What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, July 19, 2023
By coralgables_admin

By Alli Griffiths, Mental Health Counselor, Practicum

First, emotional neglect is not emotional abuse. Abuse intends to harm whereas emotional neglect is usually unintentional. Oftentimes, these parents are doing the best they can with what they have, but unfortunately, they are not meeting their children’s emotional needs.  Childhood emotional neglect can look like the following:

  • Parents/care-givers withholding love or affection and only loving their children under certain conditions
  • Emotionally immature or emotionally unavailable parents/care-givers
  • Parents/care-givers who are highly critical or judgmental of their children
  • Parents/care-givers who minimize, dismiss, or invalidate their children’s emotions
  • Parents/care-givers who repeatedly tell their children to ‘get over it,’ ‘stop being so sensitive,’ and/or ‘man up’
  • Parents/care-givers who are disengaged and uninvolved in their children’s lives
  • Parents/care-givers who rarely praise or encourage their children
  • Parents/care-givers who abuse substances, such as drugs or alcohol

crayon heart drawing

When children’s emotional needs are not met, they start to believe that their needs do not matter, and so they hide their feelings. Meanwhile, these children are starving for human connection and affection. In response, they may act out in school or at home.

As a counselor, I often hear statements from parents to their children along the lines of ‘I gave you everything you could ever need, so why aren’t you happy?’ However, meeting children’s physical needs is not enough. You may feed, clothe, and bathe your children every day, but when is the last time you nurtured their hearts and souls? Human connection is a survival instinct, and we crave emotional closeness as much as food and water.

Moreover, there are serious long-term side effects of childhood emotional neglect. These can include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Adults who have experienced emotional neglect as children may also struggle with interpersonal relationships and intimacy.

If you are a parent who is worried that this could be you or someone you know, take a moment, and breathe. Admitting there may be a problem is the first step towards recovery. Consider seeking counseling to work on your own emotional needs to better parent your child.

If this resonates with you, you are not alone. Approximately 1 in 5 adults have experienced childhood emotional neglect, and this number is likely underreported, according to the National Institutes of Health. I recommend seeking the help of a counselor to process your upbringing and how it may be affecting your current relationships, including your relationship with yourself.

Furthermore, if you are an adult survivor of childhood emotional neglect, I recommend finding a therapist who is skilled in inner child work. Inner child work may include guided imagery and talking to your past self. Essentially, it is an opportunity to re-parent yourself and to love yourself in ways that you did not experience as a child.

Acknowledging childhood trauma is difficult, especially when the wounds are internal. However, the only way out is through. By processing your childhood, you can heal and move forward. It is never too late to change your life.


“Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.”
Nathan W. MorrisWatercolor