The Eternal Exile
People tend to associate family abuse with acts of overt or covert aggression. Examples of overt aggression include yelling, abusive language such as name calling, threats, ridicule and shaming; and behaviors ranging from coercion, to more aggressive restraining, and assault.
Covert hostility shows up as passive aggressive behavior – aka sneaky anger. Examples of covert aggression encompass insults delivered as compliments; malicious gossip aka smear campaigns, cool / unfriendly demeanor; sarcastic, patronizing or disdainful behavior; silent treatment / shunning; being ignored or not taken seriously; lack of cooperation; dismissive body language, such as eye rolling, etc.
However there is an even more subtle form of family abuse that is harder to detect as it’s often invisible – that of neglect. Neglect is a sin of omission. In other words, it’s the things that don’t happen that cause long term harm to an individual, due to emotional deprivation. Children reared under these circumstances tend to feel like exiles in their own family, with no safe or secure place to call home. They believe they don’t matter to their parents, and over time can become insecure, find it hard to trust others and their own judgment, and discredit themselves due to the devaluation and lack of affirmation that’s at the heart of emotional neglect.
Unlike overt parental abuse, which involves observable negative behaviors, covert emotional neglect is a failure to act appropriately or adequately to support the developmental and attachment needs of the child.
Although all members of emotionally negligent families suffer due to unhealthy interpersonal dynamics exhibited by one or both parents, in narcissistic families, individual children are further singled out for the lion’s share of abuse. These targets become the family Scapegoat.
Childhood Emotional Deprivation in a Nutshell
Childhood Emotional Deprivation (CED) is a failure by parents to attend optimally – meaning frequently and consistently enough – to the emotional and developmental needs of their growing children. CED may be deliberate or unintentional. Parents may lack child rearing skills, often due to their own childhood emotional deprivation, which makes them blind to their own children’s needs. Or they may be emotionally troubled and preoccupied and / or have problems with addiction. They may be selfish or have personality disorders, such as narcissism, or even more serious anti-social traits.
Parents steward their children into becoming the people they are going to be via attachment bonds that shape self worth and socialization skills. The quality of these parent-child bonds will determine the psychological character, resilience and well being of the child and adult they will become, usually by the tender age of four or five years of age!
The Core Message Neglected Kids Internalize is ‘You don’t matter, therefore you are unlovable’
Childhood Emotional Deprivation involves parental emotional absenteeism. Parents are ‘Missing In Action’. Their gaze is inward, preoccupied with their own problems, frustrations, resentments or entitlements. Negligent parenting can also be more active, such as smothering or parentifying the child, which reflects control issues, neediness and displacement of parental responsibilities onto the child.
Some parents may engage in boundary violating behaviors in front of kids, such as sex, substance abuse or illicit activities, which reflects self centered obliviousness. The one constant is that these children are on the periphery of their negligent parents’ lives. Their legitimate needs for nurture, guidance and safety tend to be viewed as too much, a bother, an inconvenience or ingratitude. These parents often feel resentful towards their children.
In reality, negligent parents likely were kids who were neglected themselves and, as a result, did not mature optimally, because their legitimate emotional needs were never met. But they usually can’t see the problem they are passing down to their own children, as they lack insight and perspective due to the tunnel vision of their own unmet needs. A lack of healthy attention and nurture creates feelings of fear in their children who lack confidence, feel emotionally unsafe and unloved. Ultimately, emotionally deprived children can feel worthless due to feelings of abandonment. Neglected kids may believe they have to serve their parents, in a futile attempt to earn what is naturally present in emotionally available parents – instinctive and active love and nurture of their offspring.
The Silent Damage of Childhood Emotional Deprivation
CED can cause invisible or ‘silent damage’, such as low self worth, anxiety, depression or complex trauma. It can also contribute to more visible harms, such as attachment trauma, chronic stress related health problems, or vocational difficulties:
Attachment Trauma – The neglected child is not provided with a secure, consistent parental bond, leading to chronic fear, lack of trust and self devaluation, as s/he comes to believe they are unlovable. These deep seated insecurities cause abandonment depression and anxiety, which can lead to hyper independence, fawning and/or needy clingy behavior in childhood and adult relationships. Insecure attachment bonds can result in the development of either a Dependent attachment adaptation (also known as Anxious attachment), or an Avoidant attachment adaptation. Both attachment adaptations are fear based. Sometimes an insecurely attached individual will oscillate between extremes of dissociative hyper-independence and anxious clinging, depending on the degree of interpersonal stress in their lives and/or Triggering. This is known as Disorganized – or Fearful Avoidant – attachment.
