the lasting impact of childhood emotional neglect


At this point, hopefully most of us are on the same page that physical or sexual abuse of a child is wrong (read: as morally repugnant as it gets) and incredibly harmful to them long-term. If you're not yet familiar with the term "Adverse Childhood Experiences" (ACEs) or the landmark ACEs study done by CDC and Kaiser, taking a few minutes to explore these will help you understand the link between early childhood trauma and the majority of our societal and public health issues — like substance abuse, depression, and the cycles of poverty and violent crime, to name just a few.

The Risk of Overlooking Covert Trauma

While some people who enter into therapy know they have endured traumatic experiences (and might also know that these experiences are at the root of the other things they struggle with, like anxiety, an eating disorder, or relationship issues), many others have minimized their childhood experiences to an extent that they are not "connecting the dots" with how they are still being impacted by the things that happened (or should have happened and didn't) in their early years of life. 

Emotional abuse tends to be a particularly slippery issue. For instance, if someone is physically or sexually abused during childhood and doesn't know at the time that this was wrong and not "normal," often they learn this fairly early in adulthood. (Though due to the internalized shame of abuse, sometimes it takes increasing pain from dysfunctional coping behaviors before a person is ready to enter therapy for help.) Hopefully with this recognition, and the support of a skilled trauma therapist, the wounds they need to heal are fairly evident, and the path for healing, though not easy, is clear.

With emotional abuse and neglect, however, the experience is often more covert, and thus harder to identify as the root cause of whatever present-day issues someone is struggling with. Sure, some types of emotional abuse are more overt; but again, hopefully in these cases the person is aware that what was happening was not okay, and then has the opportunity to heal. But many times, the impact of more subtle forms of emotional abuse or neglect are like a rust that erodes a person's sense of self (healthy ego development) over time, until she takes on a world view that she is inadequate, does not matter, cannot trust others, will not be loved if others find out who she really is, and basically, better be able to figure things out on her own. She may not make the connection that the impact of a highly critical grandfather and workaholic mother is still impacting her beliefs about herself 25 years later. (And if no one ever helps her to make that connection and do the healing work, she will likely struggle with feeling like no amount of affirmations, anti-depressants, and cognitive behavioral therapy ever seems to help, so she must be right about herself that she's just fundamentally flawed.) 

How Emotional Neglect Affects Adult Relationships

Survivors of emotional neglect will always struggle in their adult relationships until they do some healing work. This "struggle" could manifest in a variety of ways, from extreme codependency and approval/validation-seeking, to seeking out intensity in place of intimacy, which is simultaneously needed and feared. A big part of what adult survivors of emotional neglect struggle with in their relationships is not understanding what their needs are, and either having difficulty letting a partner meet any of their needs, or expecting a partner to fulfill not only their adult needs, but also the unmet childhood needs. So what are our love needs, anyway?

Emotional Needs: The 5 A's

The best framework I have seen thus far of describing emotional/love needs comes from therapist and author Dave Richo, in his book How to Be an Adult in RelationshipsHe breaks this down with what he calls "the 5 A's", which I'll outline briefly below. As you read through these, you might notice areas in which you feel like your needs were fairly well met, or perhaps areas where there were either significant gaps or "too much". 

  1. Attention — healthy attention to you means "engaged focus on you."  Attention should come to a child at any time, not just when he is presenting with a problem; if this is the case, we start creating problems just to try to get our attention needs met. (Note that healthy attention does not mean intrusion, surveillance, “watching your every move,” or scrutiny.) 
  2. Acceptance — Being accepted means we are received respectfully with all our feelings, choices, and personal traits, and supported through them. We feel safe about knowing and giving ourselves to others. As Dave Richo says, "to accept a child is to be free of preconceived plans or agendas for them." 
  3. Appreciation — As adults, we need to learn to give ourselves validation rather than just seeking it externally, though it is still important to feel appreciated by others at times. As kids, we don't yet have the emotional maturity to get all of our validation internally, and we need our own worthiness mirrored to us. Encouragement from caregivers helps us to develop a sense of personal worth and confidence. Appreciation also means showing gratitude for any kindness or gifts. 
  4. Affection — Safe and healthy affection feels like a sense of nearness, loving presence, and warmth. This could mean hugs, tucking in at night with a bedtime story, or noticing and offering compassion when a child is in pain (note that compassion doesn't mean needing the child to feel differently!) Wounds can happen here when there is either a lack of affection (feeling of distance, disconnect, coldness) or if there is a sense of "too much" — engulfment, enmeshment, confusion about where I end and you begin.  Sometimes, a “surrogate spouse" emotional dynamic can occur even with no sexual boundary-crossing, or a parent could lean on a child too much for emotional support.  Dave Richo aptly illustrates one way a "not good" type of affection can feel: “Every cell of your little body knew the difference between being held supportively and being clutched to fulfill a parent’s needs. You knew when something was being given and when it was being taken.” 
  5.  Allowing — This means allowing flexibility rather than rigidity/severity, and a sense of freedom to discover and be YOU. Yes, there should be healthy limit-setting that makes it safe for you to be yourself (whereas control means you learn you have to be who others need me to be). "Allowing" offers the gift of freedom and forgiveness. There is room for you to make mistakes, and you know it is safe to be honest, learn, and grow from them. 

Now What? 

We do still need the 5 A's in adulthood, but hopefully if you learned what it was like to have your emotional needs met in a safe way, you find a blend of getting your needs met from a variety of sources. Your primary partner (if you have one, though certainly not necessary) realistically should meet only up to about 25% of your needs (as opposed to the "you complete me" cultural myths that would put that number much higher), yourself, your support system, and perhaps your spirituality.

If you did not learn what it was like to have your emotional needs met in a safe way, buckle up, because it's time to do some work. Find a therapist in your area who is skilled in working with developmental trauma and emotional neglect. Pick up Dave Richo's book. I promise it's possible to stop repeating your same old ineffective relationship patterns, but it won't just happen on its own. Best of luck on your healing journey, and may love be with you.

Photo by Jimmy Bay on Unsplash


Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.