how to heal childhood emotional neglect

Have you ever felt like something was missing in your childhood? You may have grown up in a nice home with caring parents who provided for your physical needs, yet still felt a lack of deeper connection. If so, you may be experiencing the hidden effects of childhood emotional neglect.

Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is when a child’s emotional needs go unmet by their caregivers. Parents may fail to tune into their child’s inner world and validate their feelings. This can happen even in loving families. The child feels unseen and their emotions unimportant.

CEN often goes unrecognized, both by others and those who experienced it. But make no mistake, emotional neglect in childhood can leave deep scars. The good news is healing is absolutely possible, even decades later. In this article, you’ll learn what CEN is, signs you may have experienced it, and most importantly – how to heal.

What Exactly is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

To understand CEN, let’s first distinguish it from other forms of child maltreatment. Unlike physical or sexual abuse and overt emotional abuse, CEN is not actively harmful behavior by parents. Rather, it’s a failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

3 Types of Childhood Emotional Neglect:

1. Ignoring. Parents dismiss or fail to notice your emotions. Troubles and worries are minimized rather than heard.

2. Denying. Parents acknowledge your feelings briefly but diminish their importance. “You’re just overreacting.”

3. Failure to validate. Parents don’t confirm your inner emotional experience is legitimate. You feel invisible.

This relational dynamic of emotional dismissal by parents can leave kids feeling:

  • Confused about their own emotions
  • Insecure in their self-worth
  • Ill-equipped to manage feelings as an adult

How Does Childhood Emotional Neglect Occur?

There are a few common scenarios that tend to produce emotionally neglectful parenting:

  • The parents lacked emotional validation themselves as children, so they don’t know how to provide it. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes.
  • The child’s emotions make the parent uncomfortable, so they’re dismissed or minimized.
  • The parents are preoccupied with work, their own stresses, or sibling’s needs. The child’s emotional world gets overlooked.
  • The family environment discouraged emotional expression. Stiff upper lip thinking.
  • Parents lack parenting skills and emotional intelligence. They want to help but don’t know how.

As you can see, CEN is often unintentional and stems from parents’ own issues. This doesn’t make it okay, but may explain their behavior.

Signs You May Have Experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect

Wondering if you suffered CEN growing up? Here are some subtle signs:

1. Trouble understanding your feelings.

Growing up, you rarely put words to your emotions or learned to read them. Now you have difficulty identifying how you feel at any given moment. It’s foreign territory.

2. Feeling you don’t belong.

Even around family and friends, you feel somehow different and disconnected from others. You struggle feeling accepted.

3. Seeking approval and validation from others.

You feel constant emptiness inside that you try filling with praise, achievements, love, sex, rules – anything to feel worthy.

4. Poor self-care skills.

Tuning into your needs and taking care of yourself emotionally and physically feels unnatural. You run on empty.

5. Weak sense of identity.

You lack a grounded sense of self and values. You take on others’ priorities and preferences as your own.

6. Difficulty building intimacy.

Despite craving closeness, you hold back emotionally to protect yourself or lack vulnerability and empathy skills.

7. Success oriented.

You place disproportionate focus on accomplishments, performance, keeping busy. Slowing down feels threatening.

8. Highly responsible and self-sufficient.

You feel undeserving of others’ help and don’t know how receiving looks. Easier to keep giving to others.

9. Feelings of emptiness or being flawed.

You wrestle with a nagging sense something vital is missing inside you. You feel broken or not good enough.

10. Tendency to over-apologize.

You say sorry frequently, even when things aren’t your fault. Feeling you’re always disappointing others.

Do many of these resonate? Know you aren’t alone. Childhood emotional neglect is surprisingly common, though often remains invisible. The good news is there are many paths to take in order to find healing.

Why Is Childhood Emotional Neglect So Harmful?

You may wonder, how can a lack of something (emotional connection) do so much damage? Isn’t it less traumatic than overt abuse?

While not physically scarring like abuse, CEN’s emotional impact runs deep. Here’s why:

It Happens During Childhood Development

The first 12 years are when our self-concept and emotional foundations form. CEN leaves this vital growth period empty, setting us up to struggle later.

It’s Chronic

Unlike isolated traumatic events, CEN is an ongoing lack occurring daily over many years. Death by a thousand cuts.

It’s Hidden

There are no physical signs or events to point to. This makes CEN doubly traumatizing, as the child often wonders if the problem is them.

It Distorts Reality

Gaslighting essentially occurs, where the child’s inner world and emotions are continuously denied as invalid. This hampers emotional development.

Needs Go Unmet

Warmth, validation and nurturing are human needs. Depriving a child of these is deeply damaging to their self-worth and growth.

It Breaches a Child’s Trust

A caregiver failing to tune into a child’s heart shreds the unconditional trust and dependence children place in them. Emotional betrayal.

Parent-Child Bond Disrupted

This relational rupture mars the safe haven between parent and child. Secure attachment doesn’t develop.

As you can see, chronic emotional neglect during childhood wreaks havoc which can last a lifetime. But awareness is power. Once you recognize CEN occurred, healing can begin.

