the lasting impact of childhood emotional neglect

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.

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. 

The Risk of Overlooking Covert Trauma

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.) 

Read More