We rely on our parents to provide more than just the basic necessities of food and shelter. That’s only one flavour of nourishment we require. We also need to feel accepted, loved and validated – we need to feel safe and secure in ourselves. And this requires the guidance of our parents – and/or primary caregivers and guardians – to help create these programs within us, so we can live happy and fulfilled lives as well-rounded human beings. So when these needs aren’t met, it inevitably leads to shortcomings, both in how we view ourselves and how we view the world.
Understanding Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood emotional neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver consistently fails to meet a child’s emotional needs. It’s important to make the distinction though that emotional neglect isn’t the same as emotional abuse. Neglect comes from a lack of engagement while abuse comes from a place of a direct and overt attack. Abuse is very much an intentional and purposeful way of causing harm. While on the other side of the spectrum, emotional neglect – while it can also be intentional – can also be rooted in a lack of awareness and/or capacity to fully recognise a child’s needs. And as human beings, it’s only possible to act and make choices on what we’re aware of.
Parents who emotionally neglect their children may be great providers in other ways. But they themselves may also have been the survivors of childhood emotional neglect. And if there is a lack of awareness about their past and how it’s still affecting them, it makes showing up for their own children extremely difficult. Thus the cycle of generational trauma will continue until someone is able to break the cycle and heal themselves enough so they don’t retread the same path with their children.
Here’s an example of what a mild case of childhood emotional neglect might look like. A child comes home and tells their Mum that they’re upset because they got pushed around at school. The Mother may dismiss this by saying, ‘if someone pushed you, they probably had a good reason. You shouldn’t go around bothering people.’ Or, they dismiss it as children being children and simply blank out, shut down and continue the narrative in their head. Really, what the child is needing in this situation is support. They need their Mum to listen to them, understand their problem and empathise with them. However, in this case, they might learn they deserve to be pushed around, that everything bad that happens to the is their fault and that no one is going to listen to them or support them.
What Needs Do We Actually Require Our Parent’s Meet?
So, what does proper support from your parents actually look like? If we take the above example, how could this have played out differently with a more supportive parent? The core tenets of emotional support can be reduced to 1) presence 2) validation and 3) touch. The first thing the Mother should have done in this situation is to recognise that their child has brought a concern to them and listened without bias. This form of presence is vitally important to a child, as even if it turns out they’re wrong, they will still feel as though they’ve been properly heard. And so, this means being fully present with what’s being offered without injecting, interrupting – as much as possible – and not instantly adopting a stance of dismissing, disregarding and devaluing.
The next component that could have been brought in is validation. And this is an extension of presence. As even if we’re fully present and listening, sometimes, we can listen too intently. We can be too silent. And sometimes, that might be mistaken for disinterest or disregard. So, words of affirmation are often needed to let someone know that you’ve fully received what they’re saying and aren’t just blanking out. And this can be done through reflective listening, which also has several facets of its own that can be used, including 1) mirroring 2) summarising and paraphrasing 3) surfacing. Mirroring involves reflecting back a selection of exact – or close to exact – phrases, summarising is taking the key points and creating succinct a narrative, and surfacing is where you read between the lines of what’s being implied but isn’t spoken to offer a new perspective. You don’t need to use all of these at once. But it’s good to be aware of them to and to integrate them within your communication skillset.
The last component is touch, which can go a long way in helping provide security, as touch is so closely associated with nurture from our infant years. A simple hug or arm around the shoulder can be all it takes to make someone feel supported. Human touch is extremely effective in regulating mild-moderate emotions. And it can also help provide a subconscious reference point that can be drawn on which reassures children in future interactions they have been held in the past and their emotional needs can be met.
Practical Strategies for Reclaiming the Worthiness of Your Needs
By the time a child who hasn’t had their needs met reaches adulthood, it can often be very hard to state their needs to others and in some instances even know what some of those needs are. It’s often the case that needs to evolve over time. And if emotional support has been absent during the early developmental years of childhood, there hasn’t been the opportunity for that child to go through the maturation process and discover what works for them. Here’s a loose framework that you can use as a guidepost to begin the process of asking the question, what does each of these look like for me?
Security: In order to thrive, we need to get out of survival mode. And that means getting to a place of safety, which doesn’t just mean getting away from physical violence. It can just as easily relate to mental and emotional abuse/neglect. Security can also mean feeling wanted and validated, feeling safe in your own environment. And so, if you don’t feel safe, try writing a list of all the things that contradict that safety and see what practical ways you can think of to try and get around them.
Attention: The want to receive attention isn’t actually a want, but a very core need. And it’s something we shouldn’t be ashamed about admitting or asking for in the appropriate setting. As human beings, we’re innately social creatures that thrive on the back and forth interactions we create with one another. So, what would fulfil your need for attention? For some people, being seen and heard within a romantic relationship is enough. But the real question is what does that look like for you? For some, the attention they crave is getting on stage and performing, and everything in between. They’re all as valid as one another.
Emotional Connection: An obvious choice given the name of the article, but let’s reframe this within a different context. Emotional connection is rooted in receiving empathy from someone. But it can equally relate to a mutual connection in which there’s a bonding experience over a shared interest or passion. So whilst we can get our emotional needs met through our familial and romantic connections, we can also find some of the same fulfilment by finding the people who are like us and share our interests, so we can speak freely without censoring ourselves and knowing it’ll be received.