As a child, how did adults around you react whenever you expressed your feelings? Did you grow up receiving that subtle message to wall up your emotions so they don’t get the better of you, or become anyone else’s burden? Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a topic often overlooked, and many fail to realise that it can eventually manifest into mood disorders or anxiety disorders if not dealt with appropriately.
Childhood Emotional Neglect occurs when our caretakers or parental figures fail to respond to our affectional needs suitably during critical stages in our development. An individual who grows up experiencing emotional neglect may experience a pattern of having his or her emotions being disregarded, invalidated or downplayed by others. While many of us may wonder, “What kind of parent doesn’t pay attention to a child’s emotional needs?” In reality, some parents may not actually realise that they have been shutting their child(ren) out emotionally. In Asian societies in particular, some parents are commonly labelled as “authoritarian” or “tiger parents”. These people may in fact perceive themselves to be giving the absolute best to their child, enforcing strict discipline and ensuring that their offsprings are well-equipped with the best skills to succeed in life. However, young children and teenagers may instead be overwhelmed by such demands, and feel as if their feelings were never considered or understood. Whilst we mentioned its prevalence in Asian societies, it is key to note that it is not merely limited to these children – many worldwide experience it too, making it an exceptionally important subject. With emotional neglect being a common feature in the childhood of many, it can become an undesirable shadow that follows us throughout our lives – eventually leading to undermined happiness and the lack of an authentic sense of self.
Delving into the matter at hand, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can come in two forms – active and passive CEN. Active CEN is when parents or caregivers actively act in a way that dismisses or denies the child’s emotions. For instance, a boy is sent to his room for crying over the death of his pet fish, and his parents complain of having an overly-dramatic son. When the child is being denied of his sadness and is receiving the message that his behaviour is unreasonable, this forces the child to grow up hiding his feelings, and at times struggling with fear and shame of his own emotions. On the other hand, passive CEN occurs when parents show a lack of care or validation regarding the child’s emotional needs. When parents fail to notice when the child is angry, upset, hurt or anxious, this gives off a subliminal message to the child that his feelings are irrelevant or not worthy of note. In any case, both forms of CEN are clearly detrimental towards one’s mental health.
Albeit not having a test or questionnaire that can help with a diagnosis for CEN, there are certain “symptoms” of CEN that may surface, be it in the later parts of one’s teenage years or adulthood.\
For one, individuals who have experienced CEN may find it difficult to prioritise their wants and needs, even if it’s something that would bring them great joy. It is innate for us to have desires and to just be aware of what we want and need. However, for someone who grows up having his feelings invalidated and cast aside, it could become a natural thing for him to keep his desires to himself. As such, even if opportunities do come along, these people would often fall through the cracks, most probably due to their inability to request for it upfront, or by allowing others to seize it instead.
CEN also causes one to start projecting any feelings inward, regardless of whether they are negative or positive ones. People who have experienced CEN are particularly predisposed to turning feelings of anger inwards, as they never learnt how to be comfortable with their emotions, nor how to handle them in a healthy manner. It is often said that nothing good comes from bottled-up feelings, and that is absolutely true.
Having pent-up feelings also mean that these individuals are not likely to seek help or lean into their support systems whenever things get tough, making them feel all the more isolated and vulnerable. Even at times when they are feeling deeply challenged by certain life events, they find themselves trying to cope all on their own, leading to unhealthy stress levels and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, the constant feelings of shame and inability to get in touch with one’s emotions will eventually lead to one losing sight of his or her strengths as well. As a result, poor self-esteem is sometimes a consequence of CEN.
While many individuals, including adults, fail to recognise the impacts of childhood emotional neglect on their lives due to its subtle nature, it is important that they get themselves back on track – to regain true happiness and greater self-esteem. You might have grown up devoid of your own emotions, but you need to recognise that facing them head-on will ultimately help you to cope with life events and for you to regain your sense of self.
Learn to start getting in touch with and embracing what you feel – both the good and bad. Identifying what you feel in certain situations will be a good step towards helping yourself cope with your environment and daily life. When challenges seem overwhelming, don’t feel afraid or ashamed of reaching out to your friends and family for help either. Even more so, if you ever feel like you’re losing control of your life and are derailing emotionally, seek professional help as soon as possible. While not everyone who grows up with emotional neglect ends up with mood disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders, there are certainly people who do. Don’t deny yourself of your emotions any longer, therapy might just be the solution to helping you learn the vital life-coping skills you never learnt as a child.