The Impacts Of Parental Emotional Neglect

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 3, 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.

Neglect is a form of abuse that can occur when a caregiver fails to meet a child's needs. Emotional neglect involves failing to meet a child's love, belonging, and recognition needs. This form of abuse may sometimes be overlooked but can have significant adverse impacts on children that last into adulthood. Understanding these impacts is one way to prevent child abuse and find support if you or someone you love has been impacted.
Parental emotional neglect can take a heavy toll

What is emotional neglect? 

In a relationship between a parent or caregiver and their child, emotional neglect is defined as "emotional unresponsiveness, unavailability and neglect characterized by lack of interaction between parent and child" or a parent's failure to respond to the emotional needs of their children appropriately. 

As children grow, develop, and mature, they require parental support, love, and guidance. The quality of care they receive as they grow up and gradually mature into adults can significantly impact their quality of life. 

Effects of parental emotional neglect

Below are some of the impacts of parental emotional neglect on children and adult survivors of childhood abuse. 

Low self-esteem

When parents are unable to provide their offspring with love, care, and attention, a child forms beliefs about themselves, such as the following: 

  • "It is my fault."
  • "I am unlovable." 
  • "I don't deserve love." 
  • "My parent loves other people more than me." 
  • "I am a bad person." 

They might wonder why their parents chose not to spend time with them, pay attention to them, or express their affection in other healthy ways. These beliefs are ways for the child to rationalize why their parent is not offering love, and the beliefs can carry into adulthood. 

Low self-worth and self-esteem can impact children in their schooling and personal relationships. Adults whose parents did not meet their emotional needs as children may also seek love from others in unhealthy ways. They may not set boundaries or recognize red flags because they desire to be cared for. Someone who doesn't believe they are worthy of love may attract toxic friends or emotionally unavailable romantic partners.


Some studies indicate that emotionally neglectful parenting can lead to the development of grandiose narcissism. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder clinically defined as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood." People with NPD or narcissistic traits may present a confident, assertive, and self-assured façade. However, underneath these traits, they may live with low self-esteem. 

Individuals with narcissistic traits often exhibit arrogant demeanors, a lack of care for others, and delusions of grandeur centering around their power, prestige, and prominence. These people may also view others as inferior with extreme contempt while seeking the praise and admiration of those they believe to be powerful, popular, or at the top of the social ladder.

Some people may wonder why narcissism and emotional coldness would manifest in someone who experienced parental emotional neglect. Emotionally neglectful parenting sometimes causes children to overcompensate. Rather than seek out love or attention, these individuals conceal their pain and project a starkly opposite image. Instead of looking at the internal wounds, they try to externalize the pain onto others. 


People who have experienced parental emotional neglect may believe they are isolated, invisible, or otherwise disconnected from people and events around them. Numbness is often accompanied by a lack of concern for matters viewed as essential and a lack of positive emotions, such as happiness and hope. Emotional numbness can also make thinking and communicating with others more challenging.

Numbness can make personal relationships challenging and stifle one's motivation to partake in healthy, meaningful activities, such as going to work, spending time with loved ones, or leaving one's house to spend time in nature. 

Abuse can cause numbness due to a symptom called dissociation, which often occurs in trauma disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dissociation causes numbness, difficulty connecting with one's environment, and a sense of being "outside of one's body." 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.


Parental emotional neglect may cause confusion. As children grow and mature, learning to identify, understand, and healthily cope with their emotions can be a critical interpersonal skill. However, when parents are emotionally absent and leave their offspring to fend for themselves, children may not understand why certain circumstances cause certain emotions. In addition, they may not understand their emotions at all. Emotional confusion can lead to additional short-term and long-term challenges. 

Children who experience emotionally absent parents may blame themselves or wonder what they did wrong to deserve a lack of love. They may not know that their parents are responsible for their emotional well-being, not them. This symptom may worsen if they witness other children experiencing loving, healthy, and caring relationships with their parents and families. If left unchecked, internal confusion can cause resentment, low self-esteem, narcissism, attention-seeking behavior, or mental illness. 


Individuals focused on perfectionism are often ruled by their internal desires to be perfect in all aspects of life. While some may perceive perfectionism as a form of heightened ambition, it is linked to depression, eating disorders, and anxiety.

When children lack parental emotional care and attention, they may experience the compulsion to prove their self-worth to the world in the hopes that they will be liked and noticed. Due to the emotional neglect experienced during their childhood, the drive to exhibit perfection is often a means of compensation or an attempt to gain what one craves from their caregivers.
Parental emotional neglect can take a heavy toll

Support options 

If you experienced parental emotional neglect and see signs as an adult, a therapist may be a supportive option. Whether you're living with low self-esteem, narcissistic traits, confusion, or emotional numbness, a therapist can help you identify ways to move forward healthily. 

Some survivors of abuse may struggle to trust face-to-face therapy. In these cases, online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp may be an alternative. You can participate from anywhere you have an internet connection through an online platform. Some people participating in online therapy report that opening up from behind the safety of a computer screen can be more reachable. In addition, online platforms allow you to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Multiple studies show that online therapy is effective. One review showed that online therapy resulted in a 50% reduction in symptoms for people with depression, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 


Parental emotional neglect can have long-term effects, and you may not be aware of how deeply what you experienced as a child may affect you as an adult. To learn more about how parental emotional neglect is affecting you, reach out to connect with a therapist online or in your area. You're not alone, and support is available.
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