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The Surprising Difference Between Effects of Abuse & Neglect

While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.

Childhood Emotional Abuse – Jack

Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.

Childhood Emotional Neglect – Sadie

Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother, sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away.  “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.

It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are mis-used. In articles, in books, and even in professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.

But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.

Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.

To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.

Jack

At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.

At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.

Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.

Sadie

At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says no to any request.

People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy, and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty and alone much of the time. 

Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect.  Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings, and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.

What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.

And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.

Tips For Healing the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or Abuse

  1. Accept that your childhood lives within you. There’s a legitimate reason why you’re not happier. It’s your childhood.
  2. The effects of the neglect are subtle and hide beneath the abuse. So it’s hard to see the neglect until you’ve addressed the abuse, which is far more obvious, visible and memorable. It helps to work on the effects of the abuse first.
  3. If you grew up with emotional abuse, it’s important to work with a trained therapist. Almost everyone who experienced childhood abuse of any kind, in any amount, needs therapy to heal.
  4. If your childhood experience was pure Emotional Neglect, you may also benefit from therapy. But you may also be able to address many aspects of the effects on your own.
  5. Emotionally abused, neglected, or both: a huge step in your recovery involves learning to recognize, own, accept and express your feelings, and realizing why they matter.

And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.

To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty

**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who has read Running on Empty and/or taken my Fuel Up For Life online CEN program; if you want to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and would like to get referrals from me, you can send me a comment on this blog or email through my website for inclusion in my soon-to-arrive Find A CEN Therapist Page.

The Surprising Difference Between Effects of Abuse & Neglect


Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website EmotionalNeglect.com.


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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2016). The Surprising Difference Between Effects of Abuse & Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2016/03/the-surprising-difference-between-effects-of-abuse-neglect/

 

Last updated: 13 Mar 2016
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.