Skip to content
How Does Childhood Emotional Neglect Affect Adults? | Childhood emotional neglect leaves deep scars and can show up as anxiety, depression, anger and relationship problems. Read on to learn more about how childhood emotional neglect affects adults.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a commission if you make a purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read my disclosure for more info.

Would you say that you had a “normal” childhood?

Perhaps there was always food on the table and a roof over your head. All your material needs were met.

But something is off…

Deep down, a part of you wonders why you feel disconnected and unhappy. Why is there so much self-doubt?

Here’s something you might not have considered before:

Growing up without enough emotional support has dire consequences on our well-being. 

The lack of guidance and understanding we needed as children can leave us feeling isolated and powerless as adults. We might even believe that there’s something wrong with us.

In reality, there’s something right with us.

Childhood emotional neglect leaves deep scars and can show up as anxiety, depression, anger and relationship problems.

Let’s look at a common myth about trauma and how childhood emotional neglect affects adults. 

A common myth about trauma

When we hear the word “trauma”, we tend to think of big “T” traumas—extreme events like war, accidents or sexual assault.

Yet something like not getting enough support or affection as a child can also be traumatic.

Examples of little “t” trauma include childhood emotional neglect, a breakup or divorce and chronic pain.

We tend to misunderstand little “t” trauma because they aren’t as life-threatening. It’s easy to feel guilty for fretting about it because others have it worse.

Yet little “t” trauma can cause the same emotional and physical impact as big “T” trauma.

Healer Richard Flook calls the 4 main traits of trauma the “U.D.I.N. moment”:

  • U for unexpected: the event was surprising or came out of nowhere
  • D for dramatic: intense emotion, vivid, serious, severe
  • I for isolated: you felt alone even among other people
  • N for no resources: you didn’t know how to overcome the situation and felt powerless 

The crucial factor is not how traumatic an event appears to others, but the way it’s interpreted by the person experiencing the event.

For example, a 3-year old whose mom is running really late to pick her up feels abandoned and panics. The child starts wondering how she’ll make it all alone.

However, if it were a teen, she’d have more resources and insight. She could call her mom. She could catch a bus. She could keep waiting and feel okay.

As an adult, we may minimize or trivialize the impact of that moment because it seems like a “small thing”.

But a “small thing” could be completely different through the eyes of a child.

Signs of childhood emotional neglect in adults

It’s important to keep in mind that no one had a perfect childhood.

Even loving parents can’t always give adequate emotional support. They also carry their own generational trauma.

The harm happens over time through many distressing events. For example:

  • A parent repeatedly denied your perspective or feelings (“stop being so silly”, “that didn’t happen”, “you’re too sensitive”)
  • You only got love or positive attention when you were obedient or successful
  • A parent lost control of their emotions or was overly emotional
  • You didn’t feel seen, heard or loved while you were growing up
  • You feared punishment if you expressed your emotions or disagreed
  • No one explained or acknowledged an intense issue within the home

I enjoyed the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Dr. Jonice Webb and Dr. Christine Musello. It helped me further validate my painful childhood with emotionally absent parents and gave helpful advice to cope.

These 10 signs of childhood emotional neglect in adults were adapted from the book. The client anecdotes helped illustrate the many ways our emotional development might not have been nurtured early on.

Though everyone may relate to several or all the signs below, the list addresses people who struggle significantly with these themes.

1) Feelings of emptiness

These feelings can show up as general discomfort, emotional numbness or a physical sensation of emptiness inside. You may question the purpose of life or, in extreme cases, have suicidal thoughts.

It’s like you’re missing something that everyone else has. You might be a thrill seeker to try to fill the void. You may feel disconnected and set apart and struggle to enjoy life more.

2) Fear of being dependent

You avoid asking for help at all costs to not look or feel needy, to your detriment. 

Perhaps you had to grow up too quickly and parent yourself as a child. Your childhood may have felt lonely, even if it was happy. You prefer to do things yourself and others say that you’re aloof. You may have feelings of depression.

Growing up, my dad criticized me for my appearance, mannerisms, choices, friends—everything. He’d say, “You live under my roof, you do what I say.”

