Childhood Emotional Neglect – The Source of Anxiety, Isolation, Depression and Emptiness?

The idea of ‘emotional neglect’ in childhood is something new to me and I’m astounded by the sheer consequences it can have later in adult life. Whilst many may think they that they had a wonderful childhood, I would recommend that if you feel like something isn’t quite right about your life right now (symptoms listed below), that you take a closer look at your childhood.

Childhood emotional neglect is deceptive. Generally, when you look back on your childhood you look back on what happened and how it shaped your adult life. However emotional neglect isn’t about what happened, but about what did not happen that should have happened.

So what should have happened? – Emotional learning and connection. Without it, there will be consequences later in life. The deceptive part is that there are barely any signs of childhood emotional neglect.

Your parents do not have had to be tyrants or dictators for emotional neglect to happen. A child can experience emotional neglect even if she is brought up in a loving and friendly environment. Your parents could have taken you on holidays, bought you lots of gifts, provided you with a good education, food, clothing and shelter; yet they may not have provided you with the emotional learning that allows you to feel the fullness of life as an adult.

Filling the Void

Key points:

  • A child has to learn about emotions and accept them in order to experience the substance, richness and meaning in life. Only then is he capable of relationships that also have substance, riches and meaning.
  • Without emotional connection, the child grows up in an emotional vacuum and as an adult will search for something else to fill it, which will never satisfy.
  • The fuel of life is feeling – if we are not filled up as children then we must fill ourselves up as adults. In other words, you can heal (steps further down).

The video describes the 3 types of emotionally neglectful parents.

Perhaps your parents never sat down with you after an emotional event to talk things through with you and help you to put things in perspective? It’s not uncommon to have a parent on the other end of the spectrum who doesn’t even allow you to express your emotions, because they see it as disrespecting their authority. Growing up in such an environment unconsciously teaches you that having emotions are bad, and as a result you subconsciously push down your emotions in a bid to make sure that you never displease your parents.

If a child becomes emotional over a significant incident or event, a parent should respond in a way similar to the below points.

  1. Child is around the parent in an emotional state.
  2. Parent feels emotional connection to the child e.g. parent asks what happened before reacting or shaming.
  3. Parent pays attention to the child as a unique and separate person (rather than as an extension of themselves) e.g. listens to him.
  4. Uses that emotional connection and pays attention to the child e.g. showing empathy and naming feelings.
  5. The parent responds completely to the child’s emotional needs and the child feels understood.

Firstly a parent should not shame but connect emotionally, then name his feeling, creating the emotional leaning that allows the child to sort out his own feelings in the future.

If you never learnt how to sort out your emotions, and have little to no awareness of your emotions, they will stay under the surface and eventually knot up together emerging as anger and irritation.

Not only does this make you an uncomfortable person to be around but you also cause yourself problems such as:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Problems with binging on food and comfort eating
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • Social isolation
  • Low energy
  • A feeling of emptiness and being unfulfilled
  • Questioning the meaning of life

Why We Need to Monitor our Emotions

Our society today tends to promote the idea that men shouldn’t cry and that people should always be happy and never sad. Showing emotions other than happiness has become the norm, with all the others becoming frowned upon and undervalued in society.

However supressing emotions can be extremely costly since emotions are at the core of our existence as human beings. They are in many ways even more a part of us than our thoughts. Emotions drive us to do the right things and keep us alive in survival situations. Most people let their minds rule, either because of mental programming or because they no longer know how to follow their emotions. They end up in jobs they don’t like, and friends they don’t belong with all because they chose to listen to the voice in their head rather than their emotions.

We tend to think ourselves as thinking beings who feel, but rather we are feeling beings who think. It is most likely that the people who are most fulfilled in life, have learnt to listen to their emotions which helps in connecting with the world and people, allowing them to experience depth and richness in their lives.

Symptoms of Emotional Neglect

The above video has a great array of symptoms of childhood emotional neglect and is well worth watching. Below we’ll cover the 10 symptoms as described in the book Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb.

1. Feelings of Emptiness

Few people go to therapy because they feel empty inside, it’s not really a disorder such as depression or anxiety. It’s more a feeling of discomfort, a lack of being filled up that may come and go. This can be experienced as emotional numbness.

When you have been emotionally neglected you may have a general sense that you’re missing something that everyone else has, or that you’re on the outside looking in. It makes you feel disconnected, as if you’re not enjoying life as you should.