Signs of Emotional Neglect in Adulthood

CEN leaves individuals underskilled in managing emotions and relationships. This frequently plays out through:

Low Self-Esteem

You assume if your own parents failed to make you feel valued, you must be valueless. You don’t feel good enough.


You become obsessed with gaining validation you didn’t receive growing up. Saying no feels terrifying.


You feel constant pressure to meet unrealistic standards, convinced this will earn you worth and acceptance.

Poor Self-Care

Taking care of your needs feels selfish or unnecessary. You run yourself ragged taking care of others.


Staying busy and achieving gives a dopamine hit and escapes difficult emotions. Overwork ends up depleting you further.


You feel constant free-floating unease. Danger seems to lurk everywhere so you stay on high alert.


You wrestle periods of deep despair and emptiness. Emotions feel like quicksand pulling you under.

Unfulfilling Relationships

Friends and partners don’t emotionally nourish you. You hide your truth and fail to enforce boundaries.

Clearly, CEN’s impact creeps into every corner of life. But this improved self-awareness means you can now take steps to rewrite your story.

How to Heal from Childhood Emotional Neglect

There are many methods to heal CEN. Sustainable change requires reparenting yourself with the empathy, care and guidance you needed but didn’t receive. Here are powerful ways to get started:

1. Work with a trauma-informed therapist.

A skilled therapist familiar with CEN provides much-needed support. Look for someone who makes you feel safe, understood and hopeful.

2. Explore your past and its impact.

Examining your childhood for emotional neglect helps lift denial and validate your experience was real. Painful yet freeing.

3. Release anger and resentment towards parents.

Holding onto bitterness keeps you stuck in victim mode. Forgiveness for your own sake is essential. Easier with distance and time.

4. Practice expressing your needs and feelings.

After a lifetime of swallowing emotions, letting them out takes practice. Start journaling, talking to trusted confidants, even expressing anger in safe ways.

5. Establish clear boundaries.

Decide how you want others to treat you then maintain your standards. Know you’re worthy of respect.

6. Learn to self-validate.

Replace doubting inner voices with compassionate understanding of your needs. You are enough.

7. Meet your ‘emotional child’ inside.

Visualize the neglected parts of yourself. Comfort them with the care they craved growing up. Say what they needed to hear.

8. Change negative self-talk patterns.

Stay alert for toxic self criticism. Replace shaming messages with empowering truths about who you are.

9. Practice mindfulness and emotion tracking.

Tune into your moment-to-moment feelings. Name emotions as they arise, accepting them without judgment.

10. Make self-care a priority.

Get in touch with your needs. Make time for nourishing experiences – good sleep, nutrition, social connection, leisure activities. You are worth it.

11. Develop emotional intelligence skills.

Strengthen abilities like self-awareness, empathy, distress tolerance, communication, listening. They will serve you well.

12. Find emotional nourishment.

Seek relationships where you feel safe, seen and celebrated for who you are. You deserve to belong.

With consistent effort, rewiring the emotional neglect of childhood is absolutely possible. Be patient and believe in your ability to heal.

Frequently Asked Questions About Childhood Emotional Neglect:

Can you heal from childhood emotional neglect without therapy?

Yes, it’s absolutely possible to make progress healing from CEN without formal therapy. Implementing healthy self-care routines, establishing boundaries, journaling, reading self-help books and finding community can all be very beneficial. That said, the support and clinical expertise a strong therapist provides can accelerate and deepen healing, especially for those with more severe CEN.

How do you know if you were emotionally neglected as a child?

Signs of childhood emotional neglect include: difficulty identifying and managing emotions, low self-worth, lack of self-care, perfectionism, people pleasing, trouble forming intimacy, always feeling different/empty inside. Frequent invalidation from parents and an absence of parental attunement to your feelings are also indicators.

What causes parents to emotionally neglect their child?

Common causes of emotionally neglectful parenting include: parents lacking emotional nurturing themselves as kids, parents finding emotions uncomfortable, parents being preoccupied with work/life stresses, family environments discouraging emotional expression, parents lacking parenting skills and emotional intelligence.

What happens to emotionally neglected children when they grow up?

Adults who experienced childhood emotional neglect often struggle with: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, poor self-care, workaholism, dysfunctional relationships, lack of identity, intimacy issues, and a constant need for approval from others due to an absence of adequate emotional nurturing as kids.

How can you tell if someone was neglected as a child?

Signs someone likely suffered childhood neglect include: seeming shut down emotionally, discomfort sharing feelings/needs, lack of self-care, isolation from others, perfectionistic tendencies, overly responsible nature, workaholism, difficulty relaxing, approval seeking, limited self-awareness, and inability to articulate preferences or identity.

In Conclusion

I hope this guide empowered you to recognize childhood emotional neglect and take the first steps towards healing. Know that real change is possible. By compassionately caring for your inner child’s unmet needs, you can rewrite negative mindsets and behaviors stemming from childhood. You deserve to feel seen, heard and emotionally fulfilled. Your journey now begins.