Most people have experienced childhood neglect to one degree or another at some point during their lives. Of those, many don’t even recognize it as neglect or abuse because people tend to idealize their childhood upbringing or even defend child abuse in order to cope with their own unpleasant feelings.
It’s easier to recognize that there’s something wrong when you feel physical pain, for instance, when being beaten or sexually assaulted. It is much more confusing when you have an emotional need but the caregiver is unable or unwilling to recognize and meet that need.
This is especially true when you are also taught that your role is to meet the caregiver’s needs, that you are “very problematic,” or that you shouldn’t question how the caregiver treats you because you are just a child.
But childhood neglect is damaging, and a person can struggle with its effects for the rest of their adult life. So let’s take a look at eight common ways that childhood neglect impacts a person.
1. Trust issues
You learn that people are unreliable and you either always have to be on guard and expect for everyone to be potentially dangerous or you think that people will just disappoint you by rejecting, discarding, ridiculing, hurting, or using you—just like people did when you were a child.
You may have problems trusting anyone, or you may trust too quickly, even when the people in question are not trustworthy. Both are damaging.
2. Doing everything yourself
This is an extension of the first point. Since you believe you can’t trust others, the only logical conclusion that follows from it is that you can only rely on yourself.
It means that you may work extra hard, oftentimes to your own detriment, just because you think you have to do everything by yourself. Asking for help is not seen or even considered as an option.
On a psychological and emotional level it may manifest as a tendency to hide your true thoughts and feelings because they were not allowed when you were growing up. So you may think that either nobody cares about you, or, again, that people will simply hurt you if you open up.
3. Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where a person has learned that they are powerless to change their circumstances because they experienced a chronic lack of control in certain scenarios. For example, if you as a child have a need and you can’t meet it by yourself, and your caregiver fails to meet it too, then you may learn several things from this experience after a while.
You may learn that your needs are unimportant (minimization). You may also learn that you shouldn’t or don’t have these needs (repression). And lastly, that you can’t do anything about your situation (false, passive acceptance).
So what happens when such a person grows up is that they are often unable to meet their own needs because they were raised to accept that they have no or very little control over their life.
4. Aimlessness, apathy, disorganization
People who were neglected as children lacked support and guidance when they needed it. Moreover, many children grow up not only being neglected but also being over-controlled.
If that was your childhood environment, then you may have problems feeling self-motivated, being organized, having a purpose, making decisions, being productive, showing initiative, or functioning in an environment that is not controlling (where people don’t tell you what to do, where you have to make your own decisions).
5. Poor emotional regulation and addiction
People who have experienced neglect often have numerous emotional problems. As children they were either forbidden to feel and express certain emotions, or they didn’t receive help and teaching in how to deal with overwhelming emotions in a healthy manner.
People from these environments don’t know how to regulate their emotions, and are therefore prone to addiction (food, substance, sex, Internet, anything really). That’s a person’s way of dealing with feeling lost, bored, or overwhelmed—essentially, with being in emotional pain.
6. Toxic shame and guilt, low self-esteem
A few of the most common emotions that people who were neglected struggle with are chronic, toxic shame and guilt. Such a person tends to blame themselves by default, oftentimes without any good reason. They also feel chronic shame and are sensitive to other people’s perceptions of them. This is closely related to the person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
7. Feeling not good enough
A neglected child consciously or unconsciously thinks that the reason why their caregivers don’t pay attention to them is because they are not good enough, because there’s something wrong with them, because they are not trying hard enough, because they are fundamentally defective, and so on. As a result, the person grows up feeling not good enough.
People develop various coping mechanisms to cope with that and the feelings of chronic shame. Some become highly perfectionistic and self-critical. Others become severe people-pleasers because of learned self-erasure. Some others always try really hard and never feel good enough, and may be used by manipulative people. Others become codependent where they are needy and enmeshed with the other person. Others become highly narcissistic to compensate for a lack of attention and in order to avoid the pain that they feel if they are seen as vulnerable or inferior.
8. Self-neglect: poor self-care
What we are taught as children we tend to internalize and eventually it becomes our self-perception. Because of that, if you have been neglected you will then learn to self-neglect. Again, because of unconscious beliefs that you don’t matter, that you don’t deserve it, that nobody cares about you, that you’re a bad person, that you deserve to suffer, and so on.
People who were neglected when growing up often have problems with self-care, sometimes on a very basic level where they have an unhealthy diet, eating disorders, poor sleep regimen, a lack of exercise, unhealthy relationships, etc.
Some people who were neglected and abused in other ways even actively harm themselves: internally (via self-dialogue) or externally (physically, economically, sexually). An ultimate form of that is suicide.
Some think that if a child has had their basic needs met, then they were not neglected and had a “normal” childhood, as in, “everything was fine, just like in most families.” And while it’s true that socially these things have been normalized, a child needs much more than food, shelter, clothes, and some toys.
Inner wounds are more difficult to see because they don’t leave visible scars.
Childhood neglect can lead to severe personal and social problems, like depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, self-harm, addiction, destructive and self-destructive behaviors, and even suicide.
Do any of those mechanisms sound familiar to you? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.