In Relationships

What is emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect occurs when a person’s fundamental emotional needs are being overlooked or trivialized by a parent or partner. Being forced to suppress one’s feelings or being deprived of sentimental connection are examples of this type of neglect.

When emotional neglect happens to us, especially as children, it’s not something we simply grow out of. Emotional neglect in childhood will creep up on you in your adult life, with or without you knowing it. It’s really important to address any emotional neglect you’ve gone through, even if it happened a very long time ago.

Not addressing those feelings and not allowing yourself to fully heal from the trauma will prevent you from being the best version of yourself.

bored couple sit on couch completely disengaged with no visible connection

Signs of Emotional Neglect in Adults

Being uncomfortable with emotions

Adults suffering from emotional neglect often recoil when confronted with an emotional person or situation. Simply put, emotions make them extremely uncomfortable. Feelings or emotions of any kind are not allowed. In fact, it is felt that it is wrong to even have them. If you can identify with this response, you are likely suffering from emotional neglect.

You might notice whenever you feel an emotion, your first thought is to suppress it as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, bottled up emotions lead to meltdowns or outbursts that may be misinterpreted as aggression or anger.

We aren’t built to hold in emotions, so it’s inevitable that doing so can damage you in other ways. The first step to overcoming this obstacle is to start telling yourself that emotions are okay.

There is nothing wrong with feeling. Whether you feel sad, mad, happy, nervous, or scared, emotions are normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Lack of confidence

Emotional neglect can lead to so many harmful outcomes. It can harm your sense of confidence in that any insecurity you experience is an emotion you do not feel free to discuss with anyone. Since you are not “allowed” to have emotions, this feeling gets swept under the rug. However, it is never far away and that feeling only festers and grows the harder you try to ignore it. So, the harm is really two-fold. Not only are you faced with a situation that makes you feel insecure (with a growing sense of insecurity the more you attempt to suppress the feeling), but you also cannot vent your fears to another person without having to admit that the feeling really exists.

Imagine if the person responsible for your emotional neglect were to respond by degrading or criticizing you. Naturally, such a response will feed your insecurity and negative views surrounding emotions.

Trouble developing meaningful relationships

It can be hard for people who have been emotionally neglected to form meaningful relationships. Deepening a relationship requires an element of emotional connection, which may be hard for these individuals to reach.

It’s important to learn how to open up to people again and understand that nobody is the same. You don’t want to project past experiences on to new people in your life, as easy as it is to do this. This tendency only impedes establishing bonds with others.

It’s also okay to take your time. There’s no need to rush opening up to somebody. If they truly want to be there for you, they’ll understand it can take time.

If you find it hard to open up to a new partner, that’s okay. It’s important that they know why this process may take a little longer for you. Just let them know you struggle with handling emotions due to past neglect and that you’re trying to heal. If they have your best interests at heart, they will understand and work with you.

Tough time setting boundaries

A child who has experienced neglect was likely never taught how to set boundaries. Never learning the importance of this life tool will inevitably lead to future situations ripe for emotional distress in adulthood. Such a person tends to be easily taken advantage of and this type of treatment builds inner conflict and self-loathing.

Anxiety or depression

It’s possible to develop common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression in adulthood due to emotional neglect. It could also be that if you were neglected in childhood, you never had your anxiety or depression addressed. So it could be a condition you’ve had for a long time or something you recently developed.

Take some time to see if you experience any symptoms of anxiety or depression, and/or consider speaking to a trained therapist that can help you work through these conditions.


Sometimes we find a partner who is sensitive to our emotional needs and remind us that we are deserving of being treated respectfully and lovingly. When this happens, the tendency of an emotionally neglected person may be to cling to this new person as a crutch for their sense of validation and self-worth.

While it’s so important to have people to support us, we must not place undue pressure on any one person to fulfill all of our needs. This is a means of overcompensating for the emotional neglect and can lead to co-dependency.

As I mentioned above, mental health issues are very likely to be present after emotional neglect and this could cause us to push our trauma too strongly onto our support person.

For instance, the neglected person with medically diagnosed depression may rely too heavily on their partner to relieve their depression which is an impossible task for someone who is not trained properly to take on this role.

Another expression of co-dependency is seen in a person’s inability to cope normally and deal with their day-to-day routine unless their partner is constantly accessible to them.

This behaviour is a red flag for an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship.

sad girl sits on steps visible alone and feeling sad

Signs Of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Child abuse can be seen in many forms. This can include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect.

Children need emotional support while they navigate new and confusing emotions as they experience different stages in life. Not having the proper outlet or support will only lead to issues in development that can carry out throughout adult life.

It is a parent’s job to attend to a child’s emotional needs, and when a child has experienced emotional neglect, it does a lot more damage than just hurting the child’s feelings.

Shy/quiet tendencies

A clue that may speak to emotional neglect in a child is extreme timidity and despondency.

Mere shyness is not what is being referred to in this situation. Many children are shy and tend to grow out of excessive shyness as they get older. When children are neglected, however, they often display fear or extreme discomfort around others. This is due to that child’s inability to trust or connect with anyone at home.

