What is Emotional Neglect?

what is emotional neglect

What is Emotional Neglect?

According to Psychology Today, emotional neglect is defined as the “absence of emotional support in childhood”. In other words, emotional neglect occurs when a child’s basic emotional needs are ignored or deprived. 

It is important to differentiate between emotional neglect and emotional abuse. Therefore, neglect is not abuse because it is, in most cases, unintentional. The caregiver typically does not seek to intentionally harm the child. However, they fail to provide the attention, love, and emotional support the child needs. Of course, this is not to understate the severity of emotional neglect or the damage done to the child.

Emotional neglect can have significant short, intermediate, and long-term effects. These symptoms can be subtle or obvious depending on the child and the severity of the neglect. 

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect Children?

For children, common symptoms of emotional neglect include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Developmental delays
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Rejecting emotional intimacy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Aggression
  • Poor self-discipline
  • Substance abuse or misuse


Children who are emotionally neglected often feel unloved and unwanted by their families and caregivers. They’ve grown up feeling as if their emotions and feelings are unimportant and invalid. 

A child’s emotions and feelings are the most basic, intrinsic, biological expressions of themselves and serve many functions vital to becoming a fully functional adult. Emotions inform our needs and desires, motivate our actions, facilitate self-discovery and understanding, and connect us to others. Because human emotions are hard-wired into us from birth, being forced to cope within an environment that does not acknowledge those feelings can have a profound effect on how a child interacts with themself and the world. 

Children learn to push their feelings down and close themselves off. They start to view their own emotions as bothersome and annoying to others and seek to not burden others with their needs.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect Adults?

For adults, common symptoms of emotional neglect include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTDS)
  • Depression
  • Anger and aggressive behavior
  • Deep feelings of personal inadequacy
  • Feelings of shame or guilt about your emotions or needs
  • Rejecting emotional intimacy
  • Difficulty or inability to trust others or leaning on others for support
  • Difficulty or inability to acknowledge, manage or express your emotions

Adults sometimes can’t point to a single event that traumatizes them. Therefore, adults who’ve suffered from childhood emotional neglect often have trouble placing why they feel so emotionally disconnected, anxious, and generally unhappy. It’s not uncommon for therapists to hear patients express confusion about the source of their negative feelings. Claiming that they’ve had a perfectly good childhood and making it abundantly clear that their parents never abused them in any way. 

And this is one of the more insidious aspects of neglect. The tendency to discredit the emotional effects by comparing emotional neglect to the more easily identifiable and inexcusable “abuse”. Describing their experience as “just” neglect underscores this dismissiveness and the continued undermining of their own feelings and emotions, well into adulthood.

Some parents emotionally neglect their children because they themselves were emotionally neglected. Therefore, resulting in their inability to understand the importance of emotions. As a result, they don’t know how to properly identify or address the emotional needs of their own kids. Likewise, children who have been emotionally neglected run a higher risk of emotionally neglecting their own children in the future. 

This is why it is so important to work at understanding your childhood experiences of emotional neglect and to process how the emotional neglect has impacted you as an adult. 


For the best chance of overcoming your trauma as an adult, be open to the idea of therapy. A trained professional can help you identify the effects of emotional neglect, learn to deal with emotions in a healthy manner, and, ultimately, heal. Therapists can provide you with the toolkit necessary to learn how to trust and lean on others. Also, how to express your needs and desires, build self-esteem, and stop feeling guilty about your feelings. 

Parenting classes are also an option for adults who want to make sure they don’t pass their own trauma onto their children. New or expecting parents can learn the best ways to identify, acknowledge and respond to their children’s emotions and avoid becoming neglectful parents themselves.

Therapy is also an effective treatment for children currently suffering from emotional neglect. Family therapy in particular can help the parents identify and acknowledge the impact that their behavior or inaction is having on their kids. Therapy can also provide positive strategies for change. And it can also help a child learn to process their emotions and hopefully prevent suffering negative effects as adults.


In conclusion, emotional neglect is real and is serious. It can have significant effects on children that continue to affect them well into adulthood. And if left untreated or unacknowledged, those who suffered from childhood neglect could very well go on to perpetuate the same cycle when they have their own kids. Though childhood neglect may not leave physical scars, it definitely leaves emotional scars. And we need to understand the causes and effects of emotional neglect if we are to address and prevent it.





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