Childhood Emotional Neglect

childhood messages cycle breaker emotional awareness generational trauma inner child healing
emotional child alone on stairs

The word neglect immediately stirs up images of a child left for days on end to fend for herself without the support of a loving, present caregiver. But in truth, childhood emotional neglect can happen to even the most present parents. You could hold fond memories of your childhood and still have suffered from childhood emotional neglect.

Read on to learn why.

“Go to your room and don’t come out until you’ve calmed down!”

Raise your hand if you heard this growing up.


It’s almost like a rite of passage – I don’t have very many friends who can say they didn’t hear that phrase when they were growing up.

This phrase – or something similar – is a sign of childhood emotional neglect.

What is childhood emotional neglect?

Childhood emotional neglect, first coined by Dr. Jonice Webb, is when a parent doesn't or is unable to support their children through their big emotions. It is when a parent doesn’t respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

The word neglect immediately stirs up images of a child left for days on end to fend for herself without the support of a loving, present caregiver. But in truth, childhood emotional neglect can happen with even the most present parents.

Of course, that is not to say that childhood emotional neglect is not a traumatic experience. There are many instances that childhood emotional neglect can be considered emotional abuse. To be clear, what I am referring to today is the emotional neglect that was born out of not understanding child development and emotional needs.

You could hold many fond memories of your childhood and still have suffered from childhood emotional neglect.

Picture being a young kid with a younger sibling. You get the most coveted toy of your time for your birthday. You are just over the moon with excitement over it – you bring it everywhere with you. One day, you and your younger sibling are in the backseat of the car driving somewhere. You are playing quietly with your new toy and your younger sibling grabs it from your hands. A fight ensues.

Your parents give a few warnings, maybe even a few threats – “If I have to pull this car over …”

But your younger sibling won’t give the toy back, and you are just aching to have it back in your hands before they break it.

The fight continues, and your dad reaches into the backseat, grabs the toy and throws it out the window on the highway.

You are devastated. Completely gutted.

You start crying and your dad shouts, “Are you crying about a toy?! If you want something to cry about, I’ll give you something to cry about!"

Sensing his growing anger, you stifle your tears and swallow the giant lump in your throat. You are heartbroken, angry, confused, and really upset.

But who is there to help you with that?

Your mom is quiet, and your dad is seething.

Your younger sibling sticks out their tongue at you, and all that’s left for you to do is swallow everything you’re feeling and try to forget it ever happened.

And maybe you do forget. But your body doesn’t.

How does childhood emotional neglect affect me as an adult?

Subconsciously, you learned in that moment that when you express that level of emotion, your connection with your caregivers is threatened. That what your body is feeling is somehow wrong, and so your subconscious will spend the rest of your life trying to avoid feeling that feeling.

The painful memory of having your favorite toy tossed out the window and the lack of emotional support from your parents was stored in your inner child, along with any other emotion that was left unprocessed.

As a child, you were completely reliant upon your caregivers for survival – food, shelter, clothing, and connection. Your subconscious picked up on the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cues that your connection with your caregiver was threatened.

What followed was the subconscious attempt to control and minimize any emotion that threatened your attachment with your caregiver. And as a result, you detached from your own emotional awareness.

When you are born, you intuitively know and trust how you are feeling. Think of a toddler who doesn’t like something – they don’t have any problem saying “no” or refusing to eat or do something they don’t want to do.

But as we pick up cues from our caregivers around what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, we start to ignore what our body is telling us. We become detached from the intuitive nature we were born with.

This results in adults who are out of touch with their emotions.

What are the signs of childhood emotional neglect?

If you are a child of emotional neglect, you likely heard things like:

💔 Go to your room until you calm down

💔 If you want something to cry about, I'll give you something

💔 Big girls/boys don't cry

💔 You’re fine. Stop crying.

💔 Suck it up

💔 Stop being so dramatic

💔 You should be grateful

Note: Maybe as a parent, you even find yourself saying these things. If so, this is not license to shame yourself. That is not why we are here.

I believe that parents do the best that they can with the resources they have available. And that includes you, too.

