In my therapy practice I see many adults whose parents were terrible. Yet parents don’t have to have hit or terrify or use cruel, biting words to leave scars. This seems difficult for people to understand. I hear phrases like, “They didn’t beat me.” As if a lack of physical or emotional abuse means that parents get a pass.
Not true! There are “sins of omission” as well as “sins of commission,” as I write about in The Emotionally Absent Mother. When parents fail to guide us, protect us, act as an admiring mirror, supply us with lots of affection, or fail to fulfill other important parental roles, this is neglect.
The invisibility of emotional neglect
Because the word neglect is often associated with not attending to our physical needs (food, clothing, shelter), emotional neglect often goes unrecognized. Especially when your parent(s) are physically present and do some of the things good parents do, like go to parent-teacher conferences. What’s to complain about?
The hardest abandonment to face is when the other is right there. Maybe you’ve felt this with a partner or spouse. It also happens with parents, who may even see themselves as good parents.
It is not that people intend to be emotionally absent. They just are, for a great variety of reasons. Maybe they have a hard time being present in general or making emotionally contact with another. Generally we’re talking about people who are emotionally shut down.
Outer circumstances may also contribute. Perhaps your parent was busy caretaking someone else, mentally or physically ill, working too much, or perhaps didn’t have an internal frame of reference for what good parenting entails because his or her parenting was so lousy. Many times it goes back several generations.
The reason I wrote the book is that this wound is often invisible. We know what an abusive parent looks like but the neglect caused by these sins of omission doesn’t reach high enough on the “bad” scale to know that something was indeed wrong.
What we don’t see is not only is emotional neglect harmful, there is evidence that it is worse than physical or emotional abuse. A child will cling to an abusive parent rather than be abandoned. What a young child can least tolerate is being left alone or feeling invisible.
Long-term effects of emotional neglect
There is so much we need from parents to create a foundation that will help us succeed in life. I’m not talking about being a super-achiever, but having a sense of self that doesn’t crumble when someone looks at you in other than an appreciative way. I’m talking about feeling innately loveable and that your needs can be met. About being secure enough to be vulnerable and have deep, loving relationships.
Emotional neglect in childhood leaves a wake of incomplete development. Often you’re scrambling as an adult to get attachment needs met (if you’re not denying them), trying to build a sturdy sense of self, patching up holes in your self-esteem.
If you were too busy as a child trying to get Mom or Dad to like you, you were focused on what they wanted and didn’t have the chance to learn what you want. Consequently, you may feel a little hollow and as if you don’t really know yourself.
Other common outcomes include feeling alone in the world, as if you don’t have a place that you belong. Or you suffer depression on and off throughout your life. Or feel cut off from your feelings and never quite feel deserving of asking that your needs to be met. Maybe you got caught in the trap of perfectionism, because doing things really, really well gave you at least a small chance of being seen. For more, see my list of long-term effects of neglect.
It’s never too late: healing from emotional neglect
It’s true that we can’t change what happened, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make up for much of it.
Healing from neglect isn’t about blaming (although we may go through some necessary anger), but understanding what happened, how it impacted you, and most importantly what you can do now to help complete your own development. Those deficits are not permanent defects, but rather places that need attention.
If any of this sounds familiar and you haven’t read my book, check out The Emotionally Absent Mother, now in its second edition. It’s available through most places that books are sold.
P.S. Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article and want to receive others like it, please sign up for more. If this piece sparks something in you, please let me know by sharing your thoughts below.