What is Emotional Neglect? Understanding the Signs, Behaviors, and the 9 Potential Long-Term Effects

emotional neglect, emotional abuse

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Have you ever felt like your feelings were not being heard or taken seriously? As a child, were your parents ever dismissive, belittling or critical when you showed emotion? If so, you may have experienced emotional neglect.

In this post, we will explore what emotional neglect is, common signs and behaviors of those who have experienced this type of abuse, and potential long-term affects of leaving these experienced untreated.

What is emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect is the ongoing lack of emotional support, validation, and acknowledgment from a caregiver. It is a form of emotional abuse in which the caregiver doesn’t respond to or acknowledge their children’s emotions. This can include physical absence, but it also lacks verbal and nonverbal communication that shows an understanding and interest in a child’s feelings.

Studies estimate that approximately 18% of children suffer from childhood neglect. This percentage is even higher in some marginalized populations and communities.By recognizing the signs of child emotional neglect very early on, we can work together to create better relationships between caregivers and their children—building solid foundations for healthier futures.

Emotional neglect can occur in any relationship, including parent-child relationships, romantic partnerships, and friendships. Emotional neglect is often characterized by a lack of physical affection, verbal acknowledgment, or communication about feelings. Other signs may include feeling unseen or unheard in the relationship and not meeting your needs.

Emotional neglect’s long-term effects may include psychological distress, low self-esteem, difficulty forming meaningful connections with others, substance abuse issues, and more.

Examples of behaviors and words that are emotionally neglectful

Emotional neglect is not just one specific thing but can include a variety or a mix of things to cumulatively equate to child abuse itself. The lists in this section highlight some common behaviors and words that fall under emotional neglect and abuse.

Emotionally neglectful behaviors include:

  • Ignoring a child’s needs and feelings
  • Not expressing empathy or love
  • Not providing emotional guidance or support in difficult times
  • Not validating or respecting their thoughts and emotions

Emotional neglectful words might involve:

  • Belittling comments
  • Criticism
  • Refusal to listen to a child’s point of view and concerns
  • General avoidance of talking about emotions

Emotional neglect can manifest in a child’s life in different ways depending on the child’s age. For example, toddlers may be more prone to tantrums when they feel neglected or unheard. Whereas younger school-age children may become withdrawn or isolated from friends and family due to emotional deprivation. Older children may struggle with low self-esteem, have difficulty forming meaningful relationships with others due to a lack of trust, and display signs of depression or anxiety due to emotional neglect.

It is important to note that these behaviors can be unconscious and unintentional on the caregiver’s part but still cause significant psychological damage to the child over time and be considered abuse regardless of intention. Caregivers must create an environment where parents and children can talk openly and honestly about their emotions without fear of criticism or judgment. Open communication between parents and their children should allow for mutual respect, understanding, and validation of each other’s experiences. Doing so creates secure attachments between parent and child, which can prevent psychological issues later in life caused by emotional neglect.

Identifying common physical, psychological, and behavioral signs of emotional neglect

The physical signs of emotional neglect can manifest in many ways. These physical manifestations can be the body’s way of responding to a lack of emotional support or connection from a caregiver.

Children who are emotionally neglected may experience the following:

  • sleep disturbances
  • digestive issues
  • increased vulnerability to illness
  • weight changes

Children displaying psychological signs of emotional neglect may not be able to verbalize their feelings or understand them emotionally and often feel disconnected from themselves and the world around them.

Psychological signs may include:

  • low or distorted self-image
  • poor social skills
  • difficulty forming meaningful relationships with others
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • lack of trust in others

Behaviorally, children who are emotionally neglected may act out by being:

  • aggressive towards peers or adults
  • having difficulty controlling their own emotions and impulses
  • avoiding activities they once enjoyed
  • withdrawing from family members and friends

Another typical behavior is difficulty concentrating in school or at home due to a lack of focus caused by underlying anxiety or depression.

Caregivers need to be aware of these warning signs to intervene early on and provide support for their children’s emotional well-being before the effects of emotional neglect become more serious. Additionally, caregivers should strive to encourage open communication about feelings so children can learn how to process their emotions healthily.

Understanding the impact of emotional neglect on mental health

Furthermore, research has found that emotional neglect in children can last throughout adulthood and have long-term impacts on individuals’ physical health and well-being. Emotional neglect can lead to chronic stress and inflammation, increasing the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and stroke.

It’s essential to recognize the signs of emotional neglect so we can work together to create better relationships between caregivers and their children—building solid foundations for healthier futures. With understanding, care, and support from all involved parties, everyone affected by emotional neglect can get the help they need to build more beneficial relationships with themselves and others.

