflicted on us. While physical neglect is a horrible and damaging event at every stage in life, so too is emotional neglect — a common feature in the childhood of many. Failing to get the appropriate love, affection, support or understanding from the people that are meant to be our caretakers causes ripples that follow us throughout our lives and undermine our happiness and authentic sense of self.
Emotional neglect occurs when our caretakers fail to appropriately respond to our emotional needs at critical stages in our development. While child abuse is a very intentional act, emotional neglect generally occurs out of ignorance or as the result of an extreme form of narcissism. It’s a failure to act and respond to a child’s emotional needs, and it’s an unwillingness to do the emotional work it takes to be an adequate parent.
Because emotional neglect is so subtle, many of us fail to recognize its consequences in our lives until we are well into our adulthood. Overcoming the effects of emotional neglect is a long process, and it takes a certain amount of brutal honestly, applied self-compassion and understanding; things which can only come from extensive self-exploration. Just as our parents may not realize they are shutting us out emotionally, we may not realize we’re suffering from the lack of love we felt as children. Getting ourselves back to true happiness and peace takes learning how to correct these flaws and start loving ourselves for who we are.
The types of emotionally neglectful parents.
Emotional neglect is emotional distance or a lack of affection, but it’s so much more than that. The emotionally neglectful parent isn’t one who just dismisses your emotions out of hand. They can be the struggling parent that just doesn’t have time, or the well-meaner that just wants to have a peaceful relationship and a peaceful household. Part of overcoming our emotional neglect is coming to understand the types of parents we had and how they distanced themselves from us.
When we imagine an emotionally neglectful parent, we don’t always think of the “live-for-the-kids” type, but they do exist. This type of emotionally neglectful parent works hard and provides, but they don’t take care of themselves or full think through the ramifications of what they’re teaching their children with their own actions. Similarly, they might struggle to set boundaries for their children, or overemphasize the success and achievements of the children they’re meant to be guiding and protecting.
Many of us grow up with parents who struggle to keep their heads above water, and these parents (consequently) find themselves unable to meet the emotional needs of their children. Whether they’re dealing with their own pressure and trauma, or they’re also handling a special needs family member — the struggling parent doesn’t have the time to notice your feelings , and they don’t always have the ability to respond when you need them most. They’re not around emotionally, not because they don’t want to be, but because they’re so distracted elsewhere.
The self-involved parent is not only emotionally unavailable, they are frequently narcissistic , authoritarian, addicted and / or sociopathic. They’re not people who are motivated by the needs or happiness of their child. They are people who are inspired only by their own greed, benefit or convenience. The self-involved parent is emotionally neglectful in truly malicious and damaging ways, and it stands out from the other two types of neglectful parent because — where they mess up trying to do their best — this type of parents messes up out of an insatiable desire for power and control.
Symptoms of childhood emotional neglect.
Emotional neglect can be subtle and, likewise, the symptoms we exhibit from as adults can be similarly subtle. Having an inability to rely on others, or an over-the-top inner-critic that blames you for everything isn’t normal. It’s usually a sign that you’re struggling with the idea that you’re unloveable. An idea that was implanted in your head by a parent that wasn’t there like they should have been.
Inability to rely on others
When you grow up learning that you can’t rely on your parents, you also grow up believing you can’t rely on anyone else . This leads to an extreme self-reliance and a building-up of walls that makes it impossible to truly connect with others on an intimate level. Unable to carry the emotional and mental burden of life’s chaotic pressures, this inevitably leads to meltdown, burnout and feelings of worthlessness and failure.
Too hard on yourself
If you’re someone who is harder on themselves than they are on others , it can be a sign that you’re dealing with unresolved emotional neglect from childhood. Because there was a lack of compassion and connection in your environment as a child, it might cause you to struggle to extend that same compassion to yourself as an adult. You may not struggle to extend that compassion to others, however, something that arises as a result of forever excusing and justifying the emotional distance of your parents.
