Recognizing Childhood Emotional Neglect and Relearning Self-Love

Neglect is when a parent or guardian does not meet a child's basic needs. If serious enough, one instance can be defined as neglect, but it is usually an ongoing pattern rather than one incident.

There are several types of neglect, including emotional neglect, which often overlap with each other and/or other forms of child abuse.

Neglect is the most frequent form of child maltreatment noted by child protection agencies. About 18% of the adult population report experiencing emotional neglect as children. This number is likely an underrepresentation because emotional neglect is understudied in scientific research.

Read on to learn how to identify emotional neglect in childhood and how its effects can be managed in adulthood.

Little girl looking off into the distance

Nick David / Getty Images

What Qualifies as Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Emotional abuse and emotional neglect both fall under the umbrella of childhood maltreatment and early life stress (ELS). They can occur together and are often grouped together, but they aren't the same thing.

Emotional abuse refers to actions that involve a child's continual emotional mistreatment, such as when a parent humiliates, demeans, or threatens them.

Emotional neglect is not taking the necessary actions or providing the environment necessary to meet a child's emotional needs. Emotional neglect may not involve humiliation or other direct acts against the child so much as a failure to provide affection, structure, comfort, encouragement, and other support necessary for a child to feel secure, loved, and valued.

Some parents or guardians do not respond to the emotional needs, cues, and expressions of their children, such as providing comfort when they are sad or scared. This can lead to the child shutting down their feelings and stopping reaching out. This is most impactful when it occurs during infancy.

Parents and guardians don't necessarily do this intentionally, and may not be aware they are doing it. The lack of emotional response to their children can stem from factors such as mental health problems like depression, substance use issues, or relationship difficulties.

Ongoing childhood emotional neglect can result in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).


There are two ways emotional neglect can happen via emotional invalidation:

Emotional needs are not adequately met: The child does not receive enough emotional validation to meet their threshold of emotional needs. This leads to the child not feeling seen, heard, or understood.

Emotional needs are actively invalidated: The parent or guardian lacks awareness of how emotions work. They may see emotions as a choice and judge them negatively, seeing them as "bad behavior." Emotions aren't just ignored or failed to be validated, they are actively invalidated.

Emotional invalidation may look like:

  • Not recognizing a child's individuality, strengths, limits/limitations
  • Regularly ignoring the child
  • Not expressing positive feelings, offering kind words, encouraging, or congratulating a child on their successes
  • Not showing emotions when interacting with the child
  • Not being attentive to or responding to the child's feelings or needs
  • Conversations that are mostly impersonal
  • Not attentively listening to the child
  • Not providing appropriate limits, consequences, and structure
  • Not discussing significant events such as a death in the family, divorce, illness, etc.
  • Using the child's emotions against them, particularly if misconstrued or twisted, or telling them they don't/shouldn't feel the way they do (this can be a form of gaslighting)
  • Placing the child in a caretaking role in which they "parent" their parent or guardian instead of vice versa

Generational Patterns in Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Parents and guardians tend to do what they know, often parenting their children the way they were parented.

If a parent or guardian doesn't have their own needs met in childhood, it can be difficult for them to meet the needs of their children. A history of trauma, domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, mental illness, substance use, and other factors can also contribute to a parent or guardian's emotional neglect of their children.

Generational patterns of emotional neglect can be broken. Resources, such as counseling and parenting classes, can help parents and guardians learn how to meet their children's needs in ways their own needs were not met.

Other Types of Neglect 

In addition to emotional neglect, neglect can be:

  • Physical: not adequately meeting a child's basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, or safety
  • Supervisory: not providing adequate supervision
  • Educational: not ensuring a child is given an education and the tools they need to take advantage of it
  • Medical: not ensuring a child is given proper health and medical care, failing to acknowledge the seriousness of a condition, or deliberately withholding care
  • Abandonment: leaving a child alone for an unreasonable amount of time or leaving them with an unsuitable caregiver

Emotional maltreatment can happen on its own, but it's less common for other forms of maltreatment to occur without emotional maltreatment present as well.

