Emotional neglect can have as great an impact on a child as abuse, even though it’s not as noticeable or memorable as abuse is.
If you’re highly sensitive, there’s a good chance that you experience emotions in a very strong way — so much that your emotions can flood you. That’s because highly sensitive people (HSPs) are born with a nervous system that processes things much more deeply than the average person. Most HSPs are aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, which can be a powerful gift.
But what happens when you grow up in a family that doesn’t value this trait at all?
That could mean:
- Parents who said you were “overreacting” for having feelings
- Your parents rarely expressed their own emotions, and were uncomfortable when you did so
- Being labeled as different (a “dreamer,” a “crybaby”) because you are sensitive
Sadly, this isn’t uncommon. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that many otherwise healthy families raise their children with emotional neglect — a failure to value or respond to emotions. This can create unhealthy outcomes for any child, but especially highly sensitive children.
(Not sure if you’re an HSP? Here are 21 signs of a highly sensitive person.)
What It Means to Be Emotionally Neglected
According to psychologist and author Dr. Jonice Webb, childhood emotional neglect happens when a parent fails to respond to a child’s emotional needs.
“It may sound like nothing, and it often looks like nothing,” Webb writes, “But actually, [it] can have as great an impact upon a child as abuse, even though it’s not noticeable or memorable like abuse is.”
Often, that lack of emotional response doesn’t look unhealthy at all; the parents may take great care of the child overall. But something invisible is missing: The parent doesn’t validate their child’s feelings or respond to their child’s emotional needs.
And that has consequences. Webb says emotionally neglected children can end up feeling deeply alone. As kids, they feel like their needs aren’t important, that their feelings don’t matter, or that they should never ask for help (because it’s perceived as a sign of weakness).
When they grow up, childhood emotional neglect can stick around as unnecessary guilt, self-anger, low self-confidence, or a sense of being deeply, personally flawed.
But that’s true of anyone who grew up with emotional neglect. What if you’re an HSP? If your biology has made you highly attuned to emotion, what does emotional neglect do to you?
Emotions are, in many ways, an HSP’s first language — and an emotionally neglectful family doesn’t speak that language.
How Emotional Neglect Affects a Highly Sensitive Child
Webb recently wrote in-depth about highly sensitive children in emotionally neglectful families. She emphasized that you cannot make a child an HSP simply with an emotional upbringing and, likewise, you can’t make someone less sensitive through emotional neglect. High sensitivity, by definition, is a genetic trait; you’re either born with it or you’re not.
So emotional neglect doesn’t change whether a child is an HSP, but, according to Webb, it does affect HSPs very differently than other children.
That’s because emotions are, in many ways, an HSP’s first language — and an emotionally neglectful family doesn’t speak that language. While the parents certainly have emotions of their own, they avoid expressing them outwardly or acknowledging the emotions of others. It’s like they completely divorce themselves from the most important part of their HSP child’s inner life.
At best, growing up as an HSP in an emotionally neglectful household is like being a musician in a world with no music. In other cases, it’s much worse — it’s the equivalent of having parents who actively tell you that your music is bad.
As Webb writes, “Imagine being a deeply thoughtful, intensely feeling child growing up in a family that is neither. Imagine your intense feelings being ignored or discouraged. Imagine that your thoughtfulness is viewed as a weakness.”
Of course, many HSPs don’t have to imagine that at all; it’s often how they were raised. Sadly, that kind of emotional neglect sends HSP children a message: Your greatest strength is not valued here.
9 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Harms HSPs
Everyone is affected by their childhood environment, whether it’s good or bad, but for highly sensitive people, this effect is amplified. Research suggests that HSPs suffer more in bad environments but do especially well in good ones. As a result, it’s reasonable to expect childhood emotional neglect to have an outsized effect on sensitive kids.
While not every HSP child who deals with emotional neglect will face all of the situations below, some outcomes may include:
- Their high sensitivity becomes a joke, even with their parents. Comments that a child is “too sensitive” or “a dreamer” may be well-intentioned but inevitably come across as a negative judgement.
- Siblings may pick on the HSP. Brothers and sisters are usually suffering emotional neglect as well, but they may take more naturally to the “toughen up” message than their HSP sibling; that makes it easy for them to establish themselves higher up on the pecking order.
- They think there’s something wrong with them. There’s no limit to how many times we’ll say it: Highly sensitive children are normal. But it’s impossible to internalize that if you’re told over and over that you’re the odd one out. Instead, you internalize that your emotions aren’t “right” and don’t matter.
- Confidence issues. Given the above, it’s no surprise that a sensitive child will doubt and undervalue themselves. Emotionally neglectful parents often see this as a weak spot, too, and pressure the child to be more confident — without ever validating the child’s strengths and feelings.
- Problems dealing with criticism. Highly sensitive people in general react strongly to criticism, and criticism is always hard for a child. But for an HSP child, emotional neglect means they never get to see feedback done in a healthy way. And, naturally, they can’t develop healthy ways to deal with criticism themselves if they never see it modeled at home.
- Overwhelm, crashes, or panic. All HSPs can become overstimulated by loud or busy environments, and overwhelmed by strong emotions at times, but healthy HSPs learn to manage this through self-care. Often they need a quiet, safe place to retreat to. For highly sensitive kids, that’s only possible if the parent(s) are understanding of this need — and emotionally neglectful parents are not. Instead, they see it as the child “overreacting.” They may even get angry at the child. This can make overwhelm a source of panic and fear in the child.
- Profound loneliness. When your emotional needs don’t matter, and no one seems to understand you, you quickly become isolated, and may feel alone in the world.
- Inability to ask for help. Any child who suffers from emotional neglect learns that they shouldn’t ask for help, because it won’t be given or it appears “weak.” This is especially damaging to HSP children, because they need to learn to speak up for their needs in a world that often doesn’t understand them.
- Anxiety. All of these factors can combine to leave an HSP child with ongoing anxiety, fueled by the fear that they are always doing things “wrong.”
When you begin to treat yourself as if you matter, the people in your life begin to see you differently and respond to you differently.
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4 Steps to Recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) doesn’t disappear when you grow up. Adults carry it with them into their lives, and it affects everything: their relationships, their self-image, and their mental wellbeing.
The good news is emotional neglect is something you can recover from. Here are four strategies that will help:
- Get to know and accept yourself. Understanding your high sensitivity is an important step toward accepting your needs as normal and valid. Likewise, learning about the CEN “emotional style” can help you identify — and change — patterns you’re not even aware of. A good starting point is Dr. Webb’s checklist to determine if you grew up with CEN.
- Accept that your feelings, needs, and wants matter as much as anyone else’s. This may mean doing more of the talking in a friendship, voicing your needs clearly to others, or drawing boundaries.
- Start to express your needs. People recovering from CEN typically keep their emotions hidden, or even feel “numb” because their emotions are walled off. As an HSP, that may mean you only express your needs when you’re completely overwhelmed (or you withdraw and never express them at all). But the time to express your feelings is in normal, daily interactions. “When you begin to treat yourself as if you matter,” Webb writes, “the people in your life begin to see you differently and respond to you differently. They start to see your personality, your emotions, and your needs. And they start to respond to what they can finally see.”
- Self-soothing. Self-soothing is something that most people learn how to do as kids, when being soothed by the adults who love them. If you grew up with emotional neglect, you likely never learned this skill — but it’s not hard to learn now. Webb offers a detailed guide here.
Of course, many people will benefit from talking to a therapist about their childhood emotional neglect. You can find HSP-friendly therapists here.