Understanding Childhood Emotional Neglect

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated August 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Children are extremely fragile during their early years, not in the physical sense, but in the emotional sense. They require specific care, love, support and nurturing to grow up healthy and happy. 

The way that they are treated during this period of their lives is going to affect them in different ways and childhood emotional neglect is one that can greatly increase their struggle in life. The problem is, not all parents even realize that they are emotionally neglecting their children.

We Sometimes Forget To Take Time For Our Mental Wellbeing

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

When a parent emotionally neglects their child, they are failing to respond to their child's feelings in some way. It may be intentional or unintentional, it may be a failure to notice that their child needs them or completely ignoring what their child needs, or it could be responding inappropriately to those needs. Because children can be so emotionally fragile, an incorrect response to their actions or words can be extremely hazardous to their wellbeing and could cause trauma that the parent and the child have no idea how to combat.

The important thing to note is that not all parents who emotionally neglect their child are doing so intentionally. We've probably all heard someone in an older generation talk about how letting children struggle along on their own 'builds character' or that they need to 'man up.' But as we're now learning, leaving a child to fend for themselves can stunt their emotional growth.

Yes, children need to learn how to take care of themselves, how to solve problems and how to overcome setbacks, but to do any of those things, they first need to develop an understanding of support, love, and affection from their parent or caregiver.

Helping Your Child

Children who are emotionally neglected may get their basic needs met, such as feeding or changing, but not be attended to when they need affection, love, and support. They may cry in these instances. They can't explain what's wrong because they don't have the skills even to understand it let along to explain it to someone else. They rely on you to take care of the problem and solve it for them.

It's important to consider what your child needs and when. Providing them with support, love, and acceptance, even when they do something wrong, is important. A small child may struggle to understand that love and affection are not based on good behavior if you do not show them. If you make sure to provide the emotional support that your child needs, they may more easily come to understand that even when they misbehave their caregiver is still there for them and still loves them. This helps in developing a healthy relationship between each of you.

Trusting Themselves

As they grow older, it is normal to place more emphasis on self-reliance and self-soothing, but these will only work if the child still knows that they have a background of support and encouragement there for them. Their emotions need to be validated, and they need to know that they can trust those thoughts and emotions. They need to know that if they are scared, they are not alone and that if they are sad, they have someone there to support them. These things develop through a strong emotional background with their caregiver.

What Happens Without Support?

If a child does not receive the emotional support that they need, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions as they get older. They may not understand their feelings or know how to express them or may even be scared to show their emotions. They may not recognize different emotions in others and tend to mistrust those around them. They may have difficulty relying on anyone, which can affect them greatly when it comes to their future and other relationships. They may feel like they are empty or disconnected from themselves as well as those around them.

As they become older, these struggles will only intensify. Because they withhold feelings and emotions, they may be distant from those who they seek to have relationships with. As a result, they may sabotage the relationship themselves but when the relationship does not succeed, they use it as fuel to say that they should never have trusted someone in the first place. It becomes an even stronger sign that they should hold back, which in turn sabotages even more relationships. It can happen not only in romantic relationships but friendships as well, making it difficult for them to relate to others.

We Sometimes Forget To Take Time For Our Mental Wellbeing

Getting The Help You Need

For any child that has gone through this type of childhood or even an adult that has gone through this type of childhood, it is important to seek professional help. A therapist can help you better understand what you experienced and start to find healthy ways to relate to others even now. Therapists can also help parents understand the effects of their actions on their children and work to prevent emotional neglect at the source.

Getting professional help from BetterHelp is simple and easy. All you need to do is check online, and you'll be able to find some mental health professionals throughout the country that you can communicate with. You'll also be able to set up your appointments online and keep them that way, via phone, chat, or video call.

Online therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy for a range of conditions that can spawn from emotional neglect including depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. This means you do not have to compromise effectiveness for convenience.


Raising a child is challenging, but meeting their needs on both a physical and emotional level is absolutely necessary to ensure that your child grows up healthy and happy. If you feel like you have experienced childhood emotional neglect, or you would like to ensure you are not neglecting your child’s needs, a therapist can offer the support you need.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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