NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

The concept of "emotional neglect" is often mentioned in psychotherapy journals, newspapers, popular magazines, movies, TV programs and social media.  But there is often confusion about what this term means.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

When it comes to children's emotional needs, I think it's important to define "emotional neglect" in terms of unmet childhood needs.

Defining this concept is important to many adults, including psychotherapy clients and potential psychotherapy clients, who are confused and unsure as to whether they were affected by emotional neglect when they were children.

Defining emotional neglect is important for parents and parents-to-be, who might feel anxious about parenting their children and trying to create a balance between limit setting and overindulgence.

Teachers, day care workers, child protective workers, child therapists, health care workers, clergy and other people who come in contact with children often suspect that certain children might be suffering due to emotional neglect at home, so understanding this concept is important to them as well.

"Good Enough" Parenting vs Perfection
First of all, no childhood is perfect.  No parent can be perfectly attuned to his or her child 100% of the time.  It's not humanly possible.  There will be times in any childhood when a child's needs go unmet for a variety of reasons.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect: "Good Enough" Parenting vs Perfection

When we refer to emotional neglect, we're referring to a pattern of behavior where a child's emotional needs were unmet more often than they were met.

The British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott referred to this as parenting that was "good enough," where the parent created an emotionally nurturing home environment that he referred to as "a holding environment" most of the time (see my article: The Creation of a Holding Environment in Psychotherapy).

Of course, every child will be different in terms of his or her emotional needs, as most parents who have more than one child can tell you.

Resilience in the Context of a Nurturing Family Environment
The reason why most of us can sustain instances of parental lapses in emotional attunement is that most of us have a certain amount of resilience.  We can withstand certain lapses in emotional attunement as long as the parenting is "good enough" most of the time.

Resilience in the Context of a Nurturing Family Environment                              

So, if, for example, a parent, who is normally nurturing and attuned to his or her child's needs is distracted and doesn't notice on a particular occasion that a child is sad or angry and doesn't ask the child about it, this usually doesn't result in irreparable harm.

But if there are too many instances where a parent doesn't notice and doesn't attend to a child's emotional needs, this can be emotionally damaging to the child and often has long lasting traumatic effects into adulthood if the adult doesn't get professional help.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is Often Invisible and Goes Unnoticed
Unlike physical abuse where there are often physical bruises or other signs that are obvious, childhood emotional neglect is often invisible and goes unnoticed.

Since childhood emotional neglect usually involves a parent who is not responding to the emotional needs of a child, it is less obvious to see.

If, for example, people see a child who looks well fed, properly groomed and well dressed, they often assume that the child is being taken care of emotionally as well.  This is because many people judge situations by outer appearances.

Also, some children, especially children who tend to be overachievers, are very good at pushing down their own emotional needs under these circumstances and excelling academically.  If they are quiet children who aren't having behavior problems in school, teachers and other adults who come in contact with them often won't notice that anything is amiss with these children.

Many children, who come from families where their emotional needs aren't being met, learn how to hide their sadness by covering up their feelings.  They might appear to be outgoing or cheerful, but underneath, they're often unhappy and lonely.

Worse still, they're often hiding a lot of shame about their sadness and unmet emotional needs.  The shame that they carry often has serious repercussions for them as adults (see my article:  Unresolved Childhood Issues Can Create Problems in Adult Relationships).

In future articles, I'll continue to discuss childhood emotional neglect.

Getting Help
Many people come to therapy because of underlying issues related to their unmet needs in childhood that continue to affect them as adults.  

It's never too late to get help to overcome the effects of childhood emotional neglect.  

Working with a licensed mental psychotherapist, you can work through these issues in therapy so you can overcome them and lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.