Childhood emotional neglect. It’s not something we hear about when talking of typical developmental childhood conditions. But it’s actually more common than we think, albeit less noticeable because the manifestations are not as alarming as, say, autism, ADHD or defiant behavior. Yet, CEN can lead to serious problems in adulthood, which we shall enumerate in this article.
Parents who learn about emotional neglect in childhood often wonder what they have done that resulted in CEN. Dr. Jonice Webb, a clinical psychologist, defines the condition as the effect of a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When your kid comes home from school looking sad or upset and you don’t bother to ask what happened, or the pet dog died and you did not comfort him, those are examples of emotional neglect. Done often enough, it has a cumulative effect that exhibits itself later in life, from the teen years to adulthood.
Parents are often too busy to take notice of their child’s feelings. Or if they do, they ignore them or read something else into the child’s high-strung or defiant behavior. True, they provide for the physical and educational needs of their offspring and the children grow up medically healthy and finish school. But there’s less talking, sharing of experiences and bonding over meals and short vacations. The child ends up feeling distant and unloved. He learns to inhibit himself from others and repress his emotions in the absence of a positive response from his parents.
The Insidious Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Depression affects 20% of teens in the United States, regardless of gender, social status, race and other demographics. A study by psychologists at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that the primary cause of depression in later life is emotional neglect, exemplified by lack of attention, empathy and support from their parents or guardian.
Although child sexual, physical and emotional abuse are key factors that contribute to substance addiction, habitual indifference to a child’s feelings also lead to addictive behavior. Trauma in childhood has been linked to a person’s predisposition to addiction. Trauma in its broad sense is stress that may be physical or emotional from which a person cannot remove himself. CEN stems from a parent’s chronic lack of attention, which is a traumatic situation for a child.
Pervasive sense of unhappiness and discontent
A child who grows up emotionally neglected often becomes an unhappy and discontented adult. He or she may have a good family and a great well-paying job but there’s an unexplainable emptiness in his or her life. Often, the unhappy adult feels he has not reached his true potential and compares himself with others more successful than he is. This “grass is greener” outlook leads to constant job hopping, believing the perfect job is yet to come. It can also lead to unstable relationships, especially with a significant partner.
Unhappiness also comes from a learned technique in childhood of suppressing one’s own needs yet meeting the needs of others. He presents a cheerful face and is thought of as a caring and thoughtful person but deep inside, the unhappiness lingers.
Childhood emotional neglect is not easily evident and so has the tendency to remain unchecked. Parents who are aware of the disorder and wish to avoid doing it to their own kids can use the following approaches:
- When your child is sad, angry or upset, do not give a general assurance that everything will be alright. You are not addressing the problem nor showing you understand his emotions. Instead, ask your child what happened and identify what his specific feelings are toward the incident.
- After knowing the cause of his emotions (for ex., anger,) poke and find out what he is angry about. If he got into a fight at school, was he angry at his opponent for upsetting him, or angry at himself for being humiliated? When you know what the underlying cause of the feeling is, you are better able to offer appropriate support.
- Show sympathy. Show your child that you support him and understand what he’s going through. Reassure him that no matter what happens, you’ll be there for him.
- Teach him to let go of control. The child must realize early on that he cannot control everything and that it should not be a source of frustration or anger. Train him to be accepting of events and other people’s behaviors.
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