Emotional Neglect - the overlooked abuse of being overlooked

This form of childhood trauma is more insidious and perhaps more pervasive – and not necessarily what someone would take to therapy, because they would probably regard their childhood as OK with some happy times mixed in.

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I recently posted something on social media that got more response and engagement than I'd expected. It was about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

This wasn't about toxic parents – they are more obvious. 

This form of childhood trauma is more insidious and perhaps more pervasive – and not necessarily what someone would take to therapy, because they would probably regard their childhood as OK with some happy times mixed in.

I ask my clients to describe their childhood in three words, and to say what was missing back then that they now realise they really could have done with. 

The answers are usually time, attention, cuddles, affection, and encouragement. 

A lady I worked with yesterday said 'I wish they'd helped me to understand and control my emotions.'

In response to my social media post several people commented that their parents weren't bad or intentionally neglectful, they had meant well and did their best. But the fact remained that the child had felt overlooked and of less significance than they wanted and needed to be.

They felt emotionally adrift and abandoned by parents who didn't seem to realise what they were not providing.

This had left them with deep-seated feelings of having what they often described as an empty ache in their chest; and feeling 'not good enough' – especially compared to other people – and not being worthy of someone's time unless they were paying for it in some way.

Most said that their parents weren't to blame because the neglect and lack of time given to them had been for 'good reasons'.

These reasons were of having so many children in the family unit, or having a sick or disabled child who needed more care and attention than the siblings – and that meant there wasn't enough time or attention to go around.

Other parents were busy juggling two or three jobs to try and make ends meet and provide the basic necessities for their family. Some parents had elderly and sick parents of their own to look after.

Those parents who were more 'culpable' were overlooking their children's needs because they were focused upon themselves and their own unhealed emotional wounds. Others were suffering from mental health problems – made worse by alcohol or drug use.

Overlooked children found themselves babysitting siblings, running errands and doing lots of household chores instead of playing games and building friendships. 

They were doing what was needed and expected by the parents. Their value to the family became conditional upon what they could do and provide.

How does childhood emotional neglect show itself in adulthood?

  • A dread of being insignificant and lost in the shadows

  • A fear of being a burden to others, and a need to feel useful

  • Trying to do everything 'right' – and be a good girl/boy – and avoid any anger, aggression or conflict, and not fighting back

  • Having a shaky sense of your own identity – and a reliance upon other people to define who you are and how you should behave

  • Finding it hard to accept compliments without deflecting or minimalising them

  • Having a tendency to be defensive – and expecting to have your faults and mistakes pointed out

  • Perfectionism and worrying about what you do, and who you are. Not feeling good enough – especially when compared to other people

  • Overly explaining your moves and motives so as not to upset anyone

  • Finding it hard to make a definite decision – keep weighing up the options and overthinking

  • Difficulty in saying 'No' to someone's request – even though that would be the genuine and desired response to give

  • Feeling guilty and ashamed for taking time to relax

  • Not asking for help – and not trusting that anyone would help unless there was a pay-back due to them

  • Not relying on others – due to expecting to be let down and disappointed

  • Showing shy behaviour and avoiding eye contact or smiles...or being 'over smily' to appease others and hide what you see as your 'bad side'

  • Blaming yourself when things don't work out as planned or desired

  • Not valuing yourself or your accomplishments

  • Feeling lost and alone – and a sense of not really 'belonging' anywhere

  • Feeling 'false' in social meetings – watching yourself play out a role but knowing it's not the real you – and wondering who that 'real you' is!

  • Believing that you don't having anything interesting or relevant to share about yourself

  • Fitting in with others and answering enquiries with 'I'm fine...I don't mind what we do...I'll go along with you...' Also putting the focus back on the other and asking how they are instead

  • The Mask of compliance and shallow conversation is likely to be passed down to the next generation – a seemingly happy family but without any depth of connection or emotional imtimacy

  • Being overly responsible for everything and everyone - 'I'll do that – leave it to me'

  • Lacking spontaneity and preferring rituals and routines

  • Needing order, structure and very clear boundaries – to feel safe within

  • Being very self-contained and independent – squashing down emotions or vulnerability

  • Perhaps acting 'over-the-top' – and appearing to be more than you believe you are – e.g. more knowledgeable, significant, entertaining, rebellious, athletic or talented

  • Feeling empty and unworthy inside, in spite of any external recognition, awards or accolades    
  • Finding it hard to believe and accept love without strings and conditions attached

  • Avoiding the responsibility of parenthood and childcare – due to memories of being a substitute parent to siblings from a young age

  • Perhaps becoming a co-dependant partner – and only feeling of value when supporting someone else, and being of significant need to them

That's a lot of ways in which a seemingly 'happy childhood' can in fact shape us for the worst!

What to do about it?

If you realise that for whatever reason you were neglected emotionally as a child, then first comes the need to re-connect with and re-parent your Inner Child.

This inner child is the child you once were – 'little you' who felt what you felt, and who made decisions about how you should be to adapt to your circumstances back then.

My own process to bring about deep change is called S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life (c) – which means creating a better life of your own choice and no longer passively accepting the one handed down to you, with its confusing emotional gaps and aching emptiness.

The acronym I have created for this process is:-


Education and understanding

Learning new skills

Emotional intelligence and balance

Control, clarity and choice


You can find out more about the ways I can help you to S.E.L.E.C.T Your Life from my websites below.

Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR

www.maxineharley.com – where you will find lots of FREE resources to help you on your own path to healing and recovery from the affects of your childhood and parents. There are also 5 self-help online courses to help you to help yourself – without therapy

www.maxineharleymentoring.com – I am a therapeutic self-development mentor for women who want to understand and manage their emotions, boundaries and behaviours....helping them to also FEEL better, so they can BE, DO and HAVE better!

www.the-ripple-effect.co.uk – a selection of 10 self-help online workshops to help you to help yourself to a more calm, balanced and happy life.

www.qpp.uk.com – a unique process which changes the sub-conscious belief system – bringing profound life-changing results.

Maxine Harley

MIND HEALER & MENTOR - Psychotherapist (MSc), Author, Columnist & Blogger. Please see www.maxineharley.com and www.maxineharleymentoring.com, S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life Company Ltd.

I help women to FEEL better - so they can BE, DO and HAVE better! As a MIND HEALER I specialise in helping women to recover from a troubled childhood and toxic parents, to heal and transcend their emotional wounds, re-parent their inner child, and make peace with their past. This enables and empowers them to become better parents, partners, professionals - and all round happier calmer people :-) As a MENTOR I offer different levels of therapeutic self development - including MINDING YOUR BUSINESS, MINDING THE GAP, and MIND MASTERY...please discover more at www.maxineharleymentoring.com