Developmental Milestones – Normal age appropriate maturation stages are either not met optimally, or not met at all. Emotionally negligent parents are deficient in providing age appropriate support, guidance, structure or boundaries to their children. Typical developmental needs of children and teens include varying degrees of age specific healthy dependency on parents, realistic limit setting, and encouragement of budding independence. Lack of developmental support can lead to problems with motivation and self direction, including ‘failure to launch’, referring to young adults who remain dependent on parents, or others indefinitely, rather than establishing a self-sufficient life.
Life Skills – Neglected kids are not adequately coached on how to take care of themselves physically, psychologically or relationally. They tend to rely on guesswork and imitation of what may not be the best role models, examples or choices.
Emotional Injuries and Self Regulation Problems – As noted this includes damage to self worth, identity, drive and emotional self management. A child who is not nurtured optimally often struggles to know how to soothe him or herself, or how to accept nurture from others. Emotional deprivation contributes to feelings of being an eternal outsider, and a sense that one will be lonely forever, and never be truly heard, understood or loved. These feelings can become armored, and persist in spite of evidence of caring from others.
Feelings may not seem stable or manageable. Numbing of emotion or overwhelm can predominate and alternate. Involuntary mood swings may feel confusing or overpowering. Neglected folks may confuse emotions with ‘the truth’, and become activated. They likely weren’t permitted to display challenging feelings, nor shown how to deal with difficult emotions by negligent caregivers. This invalidation can cause chronic self doubt and low self worth.
Relationship Problems – Due to family conditioning, emotionally deprived children are more prone to choosing emotionally unavailable, i.e. preoccupied, insecure, distant, cold, aloof, self centered or even abusive friends and, later in life, intimate partners.
Emotionally deprived children and adults are also vulnerable to falling into Codependent or Love Addicted relationships with people who trigger the same abandonment fears. This phenomenon is called Trauma Bonding, which I refer to as ‘choosing the devil you know’. These harmful relationship patterns mirror the original childhood injuries that the emotional brain is trying to heal. The emotional brain chooses what feels familiar. The problem is not in attempting to do the repair work, but in choosing people who will reinjure the emotionally deprived person the same way as their principal caregiver(s), which causes secondary wounding.
Signs of Emotional Deprivation in Intimate Relationships 1
Mind Reading Error – You don’t tell your partner what you need or how you feel emotionally, then feel let down and resentful when your needs are not met or your emotions are not understood.
Strong False Front – You don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable, so your partner can protect and support you.
Fear Based Hurt Disguised as Aggression or Passive Aggression – When emotional abandonment anxiety gets triggered, you may become angry and demanding, or cold and rejecting. You believe your partner does not care enough about you. Unabated, such unquestioned fears can eventually drive a wedge between you and the person whom you want most in your corner.
Freeze – Ultimately, when emotional needs continue to be unmet, you may become emotionally cut off, cynical, distant and unreachable. You don’t realize that your ‘expectation’ of disappointment is feeding the problem of emotional deprivation.
The Emotional Fallout of Childhood Emotional Deprivation Across a Lifetime
Inner Critic aka The Troll – A self attacking belief system that represents the internalized negligent parent. The Inner Critic can be both conscious and unconscious. The Inner Critic falsely attacks the neglected individual, undermining the true self, and also interferes negatively with relationships. This can be particularly pernicious in relationships when unconscious beliefs convince the individual that others share the negative attitude of the Inner Critic, and, therefore, can’t be trusted, leading to the development of a rejecting Outer Critic.
Invalidation of Self & Feeling Lost – Unfamiliarity with the true self, and the legitimacy of one’s unique needs and emotions, leading to self neglect, lack of motivation and feelings of emptiness.
