8 Adult Characteristics of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Photo by Matheus Bertelli

I frequently and predominantly work with adults that have encountered difficult upbringings, and there is often similarities in how this impacts them in adulthood.

Kerry (not a real client), has grown up in an environment that is mainly devoid of connection with her parents.  Her mother was career driven and her father was emotionally distant, eruptive and inconsistent in the way he interacted with her, so she didn’t know how to be around him.

Kerry felt alone in childhood, and when her grandmother died, and when she had difficulties at school she wasn’t able to express her feelings, as nobody showed emotion or vulnerability in her household, she would only cry on her own.  She learnt to internalise emotions and live with it, these feelings remained unprocessed and stored up as unconscious memories, that prevented her from trusting in others as she moved into adulthood.  She generally felt unsafe in the world.

As an adult, she was independent and held full time jobs however, as the inevitable life challenges emerged – relationship break ups, job stress, finance issues and bereavements, she started to struggle to overcome each event or experience as they unfolded.

Things got really tough for Kerry before she came for counselling, reaching out for help was not natural for her, but she had encountered bouts of depression, anxiety and she couldn’t for various reasons sustain relationships, she also hated her job, it all felt out of control for her and she didn’t have siblings to confide in.  Although she appeared confident on the surface, the vulnerabilities underneath soon became apparent.

Kerrie’s life experience is quite typical, when we consider emotional neglect in the sense that her parents did not have the capacity to encourage, accept and invite the full range of emotions innate in her and all human beings.  She wasn’t able to develop a sense of balance or resilience from which to rebound from the trials of life and have that assurance in herself to be able to move forwards. And when emotions did arise they felt too painful and uncomfortable, so unconsciously she used distraction to suppress them.

Emotional neglect in childhood can show up in different ways as we get older, and they tend to become normalised until there is a tipping point. 

Eight characteristics of emotional neglect:

  • Trust issues – Seeking reassurance in relationships due to fears of abandonment.
  • A lacking of self worth or self esteem – putting others first and difficulty in setting boundaries
  • Highly independent – Although there are deep vulnerabilities in insecurities.
  • Hypervigilant – Feeling a higher sense of threat from people and the environment.
  • Difficulty in standing up for themselves or being taken advantage of.
  • Self soothing via food, substances or repetitive behaviours.
  • Feeling a need to prove themselves – External validation, as they have not been recognised earlier in life.
  • Internal rage, and underneath that – a sense of sadness.

Talking about her experience would allow Kerry to process and perhaps uncover some of the suppressed and pushed down emotions.  It would take a gentle approach where she is able to explore the impacts and recognise what she wants for herself in the future.  There is likely to be some work around safety and regulation of her hypervigilance and also exploration around connection with herself, relationships and unhealthy coping strategies.   

Counselling provides a trusting professional relationship where we are both invested in you.  There is great power and connection when two minds work together to focus on wellbeing, physical and mental health and longevity.