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Childhood Emotional Neglect: How It Can Impact You Now and Later

What is CEN?

CEN occurs when a child’s parent or parents fail to respond adequately to their child’s emotional needs. Emotional neglect is not necessarily childhood emotional abuse. Abuse is often intentional; it’s a purposeful choice to act in a way that is harmful. While emotional neglect can be an intentional disregard for a child’s feelings, it can also be failure to act or notice a child’s emotional needs. Parents who emotionally neglect their children may still provide care and necessities. They just miss out on or mishandle this one key area of support.

One example of emotional neglect is a child who tells their parent they’re sad about a friend at school. The parent brushes it off as a childhood game instead of listening and helping the child cope. Over time, the child begins to learn that their emotional needs are not important. They stop seeking support.

The effects of CEN can be quite subtle. It may be hard for parents to know they’re doing it. Likewise, it may be difficult for caregivers, such as doctors or teachers, to recognize the subtle signs. Severe cases are easier to detect and may draw the greatest amount of attention. Less severe ones may be overlooked.

Understanding the symptoms of CEN can be important to getting the child and parents help.


What can cause CEN?

As with the causes of child abuse, the causes of neglect are multifaceted and often difficult to understand. Most parents try to be the best parents they can be and don’t mean to neglect their child’s emotions.

Adults who neglect their children may be experiencing:

Neglectful parents frequently come from families where they were neglected as a child. As a result, they may not have the parenting skills necessary to fulfill their child’s emotional needs.

In some cases, parents who emotionally neglect their child are emotionally neglected themselves. Caregivers who do not have strong, emotionally satisfying relationships with adults in their own lives may not be able to respond appropriately to their child.

Likewise, anger and resentment can bubble up in a parent and lead them to ignore their child’s pleas and questions.


How is CEN diagnosed?

There is no test that can detect CEN. Instead, a diagnosis may be made after symptoms are discovered and other issues are ruled out.

A doctor, for example, may notice a child’s failure to thrive or their lack of emotional response during an appointment. As part of caring for the child, they may also notice the parents’ lack of interest in their child’s health and well-being. This may help them connect the dots between the visible symptoms and the invisible neglect.

Adults who experienced CEN may eventually learn what’s causing their complications, too. A therapist or mental health expert can help you examine the events of your childhood and the consequences you’re facing today to understand the likely issues.


How does emotional neglect affect children?

Symptoms of CEN can range from subtle to obvious. Much of the damage from emotional neglect is silent at first. Over time, however, the effects may begin to appear.

The most common symptoms of CEN include:


How does CEN affect adults?

People who are 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 CEN in adulthood include:

Adults who experienced childhood emotional neglect may also become parents who neglect their children emotionally. Never having learned the importance of their own emotions, they may not know how to nurture emotions in their children.

Effective treatment and understanding their own experiences of neglect can help people of all ages overcome the effects of emotional neglect in the short-term and prevent future complications as well.


What is the treatment for CEN?

Treatment for CEN is likely the same whether it’s experienced as a child or faced as an adult who was neglected as a child. These treatment options include:


A psychologist or therapist can help a child learn to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. If a child is used to suppressing their emotions, it may be difficult to recognize and experience emotions in a healthy way.

Likewise, for adults, years of suppressing emotions can lead to difficulties expressing them. Therapists and mental health professionals can help both children and adults learn to identify, accept, and express their emotions in a healthful manner.

Family therapy

If a child is being emotionally neglected at home, family therapy can help both the parents and the child. A therapist can help parents understand the impact they’re having. They can also help a child learn to cope with the issues they may already face. Early intervention may be able to both modify and correct the behaviors that lead to neglect and the consequences that can arise.

Parenting classes

Parents who neglect their child’s emotional needs could benefit from parenting classes. These courses help parents and caregivers learn the skills necessary to recognize, listen to, and respond to a child’s emotions.


The takeaway

CEN can damage a child’s self-esteem and emotional health. It teaches them their feelings are not important. The consequences of this neglect can be deep and last a lifetime.

Treatment for CEN can help children who were neglected overcome the feelings of emptiness and inability to handle their emotions. Likewise, parents can learn to better relate to their children and prevent the cycle from happening again.




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