The Complexity of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Adulthood

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When you think about your emotions as a child, what do you recall? Can you remember being able to express yourself freely, with your parents or guardians encouraging you to do so? When you did share your feelings, did you feel listened to and taken seriously? Or did you feel unimportant, like no one cared about your thoughts and feelings? If it’s the latter, your experience may be indicative of childhood emotional neglect. Of course, we all may feel misunderstood from time to time, but a pattern of feeling belittled and a lack of healthy models for knowing how to deal with emotions can create lasting effects, potentially leading to a later diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are harmful behaviors that parents or guardians inflict upon or toward a child. Emotional neglect, however, is the absence of helpful behaviors. It’s the absence of required nurturing, caring, connecting, and responding from an attuned caregiver. This absence essentially teaches children their emotions are wrong and unimportant when their parental figure constantly ignores, dismisses, or demeans their feelings. The experience of emotional neglect in childhood can be so overwhelming it impairs a child’s developing emotional system and contributes to the development of C-PTSD symptoms later in life.

How Emotional Neglect Impacts Children

According to attachment theory, we learn to interact with our world through our relationships with our early primary caretakers. These connections and bonds shape how we see the world and relate to others. However, children who experience childhood emotional neglect may struggle to form healthy relationships. As a result, children may:

  • Learn their emotions aren’t okay
  • Learn to shut down
  • Lash out to be noticed or heard
  • Struggle to connect with peers
  • Experience headaches, stomachaches, and other distress-induced somatic complaints

How can you tell if you’ve been emotionally neglected?Man looking at a window

Individuals emotionally neglected in childhood may struggle with forming emotional connections. They may feel misunderstood, disconnected, and untrusting. Some signs of emotional neglect in adulthood include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Guilt or shame regarding emotions
  • An inability to ask for or accept others’ help and support
  • Difficulty regulating and describing feelings 
  • Dissociative tendencies
  • Heightened sensitivity to the potential for rejection

What does it mean if I’m emotionally neglected?

When you’ve experienced childhood emotional neglect, it means that your parents weren’t meeting your emotional needs.  Some parents may do this deliberately. However, in many cases, childhood emotional neglect is unintentional. Parents may neglect their children’s emotional needs

 because they work long hours, live with an illness or addiction, are working through a divorce, or have other personal challenges. Now, as an adult, it is likely that you have a difficult relationship with your parents or have built up some resentments towards them.
Neglect from primary caretakers in childhood has lasting effects as caretaker-child bonds and interactions are often at the crux of our core beliefs about life and relationships. It can be traumatic when these bonds are undervalued and disrespected. A lack of emotional safety during childhood can negatively shape how you connect emotionally in adulthood. It can also contribute to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Healing from C-PTSD is a process that requires intimate digging and honesty. It demands a commitment to confront uncomfortable memories and emotions. Individual and family therapists at New Perspective Counseling can help you find healthy ways to approach this process and guide and support you.

Living With Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

Childhood emotional neglect is a traumatic event. Such trauma can impair the parts of the brain responsible for regulating memory and the ability to withstand stress. As a result of long-term trauma, your brain may struggle to respond appropriately to stressors. It may lack the resilience to maintain optimism, motivation, and perseverance. In addition to brain changes, this series of small traumas at an early age can contribute to C-PTSD. Complex PTSD can be characterized by many of the same symptoms as PTSD with the added challenges in emotional regulation. 

Individuals who struggle with C-PTSD may experience flashbacks and anxiety. They may avoid places and people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. In addition to the typical symptoms, individuals with C-PTSD may struggle to recognize their emotions. As a result, they can’t healthily connect with others and form and maintain relationships. Detachment from their emotions can ultimately make these individuals feel like they have no control over their moods and behaviors.

man sitting on a grey couch

Coping With the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect as an Adult

Becoming an adult doesn’t mean outgrowing the effects of childhood emotional neglect. The pain and trauma still impact you in adulthood because some hurts run very deep. And it’s not your fault that they do. It’s not your fault and nothing to be ashamed of if you still struggle with the fallout of emotional neglect.

Finding peace following emotional neglect can take a lot of hard work. You deserve to take as much time as you need to heal, but consider doing so with a mental health professional’s help, guidance, and support. At New Perspective Counseling, compassionate experts help you:

  • Get in touch with your emotions. Growing up with parents that lack the emotional connection you need can make it difficult for you to recognize and manage your emotions. By learning to identify and confront your feelings, you can begin dealing with them effectively and attaining the peace and healing you deserve.
  • Honestly express your needs. Recovering from childhood emotional neglect and C-PTSD requires you to be honest about your emotions and needs. Analyze your needs in your relationships, family, career, and more. In solitude, take your emotional temperature and complete a needs inventory. Consider where you are at present and where you want to be. Then, brainstorm what you require to obtain your needs. Mindful journaling in a safe, secure space can help you start and finish this part of the recovery process.
  • Exercise self-compassion. Confronting and working through your pain can be a daunting task. It can make you relive discomfort you’ve tried to ignore. For this reason, you must be patient with and respectful of yourself. You deserve self-compassion. You deserve to take the time to embrace your suffering, mistakes, and faults as much as you celebrate successes, triumphs, and joys. Dig deep and become more mindful of how you interact with and react to your internal self.

You don’t have to try to quickly heal from the consequences of childhood emotional neglect and C-PTSD alone. Contact us at New Perspective Counseling today to begin the process of healing and growing in a safe, supportive, judgment-free space. Here, you can take as much time as you need to learn healthy, positive ways to think of yourself and meet your needs, promoting resilience and wellness in the long run.


Canterberry, Melanie & Gillath, Omri. (2012). Attachment and Caregiving. The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Couples and Family Relationships. 207-219. 10.1002/9781444354119.ch14. 

Giourou E, Skokou M, Andrew SP, Alexopoulou K, Gourzis P, Jelastopulu E. Complex posttraumatic stress disorder: The need to consolidate a distinct clinical syndrome or to reevaluate features of psychiatric disorders following interpersonal trauma? World J Psychiatry. 2018 Mar 22;8(1):12-19. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v8.i1.12. PMID: 29568727; PMCID: PMC5862650.