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 sometimes your emotions overwhelm you. That’s because highly sensitive people (HSPs) are born with a nervous system that processes their environment much more deeply than the average person. Most sensitive people are acutely 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? It could mean:
- Parents said you were “overreacting” for having feelings
- Your parents rarely expressed their own emotions and were uncomfortable when you did so
- You were labeled as different (a “dreamer,” a “crybaby”) because you are sensitive
Sadly, childhood emotional neglect 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 neglect can create unhealthy outcomes for any child, but especially for 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 emotional neglect doesn’t look unhealthy at all; the parents may take great care of the child overall, such as providing for their physical needs. But something invisible is missing: The parent doesn’t validate their child’s feelings or respond to their child’s emotional needs.
This invalidation has consequences. Webb says that 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 shouldn’t ask for help (because needing help is perceived as a sign of weakness). When these children grow up, emotional neglect can stick around as unnecessary guilt, self-anger, low self-confidence, or a sense of being deeply, personally flawed.
But these challenges are true of anyone who grew up with emotional neglect. What if you’re a sensitive person? 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.
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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, although your early childhood experiences do play a role in shaping your level of sensitivity. In other words, emotional neglect doesn’t change whether a child is sensitive, but according to Webb, it does affect sensitive kids differently than other children.
That’s because emotions are, in many ways, a sensitive person’s first language — and an emotionally neglectful family doesn’t speak that language. While all parents certainly have feelings of their own, emotionally neglectful parents avoid expressing them outwardly or acknowledging the feelings of others. It’s like they divorce themselves from the most important part of their HSP child’s inner life.
At best, growing up as a sensitive kid 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 sensitive people don’t have to imagine those circumstances at all; it’s often how they were raised. Sadly, that kind of emotional neglect sends sensitive children a message: Your greatest strength is not valued here.
Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person?
9 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Harms Sensitive People
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 sensitive people 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 sensitive child who deals with emotional neglect will face all of the situations below, some outcomes may include:
- Their 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 sensitive kid. Brothers and sisters are usually suffering emotional neglect as well, but they may take more naturally to the “toughen up” message than their sensitive sibling, which makes it easier 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 this fact 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 validating the child’s strengths and feelings.
- Problems dealing with criticism. Sensitive people in general tend to react strongly to criticism, and criticism is always hard for a child. But for a sensitive child, emotional neglect means they never get to see feedback done in a healthy way. Naturally, they can’t develop healthy ways to deal with criticism themselves if they never see it modeled at home.
- Overstimulation, energy crashes, or panic attacks. All sensitive people can become overstimulated by loud or busy environments and overwhelmed by strong emotions at times, but healthy sensitive people learn to manage these challenges through self-care. Often they need a quiet, safe place where they can retreat. For sensitive kids, self-care is only possible if the parent(s) are understanding of their need for downtime — and emotionally neglectful parents are not. Instead they may see the child’s needs as the child “overreacting.” They may even get angry at the child. This can make overstimulation 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 become isolated and may feel alone in the world.
- Inability to ask for help. A 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 sensitive 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 a sensitive 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.
4 Steps to Recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect
Unfortunately, childhood emotional neglect doesn’t disappear when you grow up. Adults carry it with them into their lives, and it can affect everything: their relationships, self-image, and mental wellbeing. The good news is emotional neglect is something you can recover from. Here are four strategies that will help:
- Get to know yourself and accept yourself as you are. Understanding your sensitivity is an important step toward accepting your needs as normal and valid. Likewise, learning about the “emotional style” of emotional neglect can help you identify — and change — your own behavioral patterns. A good starting point is Dr. Webb’s checklist to determine if you grew up with childhood emotional neglect.
- Recognize that your feelings, needs, and desires matter just as much as those of other people. This step may mean doing more of the talking in a friendship, voicing your needs clearly to others, or setting healthy boundaries. (Here’s how to set boundaries when you’re a peace-loving introvert.)
- Start to express your needs. People recovering from emotional neglect typically keep their emotions hidden or may even feel “numb” because their emotions are walled off. As a sensitive person, this may mean you only express your needs when you’re completely overwhelmed (or you withdraw and rarely 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, through the act of 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.