Someone who has experienced childhood emotional neglect will likely have some of the following signs:

💔 Out of touch with their emotions

💔 Primarily emotion shown is anger

💔 Unable to express their likes/dislikes, or speak up for themselves

💔 People pleasing tendencies

💔 Difficulty understanding others emotions

💔 Fear of emotions – yours and others

💔 Unable to trust or rely on others

💔 Lack self-discipline

💔 Addictive behaviors

And as I discussed on the podcast Emotional Abuse is Real, having experienced childhood emotional neglect can make you more susceptible to abusive relationships. This happens because you are so out of touch with your own emotions that you don’t trust how you are feeling, thus you are easily gaslit into thinking that how you are feeling is wrong.

Who experienced childhood emotional neglect?

If you are a child of the 70's or 80's - maybe even 90's and early 00's - you likely experienced childhood emotional neglect.


Because there was not an emphasis on emotional well-being and awareness when we were kids. Because our parents did not have the resources to question how they were parenting or to seek out alternative ways.

Our parents parented the way they were parented.

And ultimately, what that meant was that when you experienced a big emotion, it was likely shut down. They didn't know how to handle it - your parents were/are likely so out of touch with their own emotions, that when you experienced a big emotion, their natural instinct was to make it stop.

If you did not have a parent who was attuned to your emotional needs as a child, you disconnected from your emotional awareness for survival.

How does childhood emotional neglect affect me as a parent?

If you are out of touch with your emotions, you are likely triggered when your child has big emotions. This is because your protector part remembers what happened when you were younger and expressed those emotions. The protector is stepping in to shut down the big emotion before someone gets into trouble. It does this because it doesn’t realize that you are now the adult – you call the shots.

So even if you are trying to gentle parent by validating your child’s emotions and sitting with them through their emotional storm, your protector part is screaming for it to stop.

In this case, you might find yourself wanting to make your child move through the emotions faster, mainly because your body is uncomfortable.

In addition, you can’t teach what you don’t know, and so without your own emotional awareness, you will be unable to fully support your child to develop their own. If you are unable to process and allow your own emotions to move through your body without stuffing them down, you will unwittingly teach the same strategies to your child.

You might find yourself minimizing their distress, saying things like “You’re okay, sweetie.” Which feels like it would be comforting, but essentially, you are telling your child how they feel, and if they don’t feel okay, they will start to question their own emotional awareness.

In short, if you experienced childhood emotional neglect, you are more likely to invalidate your own child’s emotional experiences simply because you are parenting the way you were parented – not because you are a horrible parent!

How do I heal from childhood emotional neglect?

As with all of the work I do with my clients, the first step is always awareness. When you are having a big emotional reaction to something, tune into your body. Your body will always tell you how you feel.

Ask yourself the following:

❓ Where do I feel the emotion in my body?

❓ What does it feel like? Is it heavy? Light? Tight? Stabbing? Throbbing?

❓ What sensations do I feel? Tingling in my hands? Clenching my teeth? Shortness of breath? Racing heart?

Then name the emotion. Simply putting a name to the emotion will help you to better recognize it again in the future the next time it comes up.

Allow yourself to sit in the emotion. In today’s society, we are so quick to rush through the emotion by numbing out with alcohol, food, social media, or any other distraction. But here’s the thing: when you sit with an emotion, it will naturally subside in about 90 seconds. Allow yourself to feel it. Let it run its course through your body while you take deep breaths and just stay with it.

You can stay with it by simply noting what is happening for you in the moment. That might look like this:

“My chest is tight and I am clenching my jaw and fists. (Deep breath) I feel a heavy, dark heat in my chest (put hand on chest as you say this. Take a deep breath.). My heart is racing and I want to scream. (Deep breath). I am angry. The heavy, dark heat is moving through my arms and legs. (Deep breath). My hands are shaking. (Deep breath with an audible “uhhhhhhhh” on the exhale). I am feeling the energy move from me. (Shake your limbs while sighing loudly)”

All of that takes less than 90 seconds, but it allows the emotion to fully move through your body and for you to complete a stress cycle. Rather than storing the unprocessed emotion in your body, you successfully moved it through you, and now, on the other side, you are able to think more clearly and can take appropriate action without being activated.

Your goal as an adult is to reconnect your mind with your body. By re-establishing that connection, you will redevelop the innate knowing of how you feel and rediscover your intuition. They call it a gut reaction for a reason – your body always knows.

If you would like more support understanding your inner child so you can break the cycle of childhood emotional neglect, join the waitlist for our new Healing Parent Membership - your village for support, healing, and transformation.

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