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Effects Of Emotionally Neglectful And Unresponsive Parents On The Child


I have my own experience of emotionally neglectful and unresponsive parents; they parents divorced when I was eight and I spent much time between then and the age of thirteen acting as my mother’s ‘psychological counselor.’ As I have written about elsewhere, she even referred to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist.’

As I have also written about elsewhere, she permanently expelled me from her house when I was thirteen, and I went to live with my father and stepmother, neither of whom wanted me there and did little to hide these sentiments. My father told me, on the day I moved in, that: ‘ [ I ] had to understand that when my step-mother married [him] she did not realize [I’d] be part of the package.’

Not being totally devoid of intelligence or sensitivity as a child, I immediately understood the chilling implications of this statement. Essentially, I spent the next several years being ignored and the sense I was not wanted pervaded the core of my very being on a daily basis.

Emotional neglect :

When emotional neglect, unresponsiveness, or abuse happens on a daily basis and continues over years the effect is insidious. Often, too, such neglect and abuse are conveyed in subtle ways that are difficult for a child to pin down, fully comprehend, or articulate; the child may ‘just’ have an overwhelming sense of being unloved, disliked, and unwanted. Indeed, many signals of rejection may only register on an unconscious level which, in fact, can make their effect more, rather than less, devastating.

Living in such an environment utterly devoid of warmth or love, the child’s self-esteem and self-respect are gradually eroded away just as surely as the icily cold, relentless waves of the sea eventually grind a small, once shiny, pebble into sand; as a person, one disintegrates.

Pathogenic Relational Environments:

Wright et all (2009) coined the phrase ‘pathogenic relational environment’ to describe households such as the ones in which I lived as a child. ‘Pathogenic’ means ‘giving rise to illness.’ Indeed, growing up in an emotionally abusive and/or emotionally neglectful environment puts the child at increased risk of developing a large array of mental and physical illnesses and conditions in later life, including borderline personality disorder (BPD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD), anxiety, depression, obesity, eating disorders, conduct disorders, heart disease, and cancer, to mention only a few.

What Is Meant By ‘Emotional Unresponsiveness?’

Parents who are emotionally unresponsive display little or no warmth or affection towards their children, including not developing an appropriate tactile relationship with the child (e.g. never hugging him/her).

Emotionally unresponsive parents tend to interact as little as possible with the child, barely speaking to him/her or even largely ignoring him/her. Such parents may, too, try to actively avoid their child.

Also, these parents show little or no interest in the child (e.g. the child’s hobbies, friends, sports, and schoolwork) and offer him/her little emotional support or guidance.

In terms of discipline, this type of parent may favor giving their child the ‘silent treatment.’ (Click here to read my article about parents giving their child the ‘silent treatment.’)

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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