No child is at fault for emotional neglect. Adults who have grown up experiencing emotional neglect often carry a sense of unworthiness for years. You are worthy. It was nothing you did.
Childhood emotional neglect is 100% preventable if we take the time to understand what it is, what it looks like, what causes it, and the research highlighting the programs that can help families prevent unnecessary and harmful emotional neglect.
What is childhood emotional neglect?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emotional neglect is the inability of a parent/caregiver to connect with or provide for a child’s emotional needs. The landmark CDC/Kaiser Permenente study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) defines childhood emotional neglect as: “Someone in your family never or rarely helped you feel important or special, you never or rarely felt loved, people in your family never or rarely looked out for each other and felt close to each other, or your family was never or rarely a source of strength and support.”
Emotional neglect in childhood is one of the most challenging ACEs to identify because there’s nothing to “see,” but it impacts thousands of children every year with damaging consequences. Emotional abuse is equally challenging. The two are sometimes confused, but are not the same thing. You can read our blog about childhood emotional abuse here.
The news from the CDC is alarming. Its website states, “At least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimate. In 2019, 1,840 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States.”
What are the signs of childhood emotional neglect?
The signs of childhood emotional neglect are often subtle and hard to spot. However, if we pay attention, we may be able to recognize and reduce the number of children impacted by these devastating experiences.
Possible signs of childhood emotional neglect include:
- Inability to understand or express feelings or emotions in a positive way;
- Unhealthy withdrawal from people and social interactions;
- Heightened sensitivity to rejection or mental health problems, possibly resulting in dissociation, anger, or anxiety;
- Low self-esteem – thinking they don’t deserve love, compassion, or validation;
- Inclination to risky behaviors like substance abuse or unhealthy relationships that may lead to vulnerable or exploitative circumstances;
- Academic difficulties that may lower educational attainment and limit employment opportunities.
Causes of childhood emotional neglect
A parent or caregiver’s emotional neglect of a child can develop from a number of personal and environmental factors. Some parents and caregivers don’t even realize that they are being emotionally negligent. They are consumed by their own hardships. Some are facing social, financial, or environmental insecurities or suffering from mental illness or drug/alcohol dependencies.
Furthermore, parents and caregivers who have a limited understanding of common child development needs or who grew up with unresponsive and limited emotional family/social connections themselves may find it difficult to foster these skills with their children.
So, what do we do?
Remember, childhood emotional neglect is 100% preventable, which is why we should take action today. Together, we can help children recover from emotional neglect and STOP future occurrences.
Be a good role model or mentor. Help a child feel safe, stable, and supported. In other words, children don’t need perfection; they need just enough safety and kindness to know that they are valued and loved. Having one positive influence can break the cycle of abuse and neglect.
Lend a hand or ask for help. Change the misconception that parents/caregivers must do everything on their own. Parenting is hard. If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to connect with your child, reach out to friends, family, or a professional for support.
Support good local programs. Encouraging kids to participate in mentorship programs or after-school programs can help ensure every child has a positive influence in their life.
Promote positive parenting practices that ensure everyone feels heard, seen, and valued. Learning positive conflict resolution and communication practices can reduce stress and encourage positive connections.
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Additional Resources for Help
National Parent Helpline
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Child Welfare Information Gateway
You can help make sure this never happens to another child. Learn how by subscribing to our newsletter and supporting our work. Read about the ten categories of ACEs by following our blog. Do you know your ACE score? Take the ACE test here.
Discover your ACE score and unlock a new understanding of your life. Take the test and gain insights into how your early experiences shape your well-being. Don't let your past define you – empower yourself with knowledge.
Inspired by humanity, equality, and education, Maia is a content writer working diligently to make positive changes in the world by supporting thought leaders and changemakers.