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What happens to children who were emotionally neglected?

Emotional neglect is defined as a parent or caregiver’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. This results in the child not developing the ability to understand, identify, express, and regulate their emotions. Emotional neglect can have serious lifelong consequences for a child’s development, mental health, and relationships. Some key questions about childhood emotional neglect include:

What are the signs of emotional neglect in children?

Some signs that a child may be experiencing emotional neglect include:

– Lack of emotional responsiveness – Child does not react to emotional situations.

– Indiscriminate attachment – Child seeks comfort from any available adult.

– Poor social skills – Child struggles to interact positively with peers.

– Poor emotional regulation – Child has frequent emotional outbursts.

– Low self-esteem – Child expresses overly negative views about themselves.

– Poor impulse control – Child acts recklessly without concern for consequences.

What causes parents to emotionally neglect their children?

There are several potential causes of parental emotional neglect:

– The parent’s own emotional neglect as a child. This makes it difficult for them to identify and meet their child’s emotional needs.

– Mental health issues like depression that impair the parent’s ability to be emotionally available.

– Stressors like financial strain, relationship issues, or work demands that distract the parent.

– A lack of understanding of child development and not realizing emotional nurturing is important.

– Belief that attending only to the child’s physical needs is sufficient.

What are the long term effects of emotional neglect?

Research shows that growing up with emotional neglect can lead to:

– Difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing emotions.

– Low self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence.

– Increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

– Difficulty developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

– Problems with anger, aggression, or antisocial behaviors.

– Developmental delays in speech, motor skills, or cognitive abilities.

– Vulnerability to addictions or eating disorders.

The Effects of Emotional Neglect on Child Development

Emotional neglect during childhood can profoundly impact development across multiple domains:

Emotional development

– Struggles to identify and express feelings
– Limited understanding of complex emotions
– Poor emotional regulation and impulse control
– Low self-esteem and lack of self-worth

Social development

– Immaturity and inability to relate to peers
– Poor social skills and difficulty making friends
– Social isolation, withdrawal, or codependency
– Indiscriminate attachment to unsafe adults

Cognitive development

– Impaired ability to concentrate, learn, and solve problems
– Delayed cognitive milestones or intellectual disability
– Poor cause-and-effect thinking skills
– Limited creativity and imagination

Physical development

– Failure to meet growth milestones and malnutrition
– Increased childhood illnesses and hospitalizations
– Poor motor coordination skills like grasping objects
– Abnormal brain development and impaired nervous system

Mental health

– Increased risk for disorders like depression and anxiety
– Problems with anger, aggression, or defiant behaviors
– Difficulty coping with stress or regulating emotions
– Detachment, avoidance, or dissociation

Attachment style

– Insecure ambivalent attachment from unpredictable care
– Avoidant attachment from unresponsive and detached care
– Increased risk for reactive attachment disorder

The Impact of Emotional Neglect on Adult Mental Health

Adults who experienced emotional neglect as children have a higher risk of developing mental health issues including:


Up to 43% of adults emotionally neglected in childhood experienced clinical depression compared to only 10% of those not neglected.

Anxiety Disorders

Neglected adults had a nearly 5-fold increased risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety, phobias, OCD and PTSD.

Personality Disorders

Childhood emotional neglect was linked to dramatically higher rates of personality disorders in adults including avoidant, dependent, borderline and narcissistic.

Substance Abuse

Adults who were emotionally neglected had a 200-300% higher risk of suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction or substance abuse issues.

Suicidal Ideation

Adults emotionally neglected as children reported suicidal thoughts over their lifetime at 3-4 times the rate of non-neglected peers.


Women emotionally neglected in childhood were 350% more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning themselves.

Eating Disorders

Females neglected in childhood had 2-3 times higher risk of developing disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or distorted body image.

How Emotional Neglect Affects Relationships

Childhood emotional neglect can profoundly impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain close relationships including:

Parent-Child Relationships

Adults who were neglected often struggle to bond with their own children and provide nurturing, responsive care. This continues an intergenerational cycle of neglect.

Romantic Relationships

Neglected individuals have higher divorce rates, lower marital satisfaction, increased conflict and greater insecure attachment styles with spouses.


Many emotionally neglected adults report greater social isolation, withdrawal, distrust of friends, fears of abandonment and lack of support networks.

Empathy and Intimacy

Without experiencing empathy as a child, neglected individuals often cannot develop and convey empathy. This impairs intimacy, vulnerability and closeness with others.


Adults neglected in childhood often have deficits in understanding and expressing emotions which creates barriers to effective communication in relationships.


Some emotionally neglected individuals develop unhealthy codependent relationships attempting to finally have their emotional needs met.

Overcoming the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

While the effects of childhood emotional neglect can be long-lasting, there are many ways adults can learn to overcome them:


Therapy provides a safe space to understand the trauma and develop skills for emotional awareness and healthy relationships.

Support Groups

Connecting with others who share similar experiences helps neglected adults feel less isolated and builds a sense of belonging.

Assertiveness Training

Learning to set healthy boundaries, express needs, and see self-worth can help overcome neglect patterns.

Mindfulness Practices

Meditation, yoga, mindful breathing and movement build emotional awareness and regulation capacities.


Treating oneself with kindness, concern, support and understanding helps counteract chronic self-criticism from neglect.

Inner Child Work

Visualization, writing, art and play therapies help reconnect and heal the wounded inner child frozen by neglect.

Somatic Therapies

Modalities like Somatic Experiencing can help release traumatic energies stored in the body and nervous system from neglect.

Preventing Emotional Neglect in Children

The most impactful way to stop this generational trauma is to prevent emotional neglect by:

Educating New Parents

Inform all new parents about child emotional needs and nurturing. Offer parenting classes focused on emotional connection.

Community Support

Develop networks of respite care, social services, and mental health support for overwhelmed, unskilled or struggling parents.

Affordable Childcare

Ensure all families have access to affordable childcare to reduce financial and job-related strains on meeting children’s needs.

Paid Family Leave

Implement policies like paid maternity/paternity leave to allow proper parent-child bonding in the first years of life.

Home Visiting Programs

Provide voluntary home visits by nurses, social workers and early childhood experts to coach healthy emotional caregiving.

Child Advocacy

Train pediatricians, teachers, counselors, and social workers to recognize, report, and intervene in potential neglect.

Public Awareness

Launch public health campaigns on the serious consequences of childhood emotional neglect to encourage early prevention.


Childhood emotional neglect can have devastating impacts on a person’s life-long development, mental health, and relationships. But with proper awareness, community support for families, and therapeutic treatments, cycles of neglect can end so all children feel truly seen, known, and loved.