Emotional neglect: the hidden form of abuse

Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel The Railroad” on Amazon.com.

There are many stories about children, in Romania, in orphanages in post WWII Europe, where there was what is called failure to thrive. In the more extreme cases babies who received no physical contact suffered physical problems and in some cases did not live.
What does this tell us? That as children, as clean slates waiting to be filled with a self-image, a personality, we are machines that need certain stimuli to thrive physically and mentally. This is not a matter of weakness but of a science particular to human development. It’s not a choice but a set of responses hard wired into each child.
And what does it mean for older children who happen to survive this same neglect and become adults. If emotional absence of a parent can maim, even kill, an infant or toddler, what are the long term effects of this quiet but powerful mistreatment on an adult who’s life has been developed on this bleak and shaky foundation?
If you were to search for “emotional neglect” in a search engine, there is quite a bit of literature on the subject but usually in conjunction with more “spectacular” modes of abuse such as malnutrition and lack of medical care. Discussions of emotional neglect alone is often vague and often lacking precise descriptions of the nature of this neglect and its long term effects. There’s a reason for this: how can you define something as nebulous as a parent just not giving a damn. If the household that raises neglected children provides an environment that provides all the right elements except concern and support for a child, how can it be identified? If a child is well fed, attends school regularly, is given consistent medical care, where is the problem? Wouldn’t many people ask if such a child would be ungrateful to expect love and concern to be showered on them if there other needs were being met?
I have spent my life trying to identify my own type of poison. There is nothing overtly wrong with my life, nor was there when I was a child. And yet there is, and was, something wrong. I can give a name to it now: Emotional neglect.
My parents were very concerned about my physical needs. They encouraged me to eat “enough” at all times. They wanted me to do well in school. I would be taken to the doctor any time my health problems exceeded my parent’s ability to deal with them at home. I would certainly be given aspirin and have my temperature monitored if I had a fever. I was encouraged to join the cub scouts. We went on trips yearly.
At yet these was a gaping hole in my life, one not visible to anyone outside our family. It has taken a piece out of me. Scholarly and medical discussions of the formation of personality emphasize the original relationship we all experience: the mother-child bond. The same discussions emphasize that this relationship acts as a catalyst for the formation of personality and the development of confidence and a sense of security. An emotionally absent mother puts little or nothing into this process. The result is a warped development of personality and a void when it comes to relationships, intimacy and personal ambition.
Is this abuse? It is so unspectacular that it attracts no attention. Understandably, there are no groups like “children of parents who just didn’t really seem to care” or “Emotionally absent parents anonymous”. I have to guess there are millions of us who share the same malaise but couldn’t recognize each other well enough to organize ourselves.
I have to believe that if I told anyone about this they would say, “Suck it up!. Everyone has a lousy childhood”. Can you imagine an attempt to scientifically document this phenomenon and, worse yet, try to start a movement to prevent it? Imagine trying to encourage parents to bond with their children, to support them and interact with them.
These ideas seem to contradict the nature of humanity: all parents responsible for how their children develop. And if this is essentially an impossible goal…well it says some very disturbing things about humanity. Like any other type of neglect, this has long term consequences that carry a cost to society in terms of disability, insurance costs, criminal activity and other issues. Might this be the most insidious and widespread form of abuse?
Anyone out there?


3 thoughts on “Emotional neglect: the hidden form of abuse

  1. Living with the effects, and no you probably couldn’t spot me in a crowd, I’ve learned how to take care of myself, because no one else did

  2. Aurora, I doubt that any of us are visible as victims in a crowd. It’s the way you process things that tells the tale and someone has to be around you enough to see that. I too have learned to take care of myself but often I find I am still resentful that there is no one else to do it. Perhaps silly from an adult point of view but that is our experience. Perhaps we should all join forces. Someone else suggested a forum for people (including myself) that have gone through these things. Maybe it’s worth a try.

  3. Emotional neglect is child abuse. Physical abuse is child abuse. Sexual abuse is child abuse. We are all part of the same family of ‘walking’ wounded. Trying to survive the best we can. But the good news is that we are not ALONE. We are over 42 million strong. We have been silent too long. Let’s help the next generation of parents. Let’s learn the facts of all child abuse. And once armed with that knowledge, go talk to another adult, your church, your children. It sounds impossible, but I assure you it can be done. There is a brighter future for all children who eventually grow up to be us!

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