The members of an emotionally neglectful family do suffer. They suffer from what remains unspoken and unseen, and from what is not shared, discussed or validated.
As adults, we often tend to minimize the impact that our birth families, or what therapists call the “family of origin,” have on our everyday choices and lives. But the reality is that the family you were born and raised in still resides in your adult brain and influences your emotions, reactions, and choices.
In 1953, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods introduced Winnicott in his seminal book Playing and RealityIn 1953, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the idea of ”the good-enough mother”He was the first to link the way you experienced the connection with your parents in your childhood to the way you are as an adult. This radically changed the way of thinking about psychology and mental health. The premise of his theory was that you don’t need a perfect parent to end up right. You just need to have a parent who is “good enough.”
In fact, a 2019 study by Professor Susan Woodhouse showed that a parent only needs to get it right 50% of the time to be “good enough.”
Key points of emotional neglect in a family:
- You don’t have to grow up in a perfect family to be emotionally happy and healthy, but your family does have to be “good enough.”
- People who grow up in emotionally neglected homes may feel that something is wrong in their family, but they are not sure what.
- If your family in general pays little attention to emotions, there are things you can do to take better care of yourself and your own emotions.
Childhood Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect occurs when your parents regularly ignore your feelings and emotional needs. That could mean, for example, that they don’t notice how you feel, don’t ask about your feelings, don’t connect with you on an emotional level, or don’t validate your feelings enough.
Emotionally neglectful parents usually have no idea that they are neglecting their children’s emotions. They are often people who generally have little or no regard for emotions, including their own, their friends, family, co-workers, and children. They usually mean well, care about their children and want the best for them. But they probably don’t realize they’re overlooking something.
This can make emotionally neglecting families difficult to identify. Indeed, at first glance, they seem ‘good enough’. They will shelter you, provide you with food and clothing, and take you to soccer practice every week. But they don’t talk to you openly about your problems, don’t comfort you enough when a friend has hurt you, or don’t teach you how to recognize, name, and manage certain emotions.
The only mistake emotionally neglecting families make is emotionally. There is plenty to cuddle. There may be enough money. Enough food and clothes. But the parents fail to provide enough emotional awareness, validation, compassion, or emotional care for the children.
The Effects of Emotional Neglect in Childhood
As a psychologist, I often work with adults who grew up in an emotionally neglected family and I see clearly how it affects the relationship with their families of origin. It often results in grown children feeling that there is something wrong with them but not knowing what and bewildered at their feelings towards their family.
8 Signs of Emotional Neglect to Watch Out for in Your Family
- The conversations you have with your family are often about superficial things. They are rarely about emotional, meaningful, painful, or negative things. This can even make the conversations boring.
- You sometimes experience inexplicable anger or resentment towards your parents (which you then feel guilty about).
- You go to family gatherings with the hope that it will be fun, but often you come back with a feeling of emptiness or disappointment.
- Difficult or interpersonal problems in the family are generally ignored rather than addressed directly.
- It feels like siblings are competing with each other, but actually, they don’t know what for.
- Affection in the family is expressed through action (by doing things for others) rather than through words or emotional expressions.
- Emotions – negative emotions, but maybe even all emotions – are taboo in your family.
- You feel surprisingly lonely or left out when you are with your family.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family do suffer. They suffer from what remains unspoken and unseen, and from what is not shared, discussed or validated. If your family is emotionally neglectful, and if you start paying attention to it, some of the aforementioned points will come to your attention when you spend time with them.
It’s like baking a beautiful cake with too little sugar added: what looks good doesn’t have to be good. The emotionally neglected family suffers from a lack of an important ingredient that is not visible, but is essential to the quality and pleasure of consuming it. The emotions that should give extra flavor to the connections and warmth in the family are hidden away.
This is why you may have felt so bored, resentful, disappointed, suffocated or lonely when it comes to your family. This is why it is so important to address the problem of emotional neglect in childhood and consciously decide to fight it in your own life.
What you can do about it yourself
You can’t just change your family, and you don’t have to try. You can change yourself. Choose one of the 8 signs from the aforementioned list that most applies to your family and start behaving in the exact opposite way in your own life.
Talk about meaningful things, fight the guilt about your feelings, focus on self-preservation when you are with your family, talk about your problems, express your affection and warm feelings for others through words, and face your negative emotions. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to do it well enough .
Many others have been in your shoes and have preceded you in this adventure. And even more people are now walking the same path as you. So know: you are not alone.