Belief in deep flaws
Believing we are deeply and inherently flawed at our core is also a sign of potential childhood neglect. As children, we don’t have the cognitive capacity to work through the complex behaviors of our parents. When they don’t love us the way they are supposed to, we know that — even if we don’t know why they’re acting that way. Unable to make truth of the situation , we use our childlike reasoning to understand why they deny us the affection we want. With our limited world view, this comes to equate to flaws within ourselves. “My mother must not love me because I am inherently unloveable.” It’s a vicious cycle.
Emotional neglect is complex, and so is the fallout we experience from it over time. Because this type of neglect requires us to bury down our own emotions, it can lead a lot of sensitivity later on down the road. That sensitivity can be extra-piqued by rejection, however, which throws you back into that childhood space of being denied the things that were rightfully yours by your parents. When you’re extra sensitive to rejection or denial — childhood neglect is often to blame.
Overwhelm and give-up
As humans, emotions are a big part of our lives and they play an important role in the types of decisions we make. When we don’t learn how to deal with those emotions properly, however, it can lead to a lot of negative coping mechanisms later in life. Among these coping mechanisms are overwhelm and give-up ; two favorites of the once-neglected adult child. When confronted with situations that stress you out, or force you to come face to face with uncomfortable emotions…you run. Resulting in missed opportunities, hardships and collapsed relationships everywhere you turn.
Children who experience emotional neglect grow up to become adults who are unable to face or deal with their own emotions . Tucking your emotions away leads to a complete shut down, and a pervasive feeling of numbness, worthlessness or hopelessness. Over time, these feelings further compound to create depressive and anxious environments and relationships for us and those we love. It’s a no-win and self-destructive pattern that eats away slowly at everything good and joyful in your life.
Inability to spot strengths
Unrealistic self-appraisal is one of the most common side-effects or symptoms of those who are struggling to live in the wake of an emotionally neglectful childhood. When you can’t get in touch with your emotions, you can’t get in touch with yourself. You lose sight of your strengths , you lose sight of your weaknesses. Lost in the chaos of feelings you don’t know how to navigate, you shut off and shut down, failing to realize the depth of your own abilities.
There’s a “Fabulous 4” when it comes to childhood neglect and it manifests in most sufferers. Guilt, anger, blame and shame are all consequences of growing up in an emotionally absent household. When you beat constantly on the door of an unresponsive parent, it causes you to look inward and direct all that blame and all that anger at yourself. This leaks out into other relationships, and other facets of your life, until you find your closes bonds either wrought with tension and irritation — or — you find yourself a doormat to everyone else’s needs but your own.
How to cope with your childhood neglect as an adult.
If you’re struggling with the fallout of emotional neglect as an adult, you can find peace but it takes a lot of hard work. Not all emotional neglect is created equal. Some hurts run deep and require the help of a mental health professional to overcome. For everything else, though, we are the only life raft that there is. If you’re struggling to find love in your life, you have to learn how to love yourself, and let go of the things your parents couldn’t give you.
1. Get in touch with your emotions
Growing up in a household that is devoid of the right emotional connection can make it hard for you to recognize your emotions, and even harder for you to manage them. More often than not, our caretakers distance themselves emotionally because they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions. Only by learning how to confront our emotions can we deal with them efficiently and get back to the happiness we deserve.
When we find ourselves in a stressful event, we often feel a flood of emotions all at once which makes it hard to process and orientate ourselves. Though we are often told the best way to deal with these emotions is to ignore them, we actually gain more benefits by learning how to identify each emotion as its experiences in a technique that’s known as emotional differentiation .
Differentiation stops negative emotions from getting worse by building up our confidence in facing them. It allows us to identify what we’re feeling and (eventually) why we’re feeling that way, which leads to true resolution and clarity and, thus, higher levels of happiness and contentment. When we learn how to see our emotions for what they are — and where they come from — we can accept them and then get better at managing them. It’s like being a manager in a restaurant. If you really want to be effective, you have to get to know your staff and figure out what works best for everyone.
2. Be honest about your needs
Emotionally absent households require, by necessity, that all parties shut down and bury their needs deep, deep inside; especially when those needs conflict with the “peace” or “status quo”. While that might seem to work for a time, what it inevitably leads to is a broken and volatile environment later on. When you bury things down, bury things down, it becomes harder to lose yourself and become a victim of every negative aspect of life.
