What is childhood emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect in childhood refers to the chronic failure of caregivers to provide essential emotional support, nurturing, and validation to a child. This neglect often manifests in indifference, inattention, or unresponsiveness to the child’s emotional needs. It often occurs alongside physical care but neglects the child’s emotional well-being.

Adults who experience emotional neglect as children often struggle with low self-esteem, relationship difficulties, and impaired emotional regulation. They may experience a sense of emptiness, fear of emotional intimacy, social isolation, and unworthiness, leading to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or trauma-related disorders.

Healing from emotional neglect often involves therapy, self-awareness, and healthier coping mechanisms. Recognizing and addressing the long-lasting impact of childhood emotional neglect is crucial for adults seeking emotionally fulfilling lives.

Examples of emotional neglect may include:
  • Lack of emotional support during difficult times or illness
  • Withholding or not showing affection, even when requested
  • Exposure to domestic violence and other types of abuse
  • Disregard for a child’s mental well-being
  • Lack of intervention on the child’s behalf (e.g., allowing behavioral problems to go unaddressed)
  • Social isolation
  • Being emotionally unavailable or absent
  • Ignoring a child
  • Pushing a child past their mental and physical abilities
The significance of emotional needs in childhood

Emotional needs require positive interactions. Prioritizing children’s emotional needs is crucial due to the developmental stages and potential long-term and immediate consequences of emotional neglect.

Understanding children’s emotional needs can foster mature, communicative relationships. Parents, teachers, and caregivers must comprehend the reasons behind childhood neglect and provide support to help them overcome it. Adults who listen, validate feelings, set expectations, and offer guidance on developmental challenges are essential for fostering positive relationships and promoting overall well-being. Understanding these needs is vital for fostering positive interactions and providing overall well-being.

Types of childhood emotional neglect

1. Passive emotional neglect

Passive emotional neglect is a form of neglect that occurs when a child’s emotional needs are consistently unmet due to inaction or indifference from caregivers or significant others. Passive emotional neglect arises from a lack of attention, care, and responsiveness. In this neglectful environment, children often feel invisible, undervalued, and unworthy of love and support. It can have profound and long-lasting effects on one’s emotional well-being, self-esteem, and overall mental health. The absence of emotional nurturing can result in feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and even depression.

Children raised in such neglectful households may struggle to develop healthy relationships, have difficulty expressing their emotions, and may grow up with low self-esteem. They may also be at a higher risk for various mental health issues, including anxiety and mood disorders.

2. Active emotional neglect

Active emotional neglect is a damaging form of emotional abuse that occurs when caregivers consistently fail to provide the emotional support and responsiveness that a child needs for healthy psychological development. Unlike passive emotional neglect, which results from a lack of awareness or capacity, active emotional neglect is intentional and deliberate. It involves purposefully withholding affection, attention, and validation, often as a form of control or manipulation.

Active emotional neglect can take many forms, such as constant criticism, verbal abuse, or consistently dismissing a person’s feelings and needs. This intentional neglect can lead to profound emotional and psychological consequences, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. Victims of active emotional neglect may struggle with feelings of worthlessness and a pervasive sense of emptiness.

Prevalence and risk factors of childhood emotional neglect in adult life:

People who were emotionally neglected as children grow up to be adults who must deal with the consequences. Because their emotional needs weren’t validated as children, they may not know how to deal with their emotions when they occur.

The most common effects of childhood neglect in adulthood include:
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder
    • Depression
    • Emotional unavailability
    • Increasing likelihood of an eating disorder
    • Shunning intimacy
    • Feeling deeply, personally flawed
    • Feeling empty
    • Poor self-discipline
    • Guilt and shame
    • Anger and aggressive behaviors
    • Difficulty trusting others or relying upon anyone else

    Childhood emotional neglect can lead to adult neglect of their children, as they may not understand the importance of their own emotions. Unresolved trauma from childhood can trigger emotional needs in adults, especially if they have experienced neglect or abuse. Witnessing children demanding needs they didn’t meet can activate old memories, making the behavior unacceptable. Therefore, it’s crucial for adults to learn to nurture their emotions.

    Being uncomfortable with emotions may encourage neglectful behaviors like:
    • Invalidating children’s pain or emotional expression
    • Using distractions to stifle or avoid emotional expression
    • Allowing children to spend an abundance of time on electronics to “stay quiet”
    • Avoiding eye contact with a child because you’re on your phone

    These common behaviors can cause a lack of emotional connection with a child, leading them to seek external comfort and internalize emotions.


    Recognizing and addressing childhood emotional neglect is crucial for adults seeking emotionally fulfilling lives. To heal from this, individuals should seek professional therapy, build support networks, and learn healthier ways to express and receive emotional support.

    Effective treatment and understanding of one’s own experiences can help people of all ages overcome the impact of emotional neglect and prevent future complications.

    Ms. Tuba Syed Abdul Qadeer
    Assistant Psychologist @Islaah