Lacking a solid sense of self undermines a sense of purpose, direction or agency towards life. Emotionally deprived people tend to not know how they are feeling, or feelings catch up too late, indicative of an armored Freeze response and/or overfocus on others.
Negative False Beliefs About the Self – Harmful beliefs about the self, including that one is unlovable or doesn’t matter, due to being ignored and/or made to feel insignificant by principal caregivers.
False self blame can arise even if no clear or explicit memories of abuse exist to explain the problem, leading to core shame / feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness.
The Black Sheep – Chronically feeling like an outsider who doesn’t belong or fit anywhere. Can also be caused by family scapegoating abuse. May not have support or a community, and miss the higher purpose of service and cooperation in life.
Bottomless Loneliness – Can lead to people pleasing such as Fawning or Codependency, in the belief that you have to take care of others in order to be cared for.
Problems with Self Discipline – The absence of structure, rules or encouragement in childhood can lead to underachieving, inability to delay gratification, sit with emotional discomfort, learn from problems, etc.
Low Self Actualization – Emotionally deprived people may not reach their potential personally or vocationally due to learned helpless, low level depression or anxiety, or being out of touch with their own emotions.
Boundary Problems – Stemming from a lack of family modeling of healthy limits and/or feeling worthless. Can be unaware of own needs – or the right to have them. Lack of awareness or concern regarding the impact of their behavior on others. Can give too much, too soon to others who may not reciprocate, due to fantasies of ‘hoping’ it will be better, in spite of proof. May fall into enmeshment or distancing to manage challenging interpersonal emotions. Can be prone to victimization as boundaries were not protected or respected in childhood. Can fall into intimate relationships with folks like their parents, aka ‘choosing the devil you know’.
May lack adequate / appropriate socialization skills, due to absence of experience or knowledge of healthy interpersonal respect, responsibility or interdependency.
Low Self Worth – Connected to insufficient parental validation and support, leading the child to believe they don’t matter, are bad, unlovable (aka shameful), inadequate, etc.
Self Centered Neediness – Driven by an anxious and desperate need for nurturance that the needy person may not even be aware of. Can lead to oversharing and/or clinging behavior and preoccupation with one’s own problems, to the exclusion of others. Lack of empathy and compassion for self, and possibly others, due to lack of support in childhood.
Make Oneself Small – Can include isolating or making oneself invisible. Don’t take up space. Put others first. Don’t ask for help, as many believe they don’t deserve it, or won’t get it. Recreate the problem – ie make themselves invisible, then frustrated that others don’t see them – a kind of ‘magical’ thinking.
What Human Beings Need to Thrive – The Fundamentals
Beginning in infancy these core needs are integral to solid personality development:
Safety – Physical and emotional security, stability and predictability in environment and key relationships.
Connection to Others – Intimacy (close ties with family, partners and best friends), and a sense of belonging (community friends and groups).
Autonomy – Age appropriate dependence, independence and interdependence across the lifespan.
Self Worth – Feeling valuable, loveable and ‘necessary’ to oneself ,significant others and humanity.
Self Expression – Freedom to authentically communicate and be respected for one’s needs, emotions, interests, opinions and talents.
Realistic Limits – Behavior motivated by one’s own desires and needs, while being mindful of the needs of others. Taking healthy levels of responsibility for one’s choices and the outcomes of actions.
Developmental Tasks of the Neglected and Emotionally Deprived Adult
Healing from emotional deprivation requires a lot of catch up work. It is usually not a linear process, but involves trial and error, repetition, working to lower internal resistance / defenses, pacing and new life habits. The result is the creation of affirming new neural pathways / associations.
Maturation Skills – Completion of age and life stage developmental milestones. Developmental milestones are significant, progressive steps in the physical, emotional, intellectual, mental and spiritual growth of a person from infancy through adulthood.
Life Skills – Adeptness regarding necessary activities of daily living (nutrition, hygiene, budgeting, healthy routines, etc.)
Relationship Skills – Incorporation of healthy interpersonal boundaries; Empathy; Reciprocity
Personal Development Skills – Self awareness, understanding and worth; Emotional self management; Overcoming false guilt and shame.
Emotional Recovery Skills – Confident regarding experiencing and managing emotions as messengers of needs and limits. The ability to rebound after emotional set backs.