Part of recovering from a childhood that was colder than it should have been is learning how to be honest about your needs . This starts with getting honest about your needs to yourself, and analyzing those needs across every plane of your life — relationships, career, family, etc.
Mindful journaling can help you begin this process, and do it in an atmosphere that is both safe and secure. Spend some time alone with yourself regularly and take your emotional temperature and a needs inventory. Consider where you’re at, and consider where you want to go. Then, consider what you need to get there. Are you giving yourself the mental, emotional and spiritual fuel you need to be the best version of yourself?
3. Seek professional help
Facing and resolving the emotional neglect in our pasts is not something that we can always do alone and it’s not something that can be managed simply with the help of a few good friends. Sometimes, it’s necessary to find a specialist when dealing with childhood neglect of every kind; but it’s important to make sure you’re finding the right person to help you resolve past issues.
Trauma symptoms vary from case to case and as such need to be assess by qualified and experienced trauma professionals . Finding a therapist who has experience treating trauma like yours can take time, but cognitive-behavioral therapists and EMDR professionals are a good place to start. Take your time and don’t rush into anything that doesn’t feel right.
A professional can help you get to the root of your problems, but you need to be ready to open up and need to know what direction you want to head in. Healing is hard but living eternally in pain is harder. If you think you need more serious help, reach out for it. When you feel better physically, you have more strength to engage in the mental and emotional war of healing and resolution. This puts our overall wellness in clearer focus and makes our efforts to heal more effective and less costly in the long run.
4. Find gratitude
Gratitude is one of the best ways we can deal with our negative emotions. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether you’re surrounded by a million people you love or not. If you’re a living human being — you have something to be grateful for. Big or small, there are beautiful things all around us that have the ability to give our lives meaning, or remind us of the good things that are just within our reach.
Take 5 minutes to sit down each day and make a list of all the things in your life that you’re grateful for. List the great things in your life and the things that make you smile. Read through the list a few times and make sure not to forget the simple things.
You’ll start to really connect with yourself and your emotions when you begin to remember that it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s something out there for everyone to love in life and if you haven’t found that yet it’s time to get started . The greatest thing about happiness is that it is not a luxury commodity — it’s a state of being that exists, naturally, within each and every one of us. You don’t need your parents or your siblings or anyone else to be happy. That’s something that can only be generated from within and shared without.
5. Apply some self-compassion
The act of applied self-compassion is a powerful tool in recovering from the pain caused by emotionally neglectful parents. Self-compassion is not self-kindness and it’s not self-pity either. It’s taking an active role in your own healing, and it involves embracing your faults, mistakes and suffering as equally as you celebrate your joys, successes and triumphs.When we utilize real self-compassion in our lives, we extend the same kindness, caring and understanding to ourselves as we would to a friend or a loved one.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff , a master in self-compassion research, there are 3 core components to true and realized self-compassion. More than just being nice to yourself, you also have to dig deep into your common humanity and become mindful of the way you both react and interact with your real, internal self. Self-compassion is a powerful tool, when we know how to wield it, but it takes a big commitment and it takes a lot of work each day to build. Adding it to our lives means finding happiness, however, and discovering that true beauty and joy is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves.
Look at things from the perspective of your inner child. Are you finally standing up for the little boy or little girl and protecting them, the way they should have been protected all those years ago? Be mindful of yourself, and be mindful of your needs (both emotional and physical). Let go of your need to be perfect for anyone, and instead on becoming the best version of yourself, for yourself. If you have an inner critic that’s out of control, work them into submission and find professional help if you need to. If there’s something you don’t like about yourself — make a plan to change it — but only after looking it boldly in the face and accepting it for what it is. Spend a few minutes each day practicing this radical self-acceptance, and use it to get beyond the pain of your estrangement.
6. Be the parent you didn’t get
When we are hurt by our parents, we often go out looking for healing in all the wrong places. We turn to other people, to drugs, to alcohol — all in the search of the love we were denied when we needed it most. Not being taught how to properly manage our emotions (the good and the bad) can result in associating happiness with the feeling of pleasure, when that’s not necessarily true. There is no salvation in pleasure alone. The problem with that is that no one else can save us. Only we can save ourselves .
