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What Are Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Hannah Hopper, LPC, NCC

“I don’t know why, but I often feel so empty and numb inside.”

“I had a good childhood, so I don’t know why I can’t just be happier.”

“I’m not sure who I am, what I like, or what I want.” 

Do any of these statements above hold true for you? One of the misconceptions about childhood emotional neglect is that if you can’t see any scars from it, then it won’t leave that much of an impact. Many people come into therapy wondering why something about their childhood feels like it’s off or there was something missing, but it’s hard to find the right words to explain it. It’s challenging to pinpoint exactly what went wrong because emotional neglect usually takes place over years, and it’s a series of incidents rather than one traumatic memory. Another way that emotional neglect is different from child abuse is that it’s typically unintentional. Sometimes, a parent may just fail to respond to their child in the way that the child needs; a parent can love and care for you, and there may still be emotional neglect. 

The kind of statements at the beginning of this blog represent what wasn’t there during childhood. Emotional neglect can be boiled down to when a parent doesn’t see, understand, or care for the child in the way that’s needed. And while this is still a somewhat vague statement, it points to the heart of emotional neglect — failing to see the child as they truly are. It may be a parent that is distracted and busy and can’t pay much attention to their child. It could be growing up without many boundaries, rules or structure, or not receiving much care and nurturing. Other times it’s lacking the encouragement and emotional support that a child needed in order to thrive in the world. In all of these instances, the parent is looking at the child through the lens of what they want or need the child to be, instead of seeing the child for who they are. If you’re wondering if you’ve experienced emotional neglect, below are some common symptoms that can play out in adulthood. 

Symptoms in Adulthood

These symptoms are adapted from Dr. Jonice Webb’s book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

  •     You have a sense that you’re on the outside, looking in
  •     Have trouble identifying feelings and putting them in to words
  •     Feel disconnected and alone, even when surrounded by other people
  •     Secretly have a sense that something is wrong with you, and if others found out then they’d leave
  •     Judge yourself much more harshly than you judge other people
  •     Have difficulty managing your emotions when you’re upset, making it hard to self-soothe
  •     You’re independent and have trouble asking for or receiving help from others
  •     You’ve been told that you’re hard to connect with or cold
  •     Worry that you’ll never reach your full potential, whether in work or personal life
  •     Have difficulty with self-discipline, either it being too much or too little
  •     Often feel sad or unhappy, and have trouble identifying why you feel this way

If some of these symptoms describe your experience, it could be helpful to seek our therapy to begin addressing and healing the wounds of childhood emotional neglect. Reading these descriptions may feel overwhelming, but know that you’re not alone. Therapy is an effective way to work through these challenges, and there is hope. If you’d like to take that first step and begin counseling, you can browse our therapist bios to find someone that is the right fit for you. You can also contact Symmetry Counseling today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our therapists.    

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