Boston Sex Therapist Asks: What Is Emotional Neglect and Why Is It Important to Understand It?
Posted on May 4, 2015 by Aline Zoldbrod
By Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D.
What is emotional neglect and why is it important to understand it? In 1973, the brilliant Boston pediatrician and former medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Child Protection program, Eli Newberger wrote “the essential element in child abuse is not the intention to destroy a child but rather the inability of a parent to nurture (his or her) offspring.” (emphasis is mine.) Emotional neglect is what the child suffers when a parent does not attend to the child’s emotional needs. Professionals in the field of childhood abuse, for decades, have pointed out that emotional neglect co-occurs with every other kind of childhood abuse (physical, emotional and sexual.)
But child abuse professionals also point out that emotional neglect may have occurred to you in your family in the absence of any other kind of visible abuse. And you may not have recognized it. And this is not the kind of child abuse that governmental agencies notice, or count. None of your teachers could report your parents for neglecting you. You could have experienced profound and lifelong emotional neglect from your parents, and no one ever would have noticed.
Even subtle kinds of emotional neglect have a huge effect on children’s development, particularly in the early years of life. It is so sad to realize that the impact of emotional neglect is the most damaging when the child is too young to speak to others.
Practicing Boston sex therapy, I once had a patient, let’s call him Jeffrey, whose mother was a terrible alcoholic. Jeffrey was left alone for hours and days while his mother was drinking. When you are ignored that profoundly and decidedly, it is almost impossible to believe that another person will care about you. Jeff was once in an adult child of alcoholics (ACOA) group, and he noticed a young woman there who was attractive. But he was unable to reach out and make any kind of contact with her.
When I asked him whether he smiled at her, he looked at me and said, “I think if I smiled at her, she’d mace me.”
This young man had been so ignored in his own home that he could not believe that any other human being would enjoy being in relationship with him.
Did this happen to you? The chances are good that even if you have experienced emotional neglect in your childhood, you did not recognize it. As I discussed in my book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998), for each of us, our childhood is normal, it’s all that we have ever known. Unlike experiencing physical abuse, or emotional abuse, having had concrete experiences of toxic interactions that you can put into words and remember, emotionally neglect is the absence of good and loving and empathic interactions. How can you identify the absence of something you never had? Usually you can’t.
As I discussed in my book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998), for each of us, our childhood is normal, it’s all that we have ever known. The other piece of awareness (or non-awareness) of one’s own past emotional neglect has to do with the fact that it is extremely painful to identify oneself as a victim of the very people who were supposed to most love and protect you.
The stages of my Milestones of Sexual Development identify just what was missing if you suffered emotional neglect. (see http://sexsmart.com/solving-problems/ to see my model.) Look at the early stages of my model. You did not get kind love, you did not get tender and appropriate touch, you did not get empathy (emotional resonance with what you were feeling) and so you did not build up trust to others.
The biggest clue that you may have suffered emotional neglect comes from the negative beliefs you have about your own worth. Common negative beliefs may include:
I don’t’ deserve love.
I am worthless
I am not lovable
I am insignificant
I am ugly
I deserve to be miserable
I am not good enough
I deserve only bad things.
Does this sound like you? If so, I have one piece of help, and it is one that does not cost money. If you were emotionally neglected, even if neither parent was an alcoholic, joining an Adult Children of Alcoholics group is very helpful. The first step in healing from emotional neglect is identifying that that is what happened to you, and an ACOA group can help you do just that.
Aline Zoldbrod Ph.D. is a renowned Boston sex therapist and psychologist and the author of the award winning book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998). You can find out more at http://www.SexSmart.com.