As adults, most of us tend to minimize the impact our birth families, or what therapists call the “family of origin,” have on our daily choices and lives. But, the reality is that the family you were born into and that raised you still lingers in your adult brain, influencing feelings, reactions, and choices.
In 1953, D.W. Winnicott first introduced the concept of “the good enough mother” in a groundbreaking book called Playing and Reality. His words changed the field of psychology and mental health forever by linking the way you experience your connection with your parents in childhood to the way you are as an adult. His essential concept was that you don’t need a perfect parent to turn out okay. You only need to have a parent that’s “good enough.”
A 2019 research study by Susan Woodhouse found that a parent only has to get it right 50 percent of the time to be a “good enough” parent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents sufficiently neglect your emotions and emotional needs. Meaning, they do not notice what you are feeling, ask about your feelings, connect with you on an emotional level, or validate your feelings enough.
Emotionally neglectful parents usually have no idea they neglect their children’s emotions. They are typically folks who tend to turn a blind eye to feelings in general, including their own, friends’, family’s, co-workers’, and children’s. They may mean well and care for and want to do their best for their kids. They probably have no idea what they are missing.
This can make many emotionally neglectful families challenging to spot. They are indeed “good enough” in the most visible ways. They may provide you with a home, food, clothing, and rides to soccer practice. But they do not have frank talks with you about problems you’re facing, soothe you enough when your friends hurt your feelings, or teach you how to notice, name, or manage your emotions.
The one failure of the emotionally neglectful family is emotional. There may be enough hugs. There may be enough money. There may be enough food and clothing. But this family does not manage to provide enough emotional awareness, validation, compassion, or emotional care to the children.
This is what makes emotionally neglectful families difficult to see or identify. Unlike emotional abuse or physical neglect, emotional failures are difficult to see.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Plays Out in a Family
As a psychologist who works with adults who grew up with childhood emotional neglect, I have seen how it affects people’s relationships with their families of origin. It often results in adult children who sense that something is wrong with them but have no idea what that is and are also baffled by their feelings about their families.
Eight Signs of Emotional Neglect to Watch For in Your Family
- Your family conversations tend to be on surface topics, meaning they are seldom about emotional, meaningful, painful, or negative things. This may even make it boring.
- You sometimes feel an unexplained resentment or anger toward your parents (which you may feel guilty about).
- You go to family events with hopes of enjoying yourself, but you often come away feeling empty or disappointed.
- Difficult or interpersonal problems in the family are generally ignored instead of addressed directly.
- It feels like your siblings are competing with each other, but you’re not sure for what.
- Affection in your family is expressed via action (doing things for people) and not so much by words or emotional expression.
- Emotion–perhaps only negative emotions, but maybe all–seems taboo in your family.
- You feel surprisingly lonely or left out when you’re with your family.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family do suffer. They suffer from what goes unsaid, unshared, undiscussed, unnoticed, and unvalidated. If your family is emotionally neglectful, and if you pay attention, you may notice some of the above signs whenever you spend time with them.
Like a beautiful cake baked without enough sugar, what may appear fine is not fine. The emotionally neglectful family suffers from an absence of enough of a key ingredient that may not be visible but matters greatly to enjoyment and quality. The feelings that should be sweetening the connections and warmth in the family are shoved underground.
This is why you may have felt bored, resentful, disappointed, stifled, or alone when it comes to your family. This is why it’s so important to name the problem of childhood emotional neglect and make a conscious decision to fight against it in your own life.
What You Can Do
You cannot fix your family, and you do not need to try. But you can start changing yourself. Choose an item from the list of eight above that applies to your family, and start behaving the opposite way in your own life.
Talk about meaningful things, fight against feeling guilty for your feelings, focus on self-care when with your family, talk about difficult problems, express your affection and warmth toward others in words and face your negative emotions. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You only need to do it enough.
Scores of good people have been in your shoes and walked your path before you, and many more are walking with you now. Last but not least, and above all, please know that you are not alone.
To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You’ll find the link in my bio.
Winnicott, D W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1989
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. “Child Maltreatment 2018.” Accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology /statistics-research/child-maltreatment
Susan S. Woodhouse, Julie R. Scott, Allison D. Hepworth, Jude Cassidy. Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment. Child Development, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.1322