Hidden Pain: What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like?

Hidden Pain: What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like?
American psychologist and bestselling author Jonice Webb sheds light on what is often invisible: emotional neglect in childhood. Her recently published book ‘Unknown feelings’ reflects on the heavy baggage that you then carry with you as an adult. “I want to give you the words to talk about it and give you the tools to heal.”

“It’s not something parents do to you, it’s something they don’t do for you!”

Thousands of people have realized in recent years that they grew up with emotional neglect. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). For some, this realization comes as a relief. They consider it a turning point in their lives, although they are sad that they did not have a childhood where they were valued and seen.

Childhood Emotional Neglect occurs when your parents have not accepted or acknowledged your feelings. They may also not respond. CEN is thus a kind of ’emotional deficit’. By passively ignoring a child’s emotions, you deliver a powerful message that shapes the child.

Emotional neglect is not always easy to detect. In this article, I consider two forms: ‘passive’ and ‘active’ neglect. They feel different, but both leave a ‘trail’. A print. You may have experienced one of the two, or both.

Examples of passive neglect and its consequences

Hidden Pain: What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like?

*A teen who is bullied at school feels that his parents will not help, so he keeps it to himself.
Result: This child learns that it is alone in the world.

*The grief of a small child often unseen by the parents. Result: This child learns that his feelings are not important or invisible.

*Parents who feel extremely uncomfortable when their child feels angry or behaves aggressively. They react with disapproval, disappointment or leave the child alone.
Result: This child learns that angry feelings are ‘bad’ and drive people away.

*Family members who avoid any discussion that might make them uncomfortable or disagree. So the conversation is always superficial and not personal.
Result: The children in this family learn how to avoid important conversations. They don’t learn how to communicate when it comes to interpersonal issues, which they will no doubt face later on.

The parents of a child who ignore natural mistakes and wrong choices and assume that the child will solve it on their own.
Result: This child does not learn to correct mistakes, become wiser and move on with his life. Chances are it will develop an inner voice that criticizes every mistake the child makes in their life.

So this is what passive Childhood Emotional Neglect looks like. It doesn’t seem that bad at first glance. It’s not something parents do to you, it’s something they don’t do for you! That’s why it’s hard to discover and hard to remember. Unfortunately, the consequences stay with you. They are “lessons” learned as a child and remembered as an adult.

Examples of active neglect and its consequences

Hidden Pain: What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like?

*A child sent to his room every time he shows a ‘negative’ emotion.
Result: This child learns that “negative” emotions are unbearable and bad.

*A child whose feelings are continuously downplayed. Such as: ‘Don’t act like a baby’. “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re so dramatic.”
Result: This child learns that his feelings are a sign of weakness and thus must be hidden in order to appear strong.

*A child who is punished every time he expresses his anger.
Result: This child learns that angry feelings are dangerous and are seen as unacceptable by others.

*A family that needs emotional support every time the child says it begs for attention. Perhaps the child is even called ‘pathetic’.
Result: This child learns that it is painful to have such needs and that they should be avoided. It also learns to be ashamed of its feelings.

*A child whose feelings are overshadowed by his parents expressing stronger emotions. For example, they will say, “So you’re angry? I’m even angrier!’ Or: ‘You’re hurt? I’m hurt even more.” Or, “You have no idea what anger is.”
Result: This child learns that his own feelings not only upset others, but that they are also dangerous. They can cause pain to others.

Doubt and Shame

Whatever form of emotional neglect you’ve experienced, I can guarantee you’ll still be affected by it. If you grew up with passive CEN, you may find it difficult to name moments when it happened. There is a chance that you will start to doubt yourself and wonder whether there is even CEN at all. You may be blaming yourself for your problems and hiding your pain, even from yourself.

Hidden Pain: What Does Emotional Neglect Look Like?

If you grew up with active emotional neglect, you may be too hard on yourself. You may even be directing your anger at yourself, blaming yourself for everything and criticizing your own approach. You may be ashamed of any feeling that slips through the wall that you have built yourself.


After reading all the examples, you may be wondering: am I myself influenced by Childhood Emotional Neglect? If so, how? And does it still affect me?

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that the answer to the last question is Yes. (Unless you are aware of the CEN you grew up with, paid attention to your feelings, and understand the function of feelings.) But no matter how much you try to block your feelings, or whatever social skills you lack, there there is always a solution to be found. As a child, you had no choice, as an adult you did! The great thing is that you can always heal, no matter how deeply touched you are.


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