Sometimes, you have to step up and be the parent you always deserved for yourself. This means treating yourself well, checking in how you’re feeling and how you’re doing. Be a mentor for yourself; an advocate for yourself. Do all the things a caring mother or father would do and do it with complete radical abandon. Find activities that bring you peace and joy and be kind and gentle with yourself and the way you see the world.
Work hard to build up that confidence that was wrecked by a dismissive or emotionally distant parent and celebrate your strengths and victories every single day.Write notes to yourself and start a mindful journaling practice that lets you get back in touch with that scared, broken little child that’s hiding deep inside. Learn how to love yourself and the rest of the world will follow. Give yourself a gift that never quits giving and be the parent you always needed.
7. Lean into your support networks
Substituting our unhealthy family relationships for the ones that better suit our lifestyles and emotional needs is a good way to cut ties and find your waay back to healing. It can be helpful to allow your attention to center on the healthy relationships that bring joy into your life, rather than the ones that attract nothing but negativity. There is no law that says family is blood and blood alone. You can choose your family, and you can choose people who provide emotional fulfillment.
Get comfortable talking about how you feel, and find a friend you can trust that is willing to listen to you vent. Let them know exactly how your childhood or upbringing is still causing you to struggle and let them know you need a willing shoulder (and a willing ear) to listen to you work things out on a regular basis. Always make sure, however, that you have their consent before unloading. Not everyone has the ability to process our emotions and experiences in the same way. Even if we can trust them not to spread our business.
The family and chosen family we surround ourselves is important, and can be especially important when it comes to creating the lives we want. If you’re struggling to let go of a toxic or emotionally damaging family member, re-establishing abandoned ties with your own outside support networks can be a great way to get back in contact with who you are. This is because our relationships allow us to get a better grip in our perspective. And that makes all the difference when it comes to fulfillment and joy.
8. Find your boundaries
If you don’t carve out the mental space you need to detach from who and what was, you won’t be able to break free of the shackles your family past has over you. Emotionally toxic or damaging childhoods never go away. They follow us, manifesting again and again in a number of different manners that undermine our overall mental and emotional health. We have to set boundaries in order to let the healing process come full circle.
Have enough respect for yourself to set boundaries with those who injure you more than they lift you up. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, and honor your worth by letting others know what you will and will not tolerate. If the emotionally distant parent is still in your life, communicate your needs to them and let them know that those needs take priority in your life.
Embrace the emotions that make you uncomfortable and recognize the people and the triggers that bring out the best in you and your psyche.Learning to love ourselves takes time and effort, but know our worth isn’t difficult. As a human alive on this earth, you’re worth all the happiness, love and effort in the world. Only you can allow someone else to deny you that. When you start to recognize this, you’re on the path to being whole again.
Putting it all together…
There are a number of ways in which our parents can emotionally wound or scar us, all of them resulting in deep-seated pain that can cause serious problems in our adolescent and adult lives. When we fail to recognize and deal with this pain, it follows us, and can lead to a lot of negative side effects and coping mechanisms that eat way at who we are and the future we’re trying to build for ourselves. If we want to heal, we have to dig deep. And get focused on our needs and fulfilling them with honesty and compassion.
Get in touch with your emotions and start embracing them for what they are — the good and the bad. Dig deep, and realize that you have every right to feel the way that you feel. Our emotions don’t come from nowhere. They are a reaction to the stimuli in our environment. Be honest about your needs, and reach out to a professional for further resolution if needed. Gratitude and compassion are two of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves when we’re trying to recover from a childhood that was lacking in affection and emotional connection. Give yourself a second childhood and become the parent you never had. Fall in love with your strengths, and recognize that you empower yourself through your weaknesses. Find people you trust and gather them closely. When we open up to our support networks, we can unlock powerful healing we didn’t even know was possible. Sort out your boundaries and use them to boost yourself into an emotionally empowered futured. The shackles of your childhood don’t have to be the prison of your future. Let go and find the healing you’re seeking yourself.