Childhood Emotional Neglect: 5 Hidden Consequences

childhood emotional neglectAlmost 1 in 5 adults globally may have been neglected as a child, and it most likely happened unintentionally (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013).

Parents or guardians failed to meet their children’s basic emotional needs or were insensitive to their distress or developmental needs.

Known as childhood emotional neglect (CEN), it is a type of adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs are highly stressful and potentially traumatic events or situations that occur during childhood or adolescence.

Adverse childhood experiences include living with someone who has mental health or substance abuse problems; losing a parent to death, divorce, or abandonment; and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

But unlike abuse, CEN may happen because of a lack of awareness. Researchers have established that CEN can result in a variety of psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and impaired social functioning later in life (Derin et al., 2022; Haslam & Taylor, 2022; Müller et al., 2019; Rees, 2008).

How can we help clients recover from its effects? In this article, we share insights on the phenomenon and suggestions for evidence-based interventions that foster healing and growth.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

CEN refers to a failure to meet the basic emotional needs of a child, a lack of emotional responsiveness to a child’s distress, ignoring a child’s social and emotional developmental needs, and expecting children to deal with situations beyond their maturity or that are unsafe (Teicher & Samson, 2013).

Sadly, it is a very common phenomenon.

Meta-analyses have revealed that the global prevalence of childhood emotional neglect is around 18% (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013; Stoltenborgh et al., 2015).

CEN has been closely associated with psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, in young adults and later in life (Grummitt et al., 2022; Infurna et al., 2016; Salokangas et al., 2020).

In addition, CEN can have long-term effects on social functioning and result in social anxiety, poor interpersonal interactions, and reduced relationship quality (Derin et al., 2022; Haslam & Taylor, 2022; Müller et al., 2019; Rees, 2008).

Intentional vs. unintentional neglect

According to Jonice Webb (2012, p. 15), a psychologist who extensively researched the phenomenon and coined the term childhood emotional neglect, CEN is “the failure of parents to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”

Webb emphasizes that this neglect can be both intentional and unintentional. Intentional CEN occurs when parents purposefully dismiss or invalidate their child’s emotions. Unintentional childhood emotional neglect arises when parents, despite their love and care, overlook the significance of emotional connection or are unable to establish it.

How neglect differs from abuse and mistreatment

Differentiating between neglect and abuse is crucial in understanding CEN. While abuse often involves intentional harm or mistreatment, neglect can involve unintentional negligence.

Emotional neglect can be subtle. Parents may fail to notice, validate, or respond to a child’s emotions.

Jonice Webb provides a clear explanation of the distinction between abuse and neglect on her website, saying, “Emotional neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse” (What is, para. 4).

Parental neglect refers to a parent’s inaction, while abuse and mistreatment are acts of the parent. It is the inability to identify, acknowledge, or react suitably to a child’s emotions. It is not evident, noteworthy, or memorable because it is an act of omission.

What Are the Potential Causes of Emotional Neglect?

Emotional neglectIt is a sad truth that the children of parents who have experienced ACEs such as emotional neglect or child abuse are more likely to experience CEN or worse.

ACEs can breed more ACEs in the next generations. Ylitervo et al. (2023, p. 1) found that “childhood adversities are transferred from parents to children at least in some form.”

“If parents have experienced ACEs, they will have a higher risk of mental health problems, and since having a depressed parent, for example, is considered an adverse childhood event, the child of such a parent will be at risk, leading to a vicious cycle in which adversities can be passed on for generations” (Ylitervo et al., 2023, p. 1).

Emotionally neglectful parents

Emotionally neglectful parents may contribute to childhood emotional neglect due to a lack of awareness or understanding of their child’s emotional needs. “Emotionally neglectful parents often appear loving and caring on the surface but remain unaware of their child’s emotional world” (Webb, 2012, p. 87).

This unconscious neglect can result from the parents’ own emotional challenges, making it challenging for them to attune to their child’s feelings.

Uninvolved parenting

Uninvolved parenting, characterized by emotional detachment and a lack of responsiveness, is another potential cause of CEN. The absence of emotional engagement can leave children feeling overlooked, invisible, and unimportant and may hinder the development of crucial emotional skills.

Cold mother syndrome

The term “cold mother syndrome” refers to a pattern of maternal behavior characterized by emotional distance, coldness, and unresponsiveness. This syndrome highlights the significant role active maternal warmth plays in fostering emotional wellbeing during childhood (Streep, 2017).

Peg Streep has written several powerfully empathetic books on the effects of having cold, unloving, or narcissistic mothers. In Daughter Detox (Streep, 2017), for example, she writes movingly about how cold mothers can destroy our trust in the legitimacy of our feelings and our connectedness to our emotions. A thus injured sense of self can result in constant self-vigilance, in being distrustful of others, and in not feeling worthy of respect and love.

This kind of mothering can impact attachment style and generate fearful dismissive or fearful avoidant behaviors.

Daughter detox: recovering from an unloving mother and reclaiming your life

5 Consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood emotional neglect can cast a long shadow on emotional wellbeing, both for young adults and later in life. As mentioned, those who have experienced CEN are more likely to struggle with (Grummitt et al., 2022; Infurna et al., 2016; Salokangas et al., 2020):

  1. Depression,
  2. Anxiety
  3. Substance abuse

In addition, CEN can also result in abandonment issues and severely impact a client’s attachment style. Clients may find it more difficult to trust others and establish intimate relationships (Derin et al., 2022; Haslam & Taylor, 2022; Müller et al., 2019; Rees, 2008).

Abandonment issues

Abandonment issues stem from the emotional void created by childhood emotional neglect. Webb (2012, p. 42) describes how CEN “leaves a child feeling unseen, unheard, and unimportant.” The absence of emotional validation and responsiveness during formative years can instigate a profound fear of abandonment in adulthood.

Individuals who experience CEN may develop hypersensitivity to perceived rejection or neglect, often attributing it to their inherent unworthiness. This heightened sensitivity can impact relationships, causing them to distance themselves emotionally or cling excessively to others, seeking constant reassurance.

Attachment styles

CEN significantly influences the development of personal attachment styles, which form the basis for interpersonal relationships. Bowlby (1958) has shown that secure attachments in childhood lay the foundation for healthy relationships in adulthood. CEN can give rise to insecure attachment styles.

Individuals with a history of emotional neglect may exhibit anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles. Anxious attachment manifests as a fear of abandonment, leading to clinginess and constant seeking of validation.

Avoidant attachment, on the other hand, is marked by emotional distance and an aversion to intimacy. Disorganized attachment combines elements of both, creating a complex interplay of approach and avoidance behaviors (Streep, 2017).

You may enjoy this video, which delves more deeply into the questions of the consequences of CEN.

9 Signs of childhood emotional neglect - Kati Morton

5 Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Adults

CEN shapes the emotional landscape of individuals, often leaving a profound impact on their adult lives. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of CEN is a crucial step toward understanding and addressing the aftermath of emotional neglect.

1. Emotional detachment

One hallmark sign of CEN is emotional detachment. Because their emotions were ignored or invalidated as children, adults who experienced CEN may struggle to connect with their emotions, leading to a sense of emptiness or numbness. This emotional detachment may hinder the formation of meaningful relationships and impede personal growth (Webb, 2012).

2. Perfectionism and overachievement

Individuals who grew up with emotional neglect may develop perfectionistic tendencies as a coping mechanism. The pursuit of perfection becomes a way to seek external validation and compensate for the lack of emotional support (Streep, 2017).

3. Difficulty setting boundaries

Another subtle but pervasive symptom of childhood emotional neglect is difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. Adults who have experienced emotional neglect may struggle to assert their needs, fearing rejection or abandonment. Recognizing and addressing these challenges is vital for fostering healthy interpersonal connections (Streep, 2017).

4. Low self-esteem

CEN often gives rise to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem in adulthood. Individuals with a history of neglect may struggle with a persistent sense of not being good enough (Webb, 2012).

Unraveling the roots of low self-esteem involves acknowledging the impact of emotional neglect and working toward building a more positive self-perception (Webb, 2012).

5. Difficulty expressing needs

Adults who have experienced CEN may find it challenging to express their needs openly. Addressing the difficulty of expressing needs requires cultivating assertiveness skills and fostering a sense of self-worth (Webb, 2012; Streep, 2017).

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Download 3 Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises (PDF)

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Tests for Childhood Emotional Neglect

Mental health professionals may use various assessments and tools to explore and identify the presence of CEN. It is essential to recognize that CEN is often diagnosed through clinical interviews, self-report measures, and discussions about an individual’s emotional experiences. Some commonly used methods for assessing CEN include the following:

1. CEN Questionnaire

Developed by Jonice Webb, this questionnaire is a self-report questionnaire designed to assess the extent of emotional neglect experienced during childhood.

It includes questions related to emotional expression, validation, and parental responsiveness.

You can access the questionnaire here.

2. The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ)

While not specific to CEN, the CTQ is a widely used tool that includes a section on emotional neglect. It assesses various forms of childhood trauma, including emotional neglect, and can provide insights into the individual’s experiences. You can find out more about it on this website and access the questionnaire here.

It is crucial to approach these assessments with the understanding that childhood emotional neglect is a nuanced and often subtle form of emotional neglect. Professionals typically use a combination of assessments and clinical judgment to make a diagnosis.

4 Books on Childhood Maltreatment, Abuse & Neglect

If you would like to read more about the topic or recommend self-help books to your clients who have suffered from CEN, you may find the following four books helpful.

1. Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect – Jonice Webb

Running on Empty

The psychologist Jonice Webb coined the term childhood emotional neglect and was the first researcher to write a book about the topic in 2012.

In her book, Webb explores 12 types of parents who inadvertently neglected their children emotionally, 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults, and six clear strategies for how to overcome CEN.

Find the book on Amazon.


2. Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life – Peg Streep

Daughter Detox

Daughter Detox is recommended for anyone who has experienced the challenges of having an unloving mother.

The author, Peg Streep, provides a compassionate and insightful exploration of this difficult dynamic, offering practical strategies and exercises for healing and reclaiming one’s life.

The book offers valuable guidance and support for those navigating the complexities of maternal relationships, and it can be a source of empowerment and transformation for readers seeking to heal from this experience.

Find the book on Amazon.


3. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel van der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

This ground-breaking book by renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explores the effects of trauma on the body and mind.

It delves into the ways trauma can be stored in the body and offers insights into innovative therapeutic approaches for healing. While it is not specifically about CEN, many of van der Kolk’s suggestions for therapeutics apply and can be helpful for CEN, too.

Find the book on Amazon.


4. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity – Nadine Burke Harris

The Deepest Well

The physician Nadine Burke Harris explores the science behind adverse childhood experiences and their impact on health.

The book emphasizes the importance of early intervention and resilience in mitigating the effects of childhood adversity.

Find the book on Amazon.

Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect

The effects of CEN can be mitigated by self-reflection and therapy. Seeking the guidance of a mental health professional can be a crucial step in healing from CEN.

Therapists specializing in trauma and emotional neglect can provide a safe space for individuals to explore their emotions, identify patterns, and develop coping strategies. Psychodynamic therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy may all be useful therapeutic approaches.

Fostering self-compassion is perhaps the most important and helpful therapeutic intervention when working with a client who has experienced CEN. Deepening self-knowledge and helping clients develop a more compassionate self-story are crucial, as are identifying and changing negative core beliefs that revolve around unlovability and being bad or unworthy.

Mindfulness practices can also help clients tune in to their emotions, fostering a deeper understanding of their inner experiences. Mindfulness allows individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment, creating space for self-compassion and acceptance.

Learning to establish and maintain healthy boundaries is another crucial skill for individuals with a history of CEN.

In addition, Hartanto et al. (2020) found that purpose in life significantly moderates the link between childhood emotional neglect and adult depressive symptoms. Their study “highlights the important role played by purpose in life in building resilience, coping against adverse life events, and psychological wellbeing” (Hartanto et al., 2020, p. 1).

Purpose includes having a clear sense of meaningful direction in our lives. It entails working toward long-term life pursuits and goals and can help us persevere and continue to strive in spite of external difficulties. Having a purpose also provides a sense of coherence and helps us develop more helpful self-stories (Hartanto et al., 2020).

How to overcome childhood emotional neglect - Kati Morton

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Given the importance of developing kinder, more compassionate stories about ourselves when we have suffered from CEN, you may find these articles on self-compassion helpful:

You may also find these free tools for fostering self-compassion useful:

You may also enjoy these tools for boundary setting:

Finally, why not have a look at this life purpose tool?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

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Updated monthly. 100% Science-based.

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A Take-Home Message

Sadly, CEN is a very common experience. Much more subtle and harder to grasp than child abuse, it can nevertheless have serious negative consequences for mental health and attachment styles later in life.

The good news is that there are books, self-help strategies, and psychological interventions that can help clients process and make sense of these ACEs and begin to heal from them.

First and foremost, people who have experienced CEN should be encouraged and supported to develop more self-compassion, to take their emotions seriously, understand and reconnect with their emotions, and learn how to set healthy boundaries.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

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  • Grummitt, L. R., Kelly, E. V., Barrett, E. L., Lawler, S., Prior, K., Stapinski, L. A., & Newton, N. C. (2022). Associations of childhood emotional and physical neglect with mental health and substance use in young adults. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 56(4), 365–375.
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