What Is Emotional Neglect? And How to Cope – Free Ebook

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.

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