How Childhood Emotional Neglect Influences Adult Attachment Styles
Were you abused in childhood and don’t even know it? Most of us are aware of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and even verbal abuse. But the most “neglected” type of abuse is emotional neglect. It is defined as a relationship pattern in which a child’s emotional needs are consistently ignored, dismissed, invalidated, or put down by a caregiver.
Here are some questions to help discern if you have experienced childhood emotional neglect.
- Growing up, when you were upset (e.g., sad, hurt, scared), your caregivers didn’t acknowledge your feelings (e.g., ask if you are okay) nor attend to your needs (e.g., give you a hug). It’s like they didn’t notice there was anything wrong.
- When you showed vulnerability (e.g., cried), your caregivers said things like, “stop crying”, “toughen up”, “don’t be such a baby”, “what’s wrong with you”, “bad boy/girl”, “I’ll give you something to cry about”, or “stop being so weak”.
- When you expressed your concerns to your caregiver (e.g., “I don’t like it when you yell at me/make fun of me”), you were shamed (e.g., “you’re too sensitive”, “you take things to personally”) or made to feel like it was your fault, or you deserved it.
- You were exposed to domestic violence or other types of abuse.
- Growing up, you were often left at home alone or with siblings only.
- When you were quiet and withdrawn, your caregivers didn’t notice.
- When you were going through a difficult time or illness, your caregivers didn’t provide emotional support.
- Even when you asked for emotional support, you were rejected.
- When you didn’t want to do something (e.g., it was past your emotional or physical capacity), you were pushed to do it anyway.
If you said yes to any of the above, you may be a victim of childhood emotional neglect and don’t even know it. Unfortunately, the impact of emotional neglect negatively influences your adult attachment style, especially in romantic relationships. Here are some common consequences:
- Holding things in, dealing with hardships yourself, and not relying on your partner.
- Lack of self-confidence.
- Getting easily irritated or annoyed by your partner.
- Seeing your partner’s needs as too much, too demanding, or too needy.
- Difficulties getting close to your partner and really connecting deeply.
- Numbing out feelings.
Because you never learned or experienced emotional intimacy growing up, or you were outright dismissed for having feelings, you struggle with attuning to and regulating them today. The natural fallout is the difficulty with understanding your partner and knowing how to meet their emotional needs, which often causes them to become angry and feel abandoned in the relationship.
The relationship eventually falls apart, and you don’t know what you’ve done wrong. Or perhaps you think it’s your partner’s fault, that they’re too critical and they complain too much (i.e., they’re too much, too demanding, and too needy).
If this sounds like you, here’s what you can do to change the pattern:
- If your partner gets upset with you and you feel flooded with emotions, instead of shutting them down, take a deep breath, slow down, and stay present.
- Lean into the conversation instead of avoiding your partner, by validating their feelings (e.g., paraphrase what they said so they feel heard and understood).
- Ask your partner if there’s anything else you’re missing from what they’ve shared?
- Ask your partner what you can do right now to make them feel better.
- Follow through with their request.
By practicing this every time, you will sever the cycle of emotional neglect. Basically, you are doing the opposite of what your caregivers did to you. Over time, you will feel more comfortable with your emotions and your partner’s. Moreover, you will save your relationship and not perpetuate this abuse into the next generation.
Be kind to yourself and know that you are a victim too, which means it’s not your fault. You’ve simply learned to cope this way.
But as an adult, you now have a choice. Instead of unconsciously harming yourself and others who you love and perpetuating this harm done to you, be courageous and do the right (but harder) thing. Work on your past attachment wounds in your current relationship, so you can create a healthier and happier future.