Grieving – Acknowledging and grieving the loss of the emotionally nurturing caregiver(s) the emotionally neglected individual needed but didn’t get.
Caring For the Wounded Child – This may be the lynch pin for many survivors. Putting the Inner Critic to rest. Developing the ability to self soothe and reparent oneself compassionately, patiently and wisely.
Character Development Tasks of Neglected or Abused Adults
Emotionally deprived kids were not just neglected in the feeling realm, but also did not receive adequate guidance or role modeling from parents around character development. In particular, growing up in a negligent or even narcissistic home likely reinforced opposing or inconsistent messages, meaning it’s every person for themselves, you are either one up or one down, there are only winners or losers, etc.
Good Character is essential for ethical behavior to occur on a consistent basis. It is the foundation for other virtues, such as kindness, considerateness, wisdom, caring, etc.
Deepening character development requires stepping away from negative black and white role models, and reflecting on what it means to be a decent human being. The guidelines below can assist neglected adults in recovery to find the inspiration to be the best person they can be, in spite of their wounding.
1/ Act from a Sense of Personal and Social Responsibility
2/ Endeavor to be Grateful for the Gift of Life
3/ Develop a Realistic Sense of Self Worth
4/ Make a Commitment to Reality
5/ Possess a Sense of Higher Purpose to Life
6/ Strive to develop Mastery over Impulses, guided by Insight into Consequences of Decisions and Actions
7/ Demonstrate Strength of Character and Determination as guided by Moral Behavior
8/ Value and Act Assertively
9/ Engage in Civil, Generous Behavior
10/ Possess Genuine Concern and Care for others. Be Motivated by Loving Actions. 2
The Journey of Recovery
Starting with the ‘upside’, childhood emotional neglect can lead to the development of heightened sense empathy, insight and justice. Unfortunately, these compassionate, ethical individuals also tend to suffer from emotional injuries ranging from low self worth to unresolved childhood trauma, also known as Complex PTSD or relationship trauma.
Healing from childhood neglect and trauma requires long term emotional nourishment, as it is the heart and soul that have been enduring famine for too long. Locating the right social supports – perhaps for the first time – can be an invaluable part of the process. However, unlike childhood, when parents play the most significant role in shepherding their child into positive self regard through genuine loving actions, no one can heal an emotionally deprived adult, as that key developmental window of opportunity has already passed.
So the recovery journey of the emotionally neglected child who is now an adult is, to a large extent, a solitary enterprise that requires a ‘reparenting’ of the self. Reparenting involves stepping in to supply the Wounded Child who lives inside the adult with the nurturance, compassion, validation and acceptance that was flagrantly missing in childhood. This can be an extremely challenging task due to the, usually, strong presence of a reflexively negating Inner Critic – aka the Troll – which is the internalized voice of the invalidating or unsupportive parent(s).
This Critic / Troll takes root in early childhood, and often operates unconsciously to undermine the child by convincing her or him that they are defective and unlovable. This programs neglected kids to believe they are fundamentally shameful. This false belief provides a brilliant but destructive way for children to rationalize their parent’s negligent behavior. As such, abused kids protect themselves from overwhelming abandonment terror by blaming themselves, clinging to malignant false hope that if only they can ‘fix’ themselves, then their parents will come to love them.
I cannot stress how profoundly damaging this false belief tends to be, as it’s by far the most tenacious struggle that I see most of my adult clients grappling with. False toxic shame tends to be viewed as ‘facts’, even by the most rational and caring adults, until they can begin to unravel their conditioning through reality testing and challenging the Troll.
Stress & Distress Tolerance
Reparenting the self can also require learning to tolerate normal stress, and managing distress, when too many stressors are going on too long, which can cause harm to the nervous and immune systems. Distress Tolerance skill building includes:
1. Cultivating Secure Attachment with Self and Others – Learning to recognize and feel attracted to situations and people who make you feel safe, secure and valued. Invite these people in.
Understand your attachment style and, if it is insecure, commit to building secure attachment bonds. Focus on your behavior, and be mindful of habitual false negative evaluations of yourself and others. Stop avoiding closeness and commitment to people who genuinely care, as this behavior makes you feel less anxious temporarily at the cost of long term isolation and loneliness. Conversely, interrupt enmeshment behaviors, such as codependency or love addiction. Recognize that your worth is not contingent on caretaking, and also cannot be granted by others.