Signs in Children 

Signs of emotional neglect in children can be less obvious than other forms of abuse or neglect.

Children who have experienced neglect, such as emotional neglect, may show delays in expressive, receptive, and overall language development. Delays in language development can lead to behavioral difficulties.

People who experience/experienced emotional neglect in childhood may:

  • Have difficulty knowing how they feel
  • Feel empty or hollow
  • Think something is wrong with them
  • Feel disconnected from people to whom they should feel close
  • Think feelings or emotions are "bad"
  • Feel unsure if their feelings are valid
  • Feel shame
  • Act self-critical
  • Find it difficult to rely on other people

Harm From Neglect Into Adulthood

Neglect in childhood can have long-term effects, including an association with:

  • Financial and economic difficulties
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Attachment style issues
  • Increased likelihood of needing social services
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in violent behavior
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships

The effects of childhood emotional neglect on its own are understudied. For many studies, emotional neglect is included with other forms of child maltreatment. More studies are needed to determine the specific short- and long-term effects of emotional neglect.

Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders  

Early life stress and emotional maltreatment in childhood are associated with an increased risk of some mental health conditions, including:

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, call 911 immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Healing After Emotional Neglect 

Psychological interventions, such as therapy, are the preferred treatment for the effects of childhood neglect. Starting these treatments as early as possible can help minimize short- and long-term effects.

Social support and strong relationships with others can help offset some of the effects of child adversities, including emotional neglect at home.

A 2021 study found that strong peer support at age 15 may reduce the risk of depressive symptoms by late adolescence. This was true of both children who had and had not experienced emotional neglect.

Therapy Options

Therapy for people with C-PTSD from childhood trauma often focuses on building capacities for:

  • Trust
  • Attachment and relationships
  • Sense of self
  • Tolerance of intense emotions

Component-based psychotherapy (CBP) is one type of therapy. CBP integrates key concepts of several evidence-based treatment models into an approach tailored to treating adult survivors of childhood emotional abuse and neglect.

In addition to working with a professional, some ways to cope with emotional neglect from your childhood include:

  • Reflect on and acknowledge the way emotional neglect manifested in your childhood, how you were affected by it, and how it affects your current relationships (including with your children)
  • Pay attention to and acknowledge your feelings
  • Work on increasing your tolerance for negative emotions by practicing allowing yourself to sit with them

How to Support Someone Else 

Raising public awareness about the signs and effects of emotional abuse and neglect, and encouraging community engagement, could improve the overall well-being of children in the community and reduce child maltreatment.

Resources that may be useful for people who experienced childhood emotional neglect and/or families who need help dealing with or preventing emotional neglect include:


Childhood emotional neglect involves not responding to a child's emotional needs and not providing an environment that fosters their emotional health. Emotional neglect can involve actively invalidating a child's emotions/emotional needs or ignoring/not acknowledging them.

The signs of emotional neglect can be hard to see from the outside, but the effects can linger into adulthood. With help, people who experienced childhood emotional neglect can heal and thrive.

A Word From Verywell 

If you experienced childhood neglect and are having a hard time coping with the effects, talk to your healthcare provider or mental health professional. There are also resources available if a loved one is experiencing childhood neglect or dealing with its effects. Help is available, and healing is possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is childhood emotional neglect a form of trauma?

    Childhood emotional neglect is a form of early life stress. It is a complex trauma that can have lasting effects.

  • What kind of relationships come from childhood emotional neglect?

    Childhood emotional neglect can affect attachment with caregivers, which can affect future relationships. People who experienced childhood emotional neglect may have difficulties with interpersonal relationships as adults.

  • How can emotionally unavailable parents learn to be emotionally available?

    Parents need to learn skills such as providing their children with the stimulus they need and engaging them with expressions such as smiling and laughing.

    These and other important parenting skills can be learned through programs such as:

    • Parent-led self-help groups, such as Circle of Parents
    • Parent education and training programs
    • Therapy and help from professionals such as counselors
17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.