Differentiating emotional neglect from other types of abuse

Emotional neglect is more difficult to identify than other types of abuse, such as physical and sexual abuse, as it is often based on negative behaviors toward the child that is unconscious and unintentional on the part of the caregiver instead of improper physical contact.

Emotional neglect usually occurs over a lengthy period, making it a long-term form of psychological abuse that can have severe implications for its victims regarding long-term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. On the other hand, other forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, may only require one incident for lasting effects to be seen in the victim’s behavior.

Additionally, emotional abuse can go unnoticed by both parties if no signs of psychological distress are noticed.

How Does Childhood Neglect Change Me in the Long-Term?

Emotional abuse can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s brain structure, chemistry, and functioning. For example, it can disrupt the development of healthy attachment styles, damage self-esteem, and interfere with the ability to form trusting relationships.

Like other forms of abuse, emotional abuse can lead to someone changing how they ask for their needs to be met or stop asking altogether because they don’t believe their needs are important enough to be met. An example of this would be someone with either anxious or avoidant attachment styles.

An anxious attachment style tends to develop a sense of anxiety when they feel someone won’t meet their needs, so they may ask for reassurance and specific ways to feel better about their relationships to lessen the fear of abandonment.

An avoidant attachment style may develop a way of coping with their natural emotional needs by shutting off the need to emotionally connect with someone. Their need for support emotionally in the past was not met properly or positively, and this may mean that strong feelings or others who want emotional connection or support from them may invoke feelings of stress and anxiety in them.

Other long-term effects of childhood emotional neglect are:

  • changes in brain chemistry
  • changes in the size and structure of some areas of the brain
  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • difficulty developing empathy
  • difficulty managing stress
  • difficulty forming meaningful connections with others
  • higher rates of substance abuse to cope with feelings of loneliness and helplessness
  • difficulty or fear of trusting others

The trauma of emotional abuse can also wreak havoc on physical health if left untreated. The psychological effects—such as depression or chronic anxiety—can manifest into physical ailments such as headaches or stomachaches due to prolonged levels of stress hormones, which affect the body’s immune system.

Seeking help for those affected by emotional neglect

One of the most important steps a person who has suffered from emotional neglect can take to begin healing is to acknowledge and recognize what has happened. It may feel overwhelming or shameful, but it is essential to remember that it is not their fault. Once they have come to terms with what has happened, they can seek help from a mental health professional working with people affected by emotional neglect.

A mental health professional can provide support, guidance, and understanding, and help identify any underlying childhood trauma. They may also suggest various coping strategies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). CBT helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns, while DBT focuses on teaching skills for healthily managing emotions. In addition, many therapists offer mindfulness-based therapies that can help a person become more aware of their thoughts and feelings so they can better manage them.

It can also be helpful for those affected by emotional neglect to connect with others going through similar experiences. This could include joining a support group or participating in online forums where individuals share their stories and offer encouragement and advice to one another. Additionally, engaging in yoga, meditation, art therapy, journaling, or spending time outdoors can help reduce stress levels and provide peace and calmness.

No matter what approach an individual chooses when addressing their suffering due to emotional neglect, they must know there is hope for healing and recovery. With time, effort, and the right resources in place—it is possible to overcome the effects of emotional neglect and create fulfilling relationships with themselves and others.


Emotional neglect can have a devastating impact on individuals, but with the right resources and support in place, it is possible to overcome its effects. If you or someone you know has been emotionally neglected, please don’t hesitate to ask for help – whether through talking to a mental health professional or connecting with others going through similar experiences.

Sometimes, experiencing multiple types of abuse can happen. Know that healing is possible and that we are here for you. No matter what other childhood abuse you have experienced, we can help!

It takes courage and strength to take the first step toward healing, so why not make today that day? Call us or book an appointment online and we’ll work together on your recovery journey.


More on this topic:

4 Stages In The Cycle Of Abuse And How To Heal

What Are The Dangers Of EMDR Therapy?

Narcissist Gaslighting: What It Is, How To Recognize It & What To Do About It

Picture of Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Vee

    Excellent clarity provided.

    Possibly support groups as suggested may not be helpful due to emotional contagion, group think, re-traumatisation

    1. Makinwellness

      Thanks for the comment, Vee. Like most things, support groups can work well for some and not so well for others. It can be a place to find others who understand your struggle without having to fully explain it. If someone feels the emotions you described, support groups may not be for them, and sticking to traditional, one-on-one therapy may be best.

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