Get to know others slowly. Reveal yourself gradually. Start with smaller revelations – e.g. where you grew up, not how you were abused. Observe how the other person is reacting to you. If they seem interested, caring and respectful, it is a green light to go a little deeper. If not, you can pull back before any harm is done.
2. Resisting Compulsive Self Harming Actions – Curtailing avoidance / numbing strategies, such as substance abuse, when stressed or triggered. Identifying and meeting legitimate needs in healthy ways.
3. Self Soothing – Treating the distressed self with loving kindness and other anxiety reducing strategies such as creating a ‘container’ for overwhelming emotions and memories; cultivating self acceptance; showing empathy towards the Wounded Child within; hearing and trusting the signs of the authentic self; respecting your core Values as anchors of your needs and feelings.
4. Developing Resilience – Distinguishing between stress and distress to reduce emotional reactivity and avoidance behavior. Avoiding normal unpleasant emotions impairs connection with the self and others, and can lead to blocking off or missing vital information. Understand that not all stress is negative. For example, we need a slight elevation of stress in order to be able to perform well under normal pressures, such as taking a test or giving a presentation. Learning to tolerate, then gradually become comfortable with one lower level stressor at a time increases confidence. This may also require overcoming misguided social pressure to feel good all the time, which leads to more stress and avoidance via hypervigilance or being on guard. Tolerating stress builds connection to self and others.
How to Start – Choose a normal stressor you’d like to feel more at ease with. Ask yourself ‘What stressor(s) would I like to become more comfortable with?’ For example, attending a gathering where you don’t know everyone. Mindfully cultivate curiosity and observe the feelings that come up in your body. Decide how you want to feel during and after the ‘stress test’.
You are so much more than the bad things that happened to you
Meeting Unmet Core Needs
Recovery from childhood neglect may involve expanding your courage by identifying and doing the right thing for yourself and others in spite of old fears of rejection or abandonment. In the process of stretching into courage, you will be acting on behalf of your legitimate needs – what you need to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to – which in turn strengthens emotional resilience and healthy boundaries. It may require that you act the opposite of how you were conditioned to behave. For example, standing up for yourself, rather than giving up out of fear of punishment.
Role Models and Mentors
Do you need a support system of like minded folks who understand what you’ve been through because they’ve been there? Many people benefit from participation in recovery groups such as Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA). As you progress on your healing journey you may discover that a mentor – someone who’s further along – can be tremendously helpful.
Therapy and Coaching
Not everyone is cut out for support groups, and / or may need deeper level emotional assistance. Therapy and coaching for survivors of childhood abuse focuses on providing an individualized deep dive into processing emotions, while developing a deeper level of self trust and acceptance through the dismantling of false negative programming, with the help of a professional guide. This is what I call supportive witness work.
A supportive witness – whether a Therapist or Coach – should have a solid understanding of relationship trauma, attachment and developmental theory. The goal is discovery and integration of the authentic self, which may be achieved through anxiety and / or trauma management strategies so that emotions and memories are experienced voluntarily, while reducing involuntary events such as emotional overwhelm or numbing. False negative beliefs need to be confronted and overcome with reality testing, so the survivor can reclaim their true narrative. Relationship challenges are explored and new healthy interdependency skills built. Most clients need to grieve the loss of parents they never had and will never get. Above all, survivors need to be believed, heard and validated. They need to realize that they matter to themselves and the world – a truth that was denied them for far too long.
Photo – Annie Spratt
Notes / References
1. Young, PhD, Klosko, PhD & Weishaar, PhD – Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide, 2003
2. George Simon – PhD, Essentials for the Journey: Embracing and Living the 10 Commandments of Character – Proven Principles for a Psychologically Healthy and Spiritually Rich Life, 2021
Need help overcoming Childhood Emotional Deprivation, Family Scapegoating, Complex Trauma or dealing with Narcissistic behavior in relationships? Counseling and Coaching is available by Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, International Association of Psychology and Counseling, specializes in individual and couple recovery from Childhood Abuse, Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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