When we imagine the difficulties involved in
a so-called ‘bad childhood’, we most readily
think in terms of children who are physically
harmed – beaten, underfed, sexually abused – or
else treated with active contempt: screamed
at, blamed, put down, mocked and tormented.
Such harrowing images make it hard for us
to picture that there might be another,
in many ways more prevalent yet just as
damaging form of injury to which children may
be exposed. In this case, there is no physical
violence, there is no taunting or shouting.
It looks – at first glance – as if all must be
well. But that would be to miss the particular
kind of wound that can be inflicted through
what psychologists term ‘emotional neglect.’
We’re so used to focusing on abuses that
spring from interventions, we forget those
that can equally painfully flow from absence. The
emotionally neglected child isn’t screamed at or
hit, locked up or jeered at. they are just – often
very subtly – ignored. A parent doesn’t smile at
them very much. There is never any time to take
a look at the drawing they just did or the story
they wrote. No one remembers their stuffed
animal’s name. No one notices that they are
looking sad and that the first day at school might
have been very difficult. There’s always something
more urgent to do than spend time with them
(perhaps another sibling to think about or the
demands of work or of their partner. There might
be a lot of parties as well). The parent seems in
no way charmed or interested. There are no cuddles
or hair ruffles, there are no nicknames or terms
of endearment. Birthdays get forgotten. Tears
aren’t dried or consoled. The parent doesn’t look
the child in the eye. They might, shortly after
the birth, go off and live in another household.
None of this may seem – at first
glance – to be especially bad,
particularly because the insidious
behaviour is largely invisible.
It is compatible with all kinds of
outward signs of healthy family life.
But that isn’t to say that no damage is being
done. The psychologist William James presciently
observed that it might as bad, if not worse, to
be on the receiving end of indifference as of
physical torment: ‘No more fiendish punishment
could be devised, were such a thing possible,
than that one should be turned loose in society
and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members
thereof. If no one turned around when we entered,
answered when we spoke, or minded what we did,
but if every person we met “cut us dead”,
and acted as if we were non-existent things,
a kind of rage and impotent despair
would before long well up in us,
from which the cruellest bodily
torture would be a relief.’
A crucial fact of psychological life is the
disinclination of any child to think there is
something wrong with its parent; it will go to
almost any lengths to prevent the idea emerging
that its parent may be mentally
unwell or fundamentally brutish.
It will remain attached and obsessed
by the most vicious and uncaring figure
whom an objective observer
might see through in an instant.
The child will do anything rather than
entertain the idea that an injury has been
done to it by its own progenitor – especially
if the parent is charming to other people
and impressive in the professional sphere.
The child will just assume that there must
be something deeply wrong with itself to justify
the indifference. It must have failed in some way,
it must in its essence be profoundly
ugly, repulsive, deformed or lacking.
This is the only conceivable explanation for the
blankness with which their existence is received.
The adult who emerges from such a complicated,
veiled childhood is likely to be in a confused
state. On the surface, they may experience
only good will and a continued desire to
please their early caregivers. But deep within
themselves, they may feel lacerating doubt,
paranoia and self-contempt. To numb such feelings,
they may take to drink or develop numbing, calming
addictions to keep themselves from constant
encounters with their perceived repulsiveness.
A measure of resolution comes when we can
take on board the term ‘emotional neglect’
and treat it, and thereby our own stories, with
requisite seriousness. Our childhood sorrows may
not rank among the most obvious or newsworthy, but
they may be substantial and genuine nevertheless.
Our levels of shame attest as much. We were not
hit, but we were injured. We failed to receive
the love that makes people firm and whole, that
allows them to feel authentic and deserving,
that prevents them from being
impressed by those who mistreat them
and that stops them wanting to
kill themselves when they mess up.
We hear so much about the virtues of bravery,
we miss out on the importance of learning more
regularly to feel – with appropriate cathartic
intent – usefully sorry for ourselves.