This cultivated a deep sense of powerlessness in me. If I spoke up, I was sure to be punished. So I vowed to never depend on anyone again, physically or emotionally.

Being a hyper independent adult looks great on paper. But it often means carrying a huge weight: the self-imposed responsibility to do everything yourself aka an extremely debilitating experience.

It’s been a long journey, but thanks to EFT Tapping, I’ve reclaimed my power and am now enjoying getting support.

3) Distorted sense of self

You tend to overemphasize or focus on your negative traits and downplay your positive ones.

You might not know what your gifts, talents and interests are. It’s easy to give up when things get tough.

You often feel like a misfit or a “square peg in a round hole”. Constant self-doubt plagues you. 

4) Lack of self-compassion

People often talk to you about their problems and say that you’re a good listener.

However, your empathy for others contrasts starkly with your lack of self-compassion. You’re harsher with yourself than with others and beat yourself up about mistakes and flaws. You may often feel angry with yourself.

5) Guilt and shame

There may be a nagging feeling that something is wrong with you or that you’re inferior to others. It could also feel like you’re somehow different from other people.

You sometimes feel depressed, sad or angry, but you don’t know why. You may avoid, hide or push down your feelings or needs. It seems like you should be happier in your life.

6) Self-blame

You often get angry at yourself easily or feel disgusted with yourself. Alcohol, drugs or other addictions might be used as a release. You may have self-destructive episodes or tendencies. You blame yourself for not being happier and more “normal”.

7) Fear of rejection

You tend to avoid getting close to people and opening up even to close friends, and expect rejection and abandonment. Initiating friendships aren’t your thing. You feel that others won’t like you, if they knew who you really are.

8) Difficulty caring for yourself and others

It’s uncomfortable for you to cry or when someone cries in your presence. You don’t like feeling needy or when someone needs you.

Sometimes, people say that you’re distant, cold or arrogant. They ask you for practical advice, but not emotional support. Others seem too emotional.

9) Poor self-discipline

You may judge yourself as lazy, procrastinate or struggle heavily with deadlines. Life seems tedious and you tend to avoid mundane tasks. You might feel angry at yourself for not getting more done.

You tend to overeat, drink too much, oversleep or overspend. You’re often disorganized, though you know you have the capacity to do better.

10) Difficulty communicating feelings

If a parent repeatedly denied your feelings, you may have learned to stuff down your emotions. It can be incredibly difficult to become aware of your feelings and express them. You may tend to be irritable, have explosive bouts of anger or make rash decisions.

Coping with childhood emotional neglect

Dr. Webb presents many different approaches to cope with childhood emotional neglect in her book, which I’d recommend checking out.

A key approach is understanding, identifying and trusting your emotions, as well as expressing them assertively and compassionately.

That in itself is a tall order, but an essential step to strengthen the relationship to yourself and others.

Another vital element is self-care. Now is the time to prioritize ourselves, after what may be a lifetime of putting others first. We learn how to stop betraying ourselves, listen to our needs, say no and ask for support.

EFT Tapping has been a godsend for me and my clients.

Understanding my childhood only helped somewhat. When I found EFT and other somatic therapies, I finally saw the importance of releasing past hurts from our body, where most of the pain is stored.

I’m grateful to offer EFT services and help others who have similar stories as mine. You can sign up for a free discovery call to learn more.

As adults, we have the opportunity to give ourselves the attention and emotional validation that we needed early on.

So, go ahead, reach out to your inner child.

Ask them how they’re feeling.

Be gentle with yourself.

Want some free support?

I’m offering free EFT Tapping sessions in exchange for a short interview via Zoom.

I enjoy connecting with other women and learning about their challenges related to confidence, boundaries and relationships.

In the first 15 minutes, I’ll ask questions like “How did you discover me?” for new content ideas. In the last 15 minutes, you’ll get an EFT session to feel calm and clear. (Yes, things can shift that quickly.)

This offer isn’t a discovery call, where we discuss my paid services. It’s a fun opportunity to connect and support each other!

If you feel inspired to work with me, we can book a free call to make sure we’re a good fit.

I look forward to connecting with you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *