Understanding Childhood Emotional Neglect

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Children are extremely fragile during their early years, not in the physical sense, but in the emotional sense. Parents have to provide specific care, love, support and nurturing during their child’s development for them 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 become an adverse childhood experience that may greatly increase their struggle in life. The problem is, not all parents even realize that they are emotionally neglecting their children.

This article explores the potential impact of physical and emotional neglect on children, how to approach negative emotions associated with child neglect, and options to improve emotional control. 

We sometimes forget to take time for our mental well-being

Understanding children who experienced 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 emotional neglect, 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 have mental health consequences and may 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, how to overcome setbacks, and how to navigate life’s challenges. But to do any of those things, they first need to develop an emotional connection and an understanding of support, love, and affection from their parent or caregiver.

According to a study known as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Birth Cohort – also known as the ECLS-B or the Longitudinal Birth Cohort – the effects of childhood emotional maltreatment are significant. They may lead to mental health issues including depressive symptoms, difficulty identifying emotions, emotional dysregulation, and other challenges that impact psychological well-being. 

The same is true for children who experience physical neglect, which can lead to emotional distress in children and young adults — this may look like a lack of physical affection, which may lead to self-blame, insecure attachment styles, physically distant behavior, and emotionally distant tendencies later in life. This could interfere with developing healthy relationships in the future. 

Helping your child

Parents who are emotionally unavailable may provide their children with basic needs, such as feeding or changing, but not be attended to when they need affection, love, and support. They may have emotional outbursts, such as crying in these instances. They can't explain what's wrong because they don't have the self-awareness 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 when a child is raised with emotionally-neglectful parents without support?

If a child does not receive the emotional support that they need, they may have difficulty managing 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 experience adolescent depression and feel as though 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 well-being

Getting the help you need

For any child who has gone through this type of childhood or even an adult who 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, offering ways to find peer social support and address ongoing mental health challenges. 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 can be simple and convenient, as it allows you to connect with a licensed therapist based on your unique needs from wherever you have an internet connection. You'll 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 stem 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 support.
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