Imagine that child being punished by an authoritative parent for displaying emotions. They will likely be very confused as to what is acceptable emotional behaviour and this confusion can manifest in a very reserved and unusually detached demeanor.

Emotionally disconnected

People that have been neglected emotionally are going to have a harder time learning to connect with their emotions in the future.

You may notice they appear to engage in only surface-level relationships and struggle to create deeper, more meaningful connections. Or, they may be seen to apologize whenever they bring up any subject that is personal in nature.

Don’t feel bad if this sounds like you. Know that you’ve been through something very damaging and be proud of yourself for taking the steps to improve. There is no timeline for recovery. Each step is something to be very proud of, so make sure you acknowledge each and every gain made.

Low self-esteem

We rely heavily on emotional connection for a sense of self-worth. When important figures in our life bolster our sense of security and value, our self-confidence flourishes.

It can take a long time to develop high self-esteem, so be patient. Realize that the trauma of emotional neglect can take a long time to heal from.

Fortunately, there are many ways to improve self-esteem. Taking care of your physical self is very important by eating right and getting some regular exercise. Show yourself self-love by taking a nice long bath, taking care of your skin, and brushing your teeth. Wear clothes you feel comfortable in. Read self-help books and blogs. Taking care of yourself emotionally and physically will help you start to develop some confidence.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Know that you’ve been through a lot and take it to step by step and day by day. Focus on the things that you’re good at to boost your self-esteem. For example, I’m really good at baking. When I’m feeling down, I like to bake something. At first, I was terrible, but knowing that I was taking the time to learn a new skill was confidence boosting. My first batch of cookies were horrible, but I continued to keep trying and now the family can’t stop raving about them. It took me a few years to get where I am, but I persevered. The same goes for any new skill we’re working on. You will eventually get there if you stick to it, so don’t give up or feel bad for not being great at something new.

You’ll feel so good about yourself if you just stick to things until the day comes when you’re super confident about it and you’ll be so grateful you did!

Poor mental health or psychiatric disorders

It wouldn’t be uncommon to see people who have been emotionally neglected present with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, even in childhood.

When you haven’t processed your emotions properly, especially during childhood, emotions can be very overwhelming.

The same can be said for depression and other psychiatric or mental health disorders. This is why it is very important to seek help from a trained and experienced professional psychotherapist.

Absent parents

There are so many reasons why a parent may emotionally neglect their child. This may be how they were raised and they never healed or learned anything different.

It may be completely unintentional if, for example, that parent is a single parent working double shifts in order to put food on the table. It is difficult to be emotionally available when you are exhausted and/or simply not home to witness the impact that your physical absence is having on your child even if the inference should be obvious.

How can I heal from Emotional Neglect?

Learn to be comfortable with your emotions

The first step in recovering from emotional neglect is to start to understand that emotions are normal and, in fact, healthy. Dealing with your emotions in a healthy and proactive way is extremely important, especially in childhood.

Even in adulthood, you can set yourself back severely by not accepting your emotions. You can start by recognizing when you have an emotion and learn to label it. For example, notice when you feel angry and what caused it.

It would be a great idea to keep a journal where you can write these things out. Then you can try different methods of addressing those emotions in a positive way. When we are angry, taking deep breaths is a great way to start calming down. Journalling your feelings, rather than yelling at somebody, is a far more constructive way of handling anger.

Some people find that the best course of action when feeling angry is to take a step back and address the issue with the other person once the anger has passed. We don’t want to say something we will regret when emotions are at their peak.

Develop ways to manage and express your emotions

As I mentioned above, learning how to address your emotions such as anger, is important. However, you may find the breathing and journalling methods a poor fit for you. In that case, you need to explore different options to manage your emotions. You may find some form of exercise is what you need.

People with anger issues who may have a history of engaging in physical fights when confronted by tense situations might benefit by joining a boxing gym where they have an outlet among likeminded persons. Being able to release that angst in a controlled environment with trainers and other athletes is a practical approach to managing anger issues.

I also notice if I don’t get enough physical exercise, I tend to be extra angry over things I normally wouldn’t be very affected by. This is why you might keep hearing how important it is to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. It’s because these habits are connected to everything in life.

Understand it’s okay to trust and rely on people

If you have experienced emotional neglect, it’s understandable that you may have trouble trusting and relying on others. Who wants to experience that kind of disappointment and the hurt that comes with it again?

It can be scary to learn how to trust a new person, but if we don’t take that leap of faith, we’ll struggle to find and form meaningful relationships going forward. Remember everyone is unique and you open yourself up to positive experiences with others when you give people a chance.

Speak to a qualified therapist

It’s really important to speak to a therapist. Most people have issues from childhood and/or adulthood that if left unaddressed, will continue to cause harm in their everyday lives.

Therapists are trained to get to the root of the problem and help you come up with ways to heal and cope with everyday hurdles. Therapists can specialize in specific areas as well, such as emotional neglect, anxiety and depression and will be the best people to give you advice.

Psychotherapists at Psych Company are highly trained and experienced, so get in touch today and begin changing your life for the better!

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