How Feeling Unloved as a Child Can Lead to Adult Depression

How Feeling Unloved as a Child Can Lead to Adult Depression

This post discusses new findings on the link between feeling not wanted or loved by one’s parents and the lifetime risk of depression. The research, by Ahuja and collaborators, is published online ahead of print in Psychological Reports.

Many people who frequently feel unloved and unwanted have a history of childhood abuse and neglect, and of not having had their basic needs met—for example, the need to feel safe, secure, cared for, valued, understood, and accepted by parents/caregivers.

Childhood abuse and neglect are associated with numerous negative outcomes—from physical illness to a lack of purpose in life.

Many adult victims of childhood maltreatment and violence feel lonely, disconnected from friends and intimate partners, and unable to trust others enough to open up to them or rely on them.

These individuals fear rejection and abandonment—fear of being not only unloved but alsounlovable and unworthy of love.

Victims of childhood abuse may see themselves as defective and irreparably damaged, which is why they feel ashamed of who they are (or have become) and tend to engage in self-blame.

But what about memories of abuse or neglect—memories of having been frequently rejected as a child/adolescent by a parent? Might people who recall repeated rejection and abandonment also be more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes, such as depression, as adults? The study by Ahuja and colleagues examined this possibility.

Sample: The data came from Wave IV of the National Adolescent Health Study (Add Health), a longitudinal survey of adolescents in the U.S. The sample included 5,114 individuals; 54 percent females; average age of 29 years old (range of 24 to 32 years).

Method and measures: The main outcome was lifetime occurrence of depression. Participants were asked, “Has a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider ever told you that you have or had depression?”

The main independent variable wasfeeling not loved/wanted. Participants were asked, “Before your 18th birthday, how often did a parent or other adult caregiver say things that really hurt your feelings or made you feel like you were not wanted or loved?” The responses were categorized as never (zero times), sometimes (one to five times), or often (at least six times).

Covariates included age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, education, and various psychiatric variables and risk factors for depression (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, sexual abuse).

An analysis of the data showed that more than 16 percent of participants had experienced depression. Furthermore, approximately 17 percent of the sample had felt not wanted or not loved often, and 30 percent, sometimes.

More importantly, feeling unloved and unwantedoften was linked with higher odds of lifetime depression (AOR = 3.00; 95 percent CI, 2.45–3.66; p < 0.001). The odds were lower for feeling unwanted sometimes (AOR = 1.59; 95 percent CI, 1.31–1.90; p < 0.001). Note, AOR stands for “adjusted odds ratio.”

There was also an association between depression and regular smoking, childhood sexual abuse, and low income.

In terms of gender differences, a larger proportion of women (22 percent) than men (10 percent) experienced lifetime depression. Yet feeling unwanted or unloved correlated with depression in both women (AOR = 2.73; 95 percent CI, 2.13– 3.48; p < 0.001) and men (AOR = 3.70; 95 percent CI, 2.60–5.25; p < 0.001).

Let me try to answer a question that might have occurred to some readers: Is it possible that some participants’ perception or memory of how their parents treated them was inaccurate?

In short, yes. The parents’ actual behavior (as observed by a third party) could have been different—either more affectionate or more hard-hearted—than reported.

Nevertheless, compared to objective evidence, subjective experience of maltreatment is more strongly associated with mental health issues.

For instance, a child may not feelrejected or unloved even when objective observers notice that a parent is clearly neglecting the child or behaving aggressively toward him/her.

In contrast, another child mayfeel rejected even when witnesses fail to observe any blatant behavior that could have caused such feelings. A barely audible sigh, or even silence (when speech would have been expected), may have been all it took.

So, as important as it is to look at behaviors from an objective point of view (e.g., objective evidence of physical or sexual abuse), we also need to examine whether and how these behaviors are perceivedand what they mean to the child.

Doing so may require learning a lot more about child-parent interactions—from unique family dynamics to cultural factors that affect how family members express/perceive acceptance and rejection.

Finally, it appears mental health is affected not just by perceptions of parental behavior then, but by how they are remembered later. For example, a 2010 review study found adult individuals’ remembrances of “parental rejection in childhood are likely to be associated with the same form of psychological maladjustment as tends to be found among children who perceive themselves to be rejected by their parents.”

If you often experienced rejection or abandonment as a child and have been struggling with depression as an adult, it is understandable why you may have been unable to get help in the past.

Perhaps you could not trust authority figures, including therapists. Or maybe you have felt damaged and ashamed of needing help. Or there could be many other reasons.

But there are as many reasons, if not more, for seeking help and getting better (here is a list of 15). The most important of them is that you deserve to feel good about yourself and be happy.

So, do not suffer in silence. Effective treatments, both medications and psychotherapy modalities, are available and can improve your life.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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