Further signs of emptiness:

  1. You can feel emotionally numb sometimes
  2. You sometimes find yourself questioning the meaning of life
  3. You have suicidal thoughts from time to time, that suddenly appear
  4. You engage in high risk, thrill seeking activities
  5. You feel that you are different from everyone else but don’t know why
  6. You feel like you are viewing the world from the outside looking in

2. The Need for Independence

This can be known as counter dependence which refers to the drive to need no one, or more specifically, the fear of being dependant. Counter- dependant people go to great lengths to avoid asking for help, to not appear, or feel needy. They will make every effort to not rely on another person, even at their own expense.

Further signs of counter-dependence:

  1. You’ve had feelings of depression but you don’t know why
  2. You have inexplicable, longstanding wishes to run away or simply be dead.
  3. You remember your childhood as lonely, even if it was happy
  4. Others describe you as aloof
  5. Loved ones complain that you are emotionally distant
  6. You prefer to do things yourself
  7. It’s very hard to ask for help
  8. You’re not comfortable in close relationships

3. You Do Not Know Your Likes/Dislikes – Unrealistic Self Appraisal

Many emotionally neglected people do not know what they like or dislike, or simply what they’re talents are. It’s a bit like the adult who comes home from work everyday who then binges on Netflix or video games until the early hours. They try to pull themselves out of the rut by doing something more creative but they just can’t emotionally connect with a new craft or hobby. They watch other people who have little hobbies but they can’t seem to find their own.

Further signs of Unrealistic Self Appraisal:

  1. It’s hard to identify your talents
  2. You sense that you may tend to over emphasise your weaknesses
  3. It’s hard to say what you like and dislike
  4. You’re not sure what your interests are
  5. You give up quickly when things get challenging
  6. You choose the wrong career or changed several times
  7. You often feel like a square peg in a round hole misfit

4. No Compassion for Self/Perfectionist/Judgemental 

There are two types of compassion, the compassion for others and the compassion we feel for ourselves. In the case of the emotionally neglected, we tend to be judgemental and perfectionist when it comes to ourselves but less so to others.

  • When you have a lack of compassion from a parent, it becomes a lack of compassion for oneself.

The lack of compassion from a parent becomes an internalised parents voice in your own mind that becomes critical of your own self and everything that you do. However, you seem to judge other people on a much more lenient scale than yourself.

Children who are emotionally nurtured learn how to forgive themselves if they make a mistake as their parents communicate that failure happens. A healthy child will learn to pick themselves up because they know failures happen, they learn from them and move on.

Further signs of a lack of compassion:

  1. Others often seek you out to talk about their problems
  2. Others often tell you that you’re a good listener
  3. You have very little tolerance for your own mistakes
  4. There is a critical voice inside your head, pointing out your errors and flaws
  5. Your much harder on yourself than others
  6. You often feel angry at yourself

5. You Feel Something is Wrong With You

If the parents give off the impression that feelings are a burden, excessive or simply wrong then the child will then begin to feel guilty and ashamed for having them. If this is the case, the emotional neglected will then make efforts to hide their feelings from others and even to the point of not having them at all.

  • When a child’s emotions are not acknowledged, or validated by her parents, she can grow up to be unable to do so for themselves.

As grown adults, they may then have little tolerance of intense feelings or any feelings at all. They may bury them and blame themselves for being angry, sad, nervous, frustrated or even happy.

  • This can develop into a source of secret shame as the act of having a feeling felt shameful and wrong.

Further signs of this symptom:

  1. You sometimes feel depressed, sad or angry for no apparent reason
  2. You sometimes feel emotionally numb
  3. You have a feeling that something is wrong with you
  4. You feel that you are somehow different from other people
  5. You tend to push down feelings and avoid them
  6. You try to hide your feelings so others won’t see them
  7. You tend to feel inferior to others
  8. You feel you have no excuses for not being happier in your life

6. Self blame, Self Directed Anger

If having emotions was taught as bad by the caregiver, then the child will grow up being ashamed any time they have an emotion. It is difficult to feel deeply ashamed of something as innately human in oneself as emotions without getting angry with oneself for it. Shame taken one step further, becomes self-directed anger.

Further signs of this symptom:

  1. You get angry at yourself easily and often
  2. You use alcohol or drugs or a release
  3. You often feel disgusted with yourself
  4. You have self-destructive episodes or tendencies
  5. You blame yourself for not being happier and more ‘normal’.

7. If People Really Know Me They Won’t Like Me

From the emotional neglect point of view point, an emotionally neglected adult shares a secret and carefully guarded feeling that they are different and flawed.

A person may try to make sense of this feeling and attach it to something. Each emotionally neglected person is different. The fatal flaw is not a real flaw but it is a real feeling. It is a deep-seated belief about yourself that makes you feel different from everyone else, estranged from the world or unacceptable to others it echoes ‘what’s wrong with you?’

