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What Are The Effects Of Emotional Neglect Of A Child?

What Are The Effects Of Emotional Neglect / Emotional Deprivation On The Child?

A child who is emotionally neglected / emotionally deprived may be treated with indifference, as if s/he is of no importance, ignored, or almost as if s/he does not exist. It is the absence and withholding of the attention and approval the child expects and needs that does the damage. It may involve the child often being given ‘the silent treatment( one of my own mother’s inexhaustible supply of specialities in psychological torture when I was a kid), not being listened to, not having his/her views and feelings acknowledged or validated and frequently experiencing his/her parent/s turning their back on him/her (either literally or metaphorically).

One of the main effects such treatment will often have upon the child is that s/he will start to seek attention through ‘bad’ behaviour (e.g. confrontational behaviour, outbursts of rage and temper etc). The reason for this is often that even negative attention is better than nothing (although frequently this ‘reasoning’ will be operating on an unconscious level). This is because total withdrawal by the parent/s and the complete withholding of any type of relationship, and the consequent feeling of total and utter rejection, would be psychologically catastrophic for the child.

Such neglect / emotional deprivation is particularly confusing for the child when his/her parent/s, despite their emotional neglect of him/her, meet his/her material needs more than adequately or even extravagantly. This is because the child may feel intense guilt criticizing his/her parents when they do so much for him/her in financial terms. Indeed, some parents who are aware that they are emotionally neglecting their child may overcompensate  by materially spoiling the child as a way of diminishing their own feelings of guilt, or, in a sense, in order to ‘buy the child off.’ Such a situation produces intense psychological conflict in the child’s mind. Obviously, the child requires both physical AND emotional nurturing.


Children who are emotionally neglected may be so adversely psychologically affected that they experience a developmental delay. They may, too, become so hungry for an emotional attachment that they start to cling to other adults outside of the family. Eating disorders may also occur; food, or the control of the intake of food, becomes a substitute for a proper emotional relationship. Also, the child may start to self-harm – this may take the form of self-biting, cutting, scratching etc.

Sometimes, in adult life, the person who was neglected as a child may become an ‘over-achiever’ and accomplish a great deal in life; it has been theorized that, at the root of this, is an unconscious desire to finally attain the interest, approval and admiration of the parent/s which could not be obtained during their childhood.


Eventually, it may be necessary for us to realize and acknowledge that the person/s who neglected us was a flawed human being with their own psychological difficulties. It may have been the case that, as children, our presence was not sufficient to over-ride these psychological difficulties our parent/s had, especially, for example, if they themselves were mentally unwell or had a serious substance abuse problem. It may be that the person we wanted our parent/s to be, or believed they could be, never existed except as an idealized image in our own minds.


It is extremely common for those who were abused as children to feel responsible for their own ill-treatment and to believe that they must be a ‘bad’ person. Why should this erroneous belief arise so frequently? The main theory that seeks to explain this is that if we can deceive ourselves into believing that the abuse we suffered was our own fault, and not the fault of our parent/s, we can delude ourselves into clinging onto the hope that there is a chance that, if we change, our parent/s will become the person we want them to be, that they are good parents after all. It seems that, on some level, we would prefer to believe we ourselves are bad than to believe that our parents were.

In order to shake off this delusion and rid ourselves of the guilt of believing we are bad and somehow ‘deserved’ our abuse, it may be necessary for us to finally come to the realization that our parent/s will never become the person we want, no matter what we do. In this way we may perhaps finally be able to rid ourselves of guilt and start to rebuild a sense of our own worth as human beings.

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

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