What is Emotional Neglect?
Emotional neglect is a term that refers to the process of failing, whether deliberately or unintentionally, to contribute to the meeting of emotional needs which are expected for that relationship. A victim of emotional neglect can feel worthless, depressed, and useless to those around him or her. It can be a simple disregard for another’s feelings, or it can be a deliberate attempt to avoid meeting emotional needs by engaging in hurtful behaviors or introducing unnecessary shame into the situation.
There are a few types of relationships most notably associated with emotional neglect.
Parental Emotional Neglect
The most commonly referenced and understood pattern of emotional neglect is the emotional neglect which parents can inflict on their children. For most cultures, parents are ultimately viewed in by society to be the primary individuals responsible for nurturing their children’s emotional needs to help them become healthy, well-adjusted contributors to society as a whole.
Part of this process is for parents to strive to help their children understand their emotions, validate their feelings, and teach them how to cope with powerful emotions according to individual situations. When a parent fails to achieve the delicate balance of their child’s emotional growth and development, it can leave long-lasting impressions that impact the child as he or she grows into an adult. In many cases of generational abuse (where an abused child becomes an abusive parent), there was a significant amount of emotional neglect present during the critical stages of cognitive and psychosocial development.
Parental emotional neglect can occur by either a failure to properly assist in the child’s emotional development or through a lack of structure to help guide and govern appropriate socioemotional responses. Children cannot function without some level of authority. Much like the bumpers used in bowling alleys, guidelines help children to learn where to aim their emotions and how much power to give them based on the situation. Without this parental guidance, children are rolling emotional gutterballs which can lead to some psychological disruptions.
Emotional Neglect in Adult Relationships
Much like how children require input and guidance from their parents to aid in the development of appropriate emotional responses, adults often rely on their romantic partners to provide some measure of emotional needs. Some psychological theories have suggested that emotional needs such as love and belonging are those which are essential to the ability of individuals to achieve their best selves overall. So it is no surprise that serious romantic relationships can create the potential for emotional neglect.
There are some personality disorders in which one partner has no desire to concern themselves with the needs of others. However, for some personality disorders, like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they themselves have the need to be needed or wanted. Many use manipulation skills to convince others to invest their emotional and physical selves in them before revealing their truest nature. In these types of relationships, once the Narcissist has secured their target’s emotional devotion, he or she will use their love and admiration to feed their own needs while ignoring or blatantly disrespecting and disregarding the emotional needs of their partner.
Additionally, emotional neglect can exist in adult relationships where there are no signs or symptoms of personality disorders or psychosis. Many times in adult relationships, whether it is with another adult or with a child, emotional neglect takes the shape of simply failing to respond or act to any situation. A married couple can experience emotional neglect for many years before realizing that it was not a deliberate act against a partner, but rather the lack of emotional actions or changes to help address and deal with the needs of the partner or problems that arise within the marriage.
What does emotional neglect look like?
Emotional neglect is one of the most hurtful behaviors because it is often not recognized by those outside a relationship and sometimes not by those who are being neglected. For example, a child suffering from emotional neglect may just appear to be going through a phase or battling hormones while an adult may experience emotional neglect but feel embarrassed or shameful, thus concealing their experiences from others. For the most part, emotional neglect is an invisible form of mental and emotional abuse that takes a heavy toll on its victims.
Common forms of emotional neglect
The silent treatment – In any relationship where there is a lack of communication, there is probability and potential for emotional neglect to occur. With parental emotional neglect, the lack of communication with a child can leave the child feeling vulnerable, shameful, invalidated, confused, and unwanted. For adult relationships, the silent treatment is often a more deliberate means of manipulation. It can, however, also be indicative of the “failure to act” which is most commonly associated with emotional neglect in general.
Failure to fight – This form of emotional neglect is most commonly found in adult relationships. Much like the silent treatment, a lack of fighting or arguing demonstrates to some degree that there is a lack of emotional connection or concern from one if not both partners within the relationship.
Independent Isolation – Children and adults can feel like they are always alone, even when there are others around. Someone engaging in emotional neglect, whether intentional or unintentional, will somehow find ways to isolate the other person (i.e., spouse, child, partner) so that he or she is alone and feels lonely. When intentionally done, this form of emotional neglect can introduce guilt and depression in the victim as it can be viewed as a direct action rather than a failure to act.
If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional neglect, please seek the support and services from a local therapist or counselor.