Further signs of this symptom:

  1. You fear getting close to people
  2. It’s hard to open up to even your best friends
  3. You tend to expect rejection around every corner
  4. You avoid initiating friendships
  5. It can be hard for you to keep conversations going
  6. You feel that if people get too close to you they won’t like what they see

8. Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others

When we receive nurturance from our parents as children, we internalise it and it becomes a part of us. As adults, we are then able to provide nurturance to others when they need it. Children absorb the parents, love care and help.

  • A child too long away from love, care and help will harden and wall off and have trouble giving and receiving nurturance.

Further signs of this symptom:

  1. People sometimes tell you that you come across as distant, or maybe even cold
  2. People sometimes think you’re arrogant
  3. You often think others are too emotional
  4. Others come to you for practical advice, but not for emotional support
  5. You feel uncomfortable when someone cries in your presence
  6. You are uncomfortable crying yourself, especially when other people are present
  7. You don’t like the feeling someone needs you
  8. You don’t like feeling needy

9. Poor Self-Discipline 

Emotionally neglected often struggle to stop themselves from doing things they shouldn’t, like eating junk food, over spending and other self-indulgences and they have difficulty forcing them to do things they don’t want to do like exercising and chores.

It is the parents job to teach self-discipline, however if they aren’t connected to the child this need can go unmet.

Other symptoms of poor self-discipline:

  1. You feel that you are lazy
  2. You’re a procrastinator
  3. You have great difficulty with deadlines
  4. You get angry at yourself for how little you get done
  5. You’re an underachiever
  6. Often disorganised

10. Alexithymia

You may not have come across this word, but alexithymia denotes a person’s deficiency in, knowledge about, and awareness of, emotion. A person suffering from this lives his life with no ability or willingness to experience emotions. There is a big consequence of this in that, emotions that are not acknowledged or expressed tend to jumble together and emerge as anger.

Other symptoms of Alexithymia

  1. You have a tendency to be irritable
  2. You are seldom aware of having a feeling
  3. You are often mystified by others behaviour
  4. You are often mystified by your own behaviour
  5. Sometimes your behaviour can seem rash to yourself and others
  6. You feel that you re fundamentally different from other people
  7. Something is missing inside of you
  8. Your friendships lack depth and substance

Suicidal Tendencies

Not all emotionally neglected people experience this, but it is worth noting. Emotional neglect can drive people to have suicidal thoughts as the feeling of emptiness/numbness is in many ways worse than pain  and can drive people to do extreme things to escape it.

Four common traits with suicidal victims:

  • Emptiness and numbness
  • Suffering in silence
  • Questioning the meaning of life and value of his life
  • Escape fantasy

Healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect

Healing can be split into two categories to heal, firstly by learning to identify your emotions and then caring for yourself.

1. Learning about Emotions

To start the healing process from emotional neglect we have to give ourselves what we never got in childhood – we must learn to recognise our feelings and put them into words. This seems to release the trapped feelings inside of us and put them out into the world. Even though this exercise sounds so trivial, there’s a something magical about saying, ‘I feel sad’ or ‘I felt hurt when that happened.’

  • The magic of feeling better and coping lies in putting words to your feelings and sharing them. When you identify and name your feelings to yourself or to another person you are taking something from the inside and putting it on the outside. You are making something unknown known and you are taking charge; you are making the most of a valuable resource your emotions and your fuel of life.

It can seem an impossible for task for someone who was emotionally neglected to put words to feelings but it is something that is required for healing. By being persistent and becoming naturally tuned into your emotions as they arise healing takes place.

Such learning can be done through intentional mental exercises. To start this process:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Ask yourself, what am I feeling now? Erase any thoughts and keep your focus on that question.
  3. Try to identify the feelings and put it into words. You may need a vocabulary of words to help you, which you can find here.
  4. Once you locate the feeling ask yourself, ‘why are you feeling like this?’ This can be difficult and may take some time. Has something happened to make you feel this way? Have you felt like this before?
  5. Don’t give up

You may want to repeat these steps whenever you have the time to do so during the day, but doing it a few times a day is good practice. Eventually if you do it enough, it becomes second nature.

A couple things to remember are:

  • There are no bad emotions and they do not make you a bad person.
  • Do no judge yourself for your feelings. Feelings do not always make rational sense, but they exist for a good reason.
  • Emotions are trying to send you a message even though some may seem strange. Accept the feeling and if you can, act on it (sensibly), with assertiveness and compassion.
  • The steps can be summed up with IAAA.
    • Identify – What is the feeling?
    • Accept – Do not judge it as good or bad
    • Attribute – Discern the reason
    • Act – Is there an action to take? If so act sensibly on it.

