What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
CEN refers to a failure to meet the basic emotional needs of a child, a lack of emotional responsiveness to a child’s distress, ignoring a child’s social and emotional developmental needs, and expecting children to deal with situations beyond their maturity or that are unsafe (Teicher & Samson, 2013).
Sadly, it is a very common phenomenon.
Meta-analyses have revealed that the global prevalence of childhood emotional neglect is around 18% (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013; Stoltenborgh et al., 2015).
CEN has been closely associated with psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, in young adults and later in life (Grummitt et al., 2022; Infurna et al., 2016; Salokangas et al., 2020).
In addition, CEN can have long-term effects on social functioning and result in social anxiety, poor interpersonal interactions, and reduced relationship quality (Derin et al., 2022; Haslam & Taylor, 2022; Müller et al., 2019; Rees, 2008).
Intentional vs. unintentional neglect
According to Jonice Webb (2012, p. 15), a psychologist who extensively researched the phenomenon and coined the term childhood emotional neglect, CEN is “the failure of parents to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”
Webb emphasizes that this neglect can be both intentional and unintentional. Intentional CEN occurs when parents purposefully dismiss or invalidate their child’s emotions. Unintentional childhood emotional neglect arises when parents, despite their love and care, overlook the significance of emotional connection or are unable to establish it.
How neglect differs from abuse and mistreatment
Differentiating between neglect and abuse is crucial in understanding CEN. While abuse often involves intentional harm or mistreatment, neglect can involve unintentional negligence.
Emotional neglect can be subtle. Parents may fail to notice, validate, or respond to a child’s emotions.
Jonice Webb provides a clear explanation of the distinction between abuse and neglect on her website, saying, “Emotional neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse” (What is, para. 4).
Parental neglect refers to a parent’s inaction, while abuse and mistreatment are acts of the parent. It is the inability to identify, acknowledge, or react suitably to a child’s emotions. It is not evident, noteworthy, or memorable because it is an act of omission.
What Are the Potential Causes of Emotional Neglect?
It is a sad truth that the children of parents who have experienced ACEs such as emotional neglect or child abuse are more likely to experience CEN or worse.
ACEs can breed more ACEs in the next generations. Ylitervo et al. (2023, p. 1) found that “childhood adversities are transferred from parents to children at least in some form.”
“If parents have experienced ACEs, they will have a higher risk of mental health problems, and since having a depressed parent, for example, is considered an adverse childhood event, the child of such a parent will be at risk, leading to a vicious cycle in which adversities can be passed on for generations” (Ylitervo et al., 2023, p. 1).
Emotionally neglectful parents
Emotionally neglectful parents may contribute to childhood emotional neglect due to a lack of awareness or understanding of their child’s emotional needs. “Emotionally neglectful parents often appear loving and caring on the surface but remain unaware of their child’s emotional world” (Webb, 2012, p. 87).
This unconscious neglect can result from the parents’ own emotional challenges, making it challenging for them to attune to their child’s feelings.
Uninvolved parenting, characterized by emotional detachment and a lack of responsiveness, is another potential cause of CEN. The absence of emotional engagement can leave children feeling overlooked, invisible, and unimportant and may hinder the development of crucial emotional skills.
Cold mother syndrome
The term “cold mother syndrome” refers to a pattern of maternal behavior characterized by emotional distance, coldness, and unresponsiveness. This syndrome highlights the significant role active maternal warmth plays in fostering emotional wellbeing during childhood (Streep, 2017).
Peg Streep has written several powerfully empathetic books on the effects of having cold, unloving, or narcissistic mothers. In Daughter Detox (Streep, 2017), for example, she writes movingly about how cold mothers can destroy our trust in the legitimacy of our feelings and our connectedness to our emotions. A thus injured sense of self can result in constant self-vigilance, in being distrustful of others, and in not feeling worthy of respect and love.
This kind of mothering can impact attachment style and generate fearful dismissive or fearful avoidant behaviors.