Abuse is when something happens that is actively violating of another, but neglect is when we don’t get important things we need as children. I’m not talking about just physical things like food and shelter, but also essential emotional or developmental needs.
For example, one important developmental need for a young child is to explore the world, but if a child is too insecure (with no secure attachment to come back to) and is not encouraged, such exploration will be inhibited and the child may grow into an adult who lacks confidence and stays in a very small life.
Children who are not provided with what they need to have a good start in life are handicapped in the most serious of ways. Their sense of self, initiative, confidence, trust…so many building blocks are damaged or under-developed.
Here are some of the common problems that are the result of neglect:
1. Holes in your sense of value and self-esteem. Self-esteem grows from being valued by your family, seen and mirrored, admired and respected, guided and encouraged. When parents are troubled or overwhelmed, they often do not provide these essential nutrients.
2. Feeling undernourished and emotionally starved. When love is not communicated, it leaves a hole in one’s heart and often a consequent sense of feeling starved for love. (With healing, this can change.) Although many who are neglected feel a great need for love (if it hasn’t been repressed), there are also now barriers to taking in love and being vulnerable.
3. Feeling as if you don’t have enough support. Not having gotten much support as children leaves the under-parented with a less confident sense of self and less inner support because there wasn’t a good parent to internalize. Feeling as if there’s not enough support often shows up as insecurity and difficulty moving ahead.
4. Difficulty accepting and advocating for your needs. In general, need is a dirty word for the under-parented, because needs are associated with the painful memory of having needs that were not met. Needs are often experienced as a source of shame and something to hide. You can’t advocate for your needs unless you feel some right to have them and some expectation that others will be responsive.
5. Feeling Disempowered. Without a strong sense of self-esteem, without strong internal support, and without a healthy entitlement around needs, it’s hard to feel empowered. In addition, if you didn’t have a parent who championed you during the exploration stage and didn’t guide and praise your growing competence, your sense of efficacy can be seriously compromised.
6. Loneliness and feelings of not belonging. Feeling that you were not welcomed into the family as a child often leaves a lifelong imprint. You may long to be part of groups yet feel ambivalent about joining, or you may suffer painful feelings of alienation. Many wonder if there is a place for them in this world.
7. Not knowing how to process feelings. If feelings were not shown in your childhood home (or only by an out-of-control parent) and no one helped you learn to regulate or to name and communicate feelings, it creates a hole in an important part of life.
8. A pervasive sense of scarcity. Deprivation can be so deeply branded into your consciousness that it becomes a lens through which you experience life. You may feel as if there’s never enough money, never enough love, and never enough joy.
9. Depression. Depression has a lot to do with loss, deprivation, needs not being met, not enough love, battered self-esteem, undigested pain and disappointment, grief, and lack of support. Depression is therefore a very common outcome of childhood neglect.
10. Addictive behaviors. Addiction is a common response to childhood pain that has not been metabolized. It is also related to not being able to self-soothe and regulate one’s emotions and states of activation. With addictions, the substance or behavior is a misguided attempt at self-regulation. Food addictions seem especially common to those who were emotionally undernourished.
The effects of childhood neglect are pervasive and long lasting, so please do not think that if you weren’t actively abused, you have no cause for complaint or no reason to be struggling.
Adapted from my book, The Emotionally Absent Mother