- Even though childhood emotional neglect can be subtle or even invisible, it leaves an enduring imprint.
- Many who grew up with emotional neglect are unaware that it can subtly affect them in daily life.
- One can be vulnerable to being triggered by situations that seem normal and benign to others.
Do you become easily frustrated or annoyed when you’re around your parents?
Do you try to escape situations where strong feelings are present?
Do you avoid conflict at all costs?
Do you rarely ask anyone for help?
The questions above may seem unrelated, but they are all defining qualities of people who grew up with childhood emotional neglect.
Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you.
A child who grows up in an environment where their emotions aren’t acknowledged or taken seriously is in quite a bind. Even though emotions are a necessary part of being human, these children learn that their feelings are unwelcome. They end up hiding them, walling them off, to not burden their parents.
This is actually quite a remarkable thing for a child to do. They are adapting to their childhood home to survive. Even so, this survival mechanism ends up backfiring, because they are pushing away a vital life source, something they will desperately need throughout their lifetime to live a fulfilled, rich life: their feelings.
Living your life with a wall standing between your emotions and you blocks your access to your emotional world. You miss out on learning how to identify, name, validate, tolerate, manage, or express your feelings. Without these skills, as an adult, you’re more prone to feeling disconnected from yourself and others. You may feel confused or overwhelmed when emotions rise to the surface and have difficulty identifying what you need.
Many people who grew up with childhood emotional neglect don’t even know it. It’s tricky to spot because it’s something that didn’t happen. You didn’t get the emotional language, understanding, skills, or responsiveness you greatly needed. Things that don’t happen are non-events and difficult to see or remember.
Those who grew up this way are typically left with certain “trigger points.” These are normal situations everyone experiences that can trigger the emotionally neglectful experience you had as a child.
5 Trigger Points That Can Activate Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Being around your parents… or even just talking or thinking about them: Coping with emotionally neglectful parents can be one of the most challenging parts of being an adult. Children intuitively go toward their parents for emotional connection. But, sadly, when emotionally neglected children do so, they are too often met with disappointment. Now, as an adult, they sense that something is missing when around their parents. They can be triggered by their parent’s lack of attention, surface-level conversations, and inability to see them in a deep and emotional way. This creates feelings of hurt, anger, and loneliness.
- Being ignored: On a basic level, experiencing childhood emotional neglect is a form of being ignored daily. Growing up without your feelings noticed, responded to, or validated enough means that the essence of who you are (your emotions) is overlooked. This can give clarity as to why today you might feel unseen by yourself and others. You might even find that you’re extremely comfortable living in the background and afraid to take risks, speak up, or be the center of attention. However, when situations arise in which you are blatantly ignored or overlooked, your childhood feelings of being unseen can become triggered, making the current situation more painful than it needs to be.
- Experiencing conflict: While everyone encounters conflict throughout their lives, not everyone is equipped with the tools to deal with conflict in an effective and healthy way. Conflict requires us to be OK with the fact that (1) we are feeling angry or hurt and (2) someone in our life is also angry or hurt. It also requires us to be able to identify what we’re feeling, understand it, and put those feelings into words. Having these invaluable emotion skills doesn’t come easily, especially for those who experienced childhood emotional neglect. So, when there is conflict, you may not have the skills necessary to handle the situation. Instead, you might feel compelled to avoid, push down your feelings, and pretend that nothing is wrong.
- Needing help: Going to your parents over and over again in childhood only to be let down creates deep feelings of disappointment. Over time, you learn that it’s painful to rely on people and that asking for help is useless. This is because each time you searched for support, your feelings of aloneness were amplified. When you do need help now as an adult, you might become very uncomfortable. Asking for help triggers your fear of disappointment and lack of trust that even those who love you will actually come through for you.
- Being around someone with strong emotions: In my years of running therapy groups, I learned something interesting about folks with childhood emotional neglect. Each time one group member expressed strong emotion, certain group members would start squirming in their chairs, go to the restroom, crack a joke, or attempt to change the topic of discussion. These group members were the emotionally neglected folks, clearly activated by displays of raw emotion. Because they learned to wall off their emotions to survive in their childhood homes, they didn't understand feelings or how they work so were triggered by others' emotions. They also had a low tolerance for feelings in general, especially strong ones.
Free Yourself From the Past by Understanding Your Emotions and Triggers
When you get triggered in your life now from childhood emotional neglect from the past, you may have little understanding about what you are feeling and why you may fall victim to repeating a dangerous pattern: pushing down your feelings and treating them as unimportant.
To take control over your triggers, it’s crucial to understand your personal childhood emotional neglect experience. Then, go down the path of reconnecting with your feelings and learn how to identify, differentiate, accept, and process them.
Once you take those steps, you’ll still find yourself getting triggered when certain events happen in your life because you are human just like the rest of us! But, with awareness and some emotion skills, you will be the one in control. You will no longer feel confused or ashamed for having responses that don’t make sense to you. Instead, you will find that you make perfect sense.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock
To determine if you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.