In the 1980s, the true impact of abuse on children was finally recognized and defined. And since that time, the progress in understanding child abuse has been both significant and rapid.
But still, until recently, childhood emotional abuse and emotional neglect were combined in the minds of laypeople and mental health professionals alike. In fact, it was almost a catchphrase in research articles, books and professional writings, “Emotional abuse and neglect.”
Finally, since the publication of the first book that described the unique effects of pure Childhood Emotional Neglect (Running On Empty, in 2012), Emotional Neglect is, at last, being seen and defined separately from abuse.
I have spent the last 6 years working to help people understand the differences between neglect and abuse, and to see neglect as a unique entity that can happen on its own, and has separate effects from abuse. But in this article, I am going to take a step in the other direction, so that we can address another very important question.
Emotional abuse and Emotional Neglect have separate effects on the child throughout his or her adult life. So what are the effects on you if you grow up in a household where both emotional abuse and emotional neglect are happening?
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
Growing up in a household that does not notice, address, or accept your feelings takes a deceptively heavy toll on you.
When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful household, you learn early and well that you must struggle to hide the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your emotions, from the people who are supposed to love you the most.
Don’t talk about your feelings.
Don’t let your feelings show.
Don’t be needy.
Don’t bring up anything meaningful because it will make everyone uncomfortable.
Most emotionally neglectful parents do not mean to be so. Most never directly say the sentences above to their children. No, it is actually far worse.
The majority of emotionally neglectful parents communicate these messages to their children indirectly, by simply not noticing, not asking, not offering, or not seeing. Paradoxically, it is the every day, unspoken, subliminal quality of these “Don’t” messages that makes them so very powerful.
The Emotional Effects Through The Child’s Adult Life: When you grow up with these squelching messages you have no choice but to distance yourself from your own emotions. Your brain adapts by blocking off your feelings. As an adult, you end up lacking access to this rich, rewarding and guiding resource. You may end up feeling unfulfilled, empty, alone and somehow deeply different from other people.
So Emotional Neglect happens when parents fail to respond to their child’s emotions. In contrast, emotional abuse happens when parents actively mistreat their child’s emotions.
Active mistreatment can happen in many ways. It might consist of punishing a child for being sad, hurt or angry, for example. Some parents might say to their child, “You’re so needy” or “You are weak,” or even, “Go to your room,” when they catch a glimpse or a whiff of an emotion from their child.
Giving a child drastically opposing messages from one day to the next would also be considered emotional abuse. For example, “I love you” one day and “I despise you” the next is harmful to the child’s emotional well-being and is considered abuse.
Naming-calling is another form of emotional abuse. Telling a child negative things about herself in a mean-spirited way is active emotional abuse.
The Emotional Effects Through The Child’s Adult Life: When you grow up watching emotions have too much power to hurt people, you learn not to trust feelings in general. You may view emotions as weapons that can hurt you, rather than the valuable messages from your body that they are. You end up having difficulty trusting or interpreting feelings.
3 Effects of Growing Up With Both Abuse and Neglect
- Your emotions seem either unpredictable and extra intense or totally shut down: CEN causes the shutdown, and abuse leads to intense and unpredictable feelings. Having grown up with both, you may end up struggling with either throughout your adult life. Or you may end up with a very perplexing combination of both.
- Emotions are a mystery to you, your own as well as others’: Neither of these forms of childhood mistreatment teaches you how to identify, tolerate, name, express or talk about emotions. As an adult, you are likely to need extra training and education so that you can read and work with your own feelings, as well as the feelings of the people around you.
- You have anger you do not know what to do with: It is very difficult to grow up with this unholy combo without ending up with a significant amount of anger. Just as with your other emotions, you may squelch your anger, turn it toward yourself (effects of CEN) or tend to explode (effects of emotional abuse).
What To Do
- Accept that your childhood is at work in your adult life. Stop blaming yourself for what you are struggling with now.
- Seek professional help to work through the abuse. It’s best if you find a therapist who also understands the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal it. For a list of such therapists all over the world, see below.
- Learn all you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Follow the clear, well-outlined steps for healing your CEN.
Growing up with this combination sets you up with extra challenges, yes. But it is all a part of who you are. And every single person is constantly evolving, facing challenges from without and within.
It matters less the number and type of challenges that you face. What matters more is mustering your courage, curiosity, and energy to face them.
What matters most is knowing that you are worth it.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and find out if you grew up with it, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it affects you and what to do about it, see the bestselling book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find a therapist near you who knows how to treat CEN, see the Find A CEN Therapist Page.