2. Self-Care

If your parents showed enough compassion and empathy towards your feelings as a child, it’s more than likely you have learnt to develop sufficient compassion for yourself as an adult. If this is not the case you’ll have to make sure that you are learning to nurture yourself as an adult.

It’s easy to think that you are taking proper care of yourself because you can feed yourself and get on with your day, but you’ll want to check yourself against the points below, and if you aren’t already doing so, start incorporating these practices into your life.

  • Putting yourself first – This does not mean being selfish, but rather think of it in the same way that the airline safety videos tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first. When you’re mentally healthy, you can give better assistance to others. You can learn to put yourself first in the following ways:
    • Have boundaries and learn to say ‘no.’
    • Ask for help – this addresses the counter dependence
    • Discover your likes and dislikes – knowing what you like will help you define what you want.
    • Put a higher priority on your enjoyment – in an emotionally neglected childhood, you either didn’t have choices to do things you enjoyed or other peoples priorities came first. Often this point incorporates all the other three points.
  • Learn Healthy Eating – This may seem obvious but children need to learn how to eat healthier and if this is not communicated to the child, the parents eating habits can be passed on which is particularly bad if the parent does not eat healthily. Take a closer look at your eating habits and correct where appropriate.
  • Exercise – Much like learning about healthy eating, parents may not have communicated how important exercise is. In this case you must teach yourself. Exercise is a wonderful thing and you’ll want to get out and find an exercise regime that appeals to you.
  • Rest and relaxation – With emotionally neglected children, they are not always able to read the signs of when they need rest because their parents may not be paying attention to their child’s need for rest, but rather the parent makes them rest because its most convenient for the parent. In this respect the child may not be able to read their own physical cues for rest. Adults who were emotionally neglected may be burning themselves out not knowing they are in need of rest. They will need to learn and look for cues when they need to rest.


There will be times when you get emotionally uncomfortable. Emotions come in an array of feelings, some wonderful, neutral and unpleasant. Many emotionally neglected children did not receive adequate soothing. Therefore they are unable to soothe themselves and will need to find some methods that work for them. For example you could:

  • Take a nice long relaxing bath or shower
  • Listen to music or a particular song you like
  • Exercise in some way, go for a run, aerobic exercise, biking
  • Go for a walk in nature
  • Play an instrument
  • Do some cooking
  • Play with a pet
  • Talk to a close friend
  • Watch a movie or go to the movies
  • Sit quietly on a bench or look out the window

Another way to soothe yourself, and probably the most effective way is by using self-talk. It involves literally talking yourself through your uncomfortable feeling state. You can do this quietly in your own mind, which has advantages of many of the other methods. Whilst you are conducting your self-talk remind yourself of simple, honest truths which will help you keep things in perspective. For example:

  • ‘It’s only a feeling and feelings don’t last forever’
  • ‘you know you meant well’
  • ‘this will pass’
  • ‘I need to learn what I can and then put this behind me.
  • ‘All your life you will need to have the ability to soothe yourself.

As you get better at it, you’ll find yourself a calmer person who feels more in control and more comfortable overall.

The overall idea is that self-compassion in all cases is what is important for healing. If you lack self-compassion you may find that you will shout at yourself with a ruthless internal voice for your own honest mistake and errors. You may go as far as blaming yourself for having normal feelings and issues or end up feeling worthless.

Judging, blaming, disliking, insulting and wanting to kill yourself is opposite of self-care. All of these are self-destructive and exhaust energy resources and take you nowhere but down.

  • Don’t punish yourself in a way that you wouldn’t punish someone you care about
  • Become aware of damaging self-directed anger – anger at yourself is the opposite of compassion. Anytime you feel angry with yourself consider it a cue to turn the compassion you have for others on yourself.
  • Disliking yourself is self-destruction.
  • Speak wisdom to yourself
  • Develop an inner loving but firm voice
  • Allow yourself to be human – feelings and mistakes are all a part of being human.

Stay Persistent

Healing from emotional neglect can be long process and it’s important to not give up. Having false expectations that this is an overnight job is a potential obstacle to your healing especially when you see a set-back, even though healing is not a linear process. There will be setbacks, but these should not be thought of as failures, but rather part of the learning process. Feeling emotions and paying attention can also be uncomfortable and is tempting to avoid them by doing something else. Stick with the belief that you can heal and you will!

Recommended Reading

Much of these notes and my research came directly from Dr. Jonice Webb’s work on emotional neglect. If you need further in depth help it would be worthwhile to look at her work on the subject.

If you related to the symptoms in this post or want to help someone else, you will want to consider picking up her book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect as it will give you the points above in much greater depth.

If you found this post interesting you may also want to read up on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which covers emotional neglect and abuse in childhood.

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