The term childhood emotional neglect is becoming better known and understood. It refers to a failure by parents to respond to a child’s feelings on a regular basis.
Ciara is emotionally neglected
Ciara’s friends gang up on her on in the playground. She comes home from school feeling sad. Ciara’s parent’s don’t notice her sadness. Neither says,
“Ciara are you OK?” or
“Did something happen at school today?”
They help Ciara with her homework and then bring her to Irish dancing. They tell her she is a smart kid and great at the dancing. No one seems to notice that anything is wrong. Ciara says nothing about feeling sad.
Emotional neglect is not a once off event
Now if it’s just one time, that Ciara’s parents don’t notice her sadness, it won’t do any damage to her development. But if it keeps happening then Ciara learns that her feelings are not important. She learns not to acknowledge or accept her feelings.
Emotional neglect can be invisible
It’s much easier to see if there is physical neglect or if a child is not getting enough to eat. It’s much harder to see emotional neglect. It’s a failure by parents to do something, so it is much more invisible.
Think about something that happened yesterday. Now try and think of something that did not happen yesterday. It’s a lot harder to do this.
But my childhood was very happy
Angela often finds that clients tell her their childhood was very happy. They had loving parents, who were always there for them, with a nice home and plenty of support. It’s only later on in the counselling process they begin to realise their parents did not help them to deal with their feelings. The support was always for practical things like dinners, homework help and driving. Feelings however were rarely discussed.
If feelings are rarely discussed, then we believe feelings are not important. Yet all the research shows that being aware and accepting our feelings is a really important part of mental health and happiness.
Parents can only give what they have
This is not to blame parents. If our parents were not brought up to deal with their feelings then it’s unlikely they can help us deal with our feelings. So without outside help or self-development the cycle of emotional neglect continues.
We’re more likely to drink too much if we have emotional neglect
The research suggests that women who fail to learn how to handle feelings like anxiety and depression are much more likely to drink too much. They are also much more likely to get pregnant earlier
In his Irish Paradox book, Sean Moncrieff thinks the reason we all drink too much is so we can share our feelings and not have them reported back to us the next day. We Irish are funny. we don’t do feelings.
Drinking too much?
If you’re drinking too much and finding it difficult to control your drinking, childhood emotional neglect may be a cause.
A really important point is not too berate yourself for failing to control your drinking. People with childhood emotional neglect tend to be very self-critical. Instead tell yourself you’re trying and that’s a big start. Every time you drink too much, try and learn from what happened, rather than criticising yourself. As you can see from the wheel of change picture below, failing is an important part of changing behaviour.
How do I know if I have childhood emotional neglect?
People with childhood emotional neglect often ask themselves
“I have it all, why don’t I feel happier?”
“I have this empty feeling which only drink takes away”
“I feel like I’m an outsider.”
“What is wrong with me?”
“Why do I struggle so much with controlling my drinking?”
There are 7 key signs of childhood emotional neglect and these are described here.
Dr Jonice Webb has a really good questionnaire on identifying childhood emotional neglect. Click here for the questionnaire