What is emotional neglect?

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Emotional neglect is an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).

Emotional neglect is defined by the ACE study as often feeling that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, or your family not looking out for each other, feeling close to each other, or supporting each other. Emotional abuse is probably the hardest ACE for an outsider to identify. When people cannot connect to other people, especially people who are living under the same roof and trying to live as a family, it is a hallmark of trauma. 

There is probably no single act that is diagnostic of a family without an emotional connection; such a family may or may not eat dinner together. They may or may not spend a lot of time together as a family.

Most parents enjoy spending time with their children because they are able to connect with them; whether that’s smiling at a baby, playing a game with a ‘school-aged child or having a conversation with a teenager. If someone cannot enjoy those moments and feel that connection with their child, their child isn’t going to feel it from them, either.

When a parent cannot connect with their child, they are also more likely to abuse or neglect them. It is also likely that a parent who cannot connect with their child is suffering from a mental illness or that they’re dealing with a drug or behavioral addiction.

Even if there are no other ACEs present in the home, emotional neglect represents a child’s need for love being unmet. And an unmet need for love is as much a trauma as an unmet need for food or shelter. Children who don’t feel an emotional connection with their family are likely to try and find that connection with someone else, and this can make them very vulnerable to exploitative relationships. 

It’s important to note that this ACE is defined as “no one in your family”, not “everyone in your family”. In other words, the presence of one emotionally available adult in a family can make a huge difference in the life of a child. While having all adults in the home healthy and emotionally available is the ideal, having one who isn’t is not an ACE.

Maternal Home Visiting, as well as some specific, targeted therapies, can prevent and mitigate emotional neglect. While emotional neglect itself is hard for an outsider to observe, things like postpartum depression and poor maternal attachment can be good indicators of it.

Maternal Home Visiting programs provide someone who helps the new parent bond and attach with their child as well as help that family cope with other obstacles in their path. Specific therapies like dyadic therapy help the new mother examine barriers to bonding with and enjoying her child. And if trauma, depression or anything else is at the root of the new parent’s difficulty attaching, other types of therapy may be in order. 

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