The Unexpected Ways Emotional Neglect Can Show Up

emotional neglect

Emotional neglect can have a significant effect on a person’s life. The neglect may occur in childhood, however, the emotional and psychological impact can last for a very long time and show up in a variety of ways; especially because neglect isn’t always obvious.  You might have feelings about how your parents cared for you or what their lifestyle was (stressed, preoccupied, dealing with health issues), but you might not realize or label it as neglect.  Sometimes it’s hard to detect or put your finger on the absence of something, especially if the absence is how it had always been.

Let’s look at what it is and how it can show up in adulthood.

What is Emotional Neglect

“Emotional neglect can be defined as a relationship pattern in which an individual’s affectional needs are consistently disregarded, ignored, invalidated, or unappreciated by a significant other.” (Ludwig, Stephen. “Family Function and Dysfunction.” Science Direct. 2009. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/emotional-neglect)

When it comes to parents who emotionally neglect their kids it can be intentional or unintentional. They may not really understand the importance of love and support and how withholding it affects their kids, they may not feel capable of meeting those needs so they just ignore them, or they may feel jealous of their kids and maybe even resentful for having them. This can come from parents’ own experiences in childhood or cultural norms.  

People who are a part of neglectful families are usually disconnected from one another and don’t share the closeness that a typical family experiences. 

“Ongoing childhood emotional neglect is a form of child abuse and can lead to lasting trauma. This trauma can make it hard to develop a healthy relationship with others and with ourselves.” (Gould, Wendy Rose. “How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Show up in Our Adult Life.” Very Well Mind. August18, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/childhood-emotional-neglect-in-adulthood-7568040)

How this can show up as emotional unavailability in adult relationships

It’s hard to express or process emotions as an adult if you were not taught how to do so early in life.  It’s even harder if those emotions were totally ignored and you felt like your feelings didn’t even matter.  

“When we have experienced emotional neglect, wounds, rejection, hurt, betrayal, or suppression, a part of our emotional self becomes unavailable to us. And when it becomes unavailable to us, it becomes unavailable to life, connection, vulnerability and intimacy.” (Ally, [awakenwithally]. “What is emotional unavailability?” *Instagram, January 3, 2024. www.instagram.com/p/C1pTsO6LUgA/?igsh=MWQ1ZGUxMzBkMA==)

So here are a few ways emotional unavailability can show up in relationships:

Avoiding Intimacy –  Whether it’s simply an intimate conversation or physical intimacy, it requires people to feel strong emotions and that feels scary. So relationships may only get to a certain point and just fizzle out, or the person may self-sabotage causing the relationship to end so that they don’t have to move to the next step.

Defensiveness – Trusting others can be hard so instead of letting their guard down, people will tend to blame others or look for a way to justify the mistrust.  It can be used as a coping mechanism to deflect and not have to accept the emotions that are triggered when there is a disagreement within a relationship.

Lack of Empathy – If someone is not able to understand or process their own emotions, then they are likely to also struggle with understanding how others feel or what they need emotionally.  

“In other words, an emotionally unavailable person may not be able to relate to you, put themselves in your shoes, or consider your feelings when making a decision.” (Marks, Julie. Casabianca, Sandra Silva. “How to Spot Emotional Unavailability: 5 Signs”. Psych Central. September 24, 2021. www.psychcentral.com/lib/signs-of-emotional-unavailability#5-signs-of-emotional-unavailability)

We talked about how to recognize emotional unavailability and how to improve it in a previous post, check it out HERE.

Emotional neglect can show up for adults in their personal life and in their relationships with others, but it’s possible to develop healthier coping strategies and work towards healing.  If you’d like to work through the effects of emotional neglect and improve the quality of your relationships, therapy is a great place to start.  A therapist is trained not only help you process the trauma, but also to engage in healthy, emotionally attuned relationship.  It’s a safe place to start experiencing a healthy relationship where you are seen, heard and supported.  Contact us, we’d love to support you.

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