Emotional Neglect: What Is It and How to Cope?

Neglect occurs when someone who is responsible for another person’s needs fails to meet them.

Often, we refer to neglect in the context of parent- or caregiver-child relationships. Note that neglect can also occur in relationships where one adult is taking care of another adult who is mentally incapacitated or disabled.

On the most basic level, parents or primary caregivers are responsible for feeding children, bathing them, making sure their hygiene is taken care of, clothing them, taking them to school, taking them to doctor’s appointments, and ensuring their safety.

If these benchmarks are not met on a consistent basis, it is considered to be neglect.

The Nuance of Neglect

Sometimes, parents are not able to meet the needs of their children due to their own mental health problems, disabilities, poverty, or domestic violence. This is not considered neglect. If anything, it is neglect of the child’s parents by society.

In these cases, families need to be linked to resources and communities who can help them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. And when children’s needs are not met, regardless of the reasons or what we call it, they suffer short- and long-term impacts.

What Is Emotional Neglect?

Emotional neglect occurs when parents ignore, minimize, or put at risk their child’s emotional well-being.

All parents are guilty of emotionally failing their kids at times when they are stressed or tired. But emotional neglect is different. It’s either acute, meaning an emotional failure at a time of crisis, or chronic, meaning a child’s emotional need is unmet over and over throughout their development.

Possible* Signs of Emotional Neglect

  • Giving a kid presents or clothing that don’t reflect their preferences.
  • Signing a kid up for sports or activities without asking them for their input.
  • Making their kid’s injury or diagnosis about themselves and how hard it is for them.
  • Not celebrating a kid’s birthday, or celebrating it in a way that prioritises their own interests, not their child’s.
  • Lack of boundaries and rules (for example, a parent who drinks with their adolescent kid or doesn’t require a curfew). 
  • Ignoring/not discussing a significant death in the family after it occurs.

*If a parent did one of these things one time, it may not be emotional neglect. However, if it was a very traumatic incident or happened many times, it may be emotional neglect.

Why Haven’t I Heard of Emotional Neglect?

Emotional neglect is not as well-known or talked about as other types of abuse and neglect. Why is this?

First, it’s a more recent idea that caregivers are responsible for their children’s emotional well-being.

Second, emotional neglect is harder to measure. While everyone agrees that children need to be fed and clothed, there’s still a lot of debate about how (or if) parents are obligated to meet their kids’ emotional needs.

Third, as Dr. Jonice Webb states, emotional neglect is more about what didn’t happen as opposed to what did happen. This also makes it harder to quantify than abuse, for example.

Even though it’s less well-known and understood than other types of abuse and neglect, emotional neglect can be just as impactful.

Signs You Are an Adult Who Was Emotionally Neglected in Childhood

  • You feel unsure of who you really are or what you want in life
  • Never feeling good enough
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • A sense that you haven’t met your potential
  • Experiencing life as an outsider or outcast
  • Feeling like everyone else has a manual to life and relationships that you never got
  • “Imposter syndrome” - thinking you are somehow tricking everyone into liking you or believing you are good at what you do
  • Having a harsh inner critic
  • Struggling with self-discipline
  • Feeling like you don’t truly belong anywhere
  • Not being able to label your emotions or why you feel how you feel
  • Having great difficulty asking for help or reaching out when you’re struggling
  • You would rather isolate yourself than cope with the pain of being misunderstood or hurt in relationships

How to Deal With Emotional Neglect

Read our free eBook Understanding and Healing Trauma. It provides not only more information, but also, practical advice on how to recover.

See a psychotherapist! They can help you work through your childhood emotional neglect and how it still impacts you today.

Use a mood tracker or a journal. Many people with emotional neglect have difficulty identifying their own emotions and needs. If you pay closer attention to how you’re feeling day to day, it may help.

Identify and prioritize your preferences. If you have a hobby or interest, pursue it. If you don’t, pursue lots of different things until you land on something you’re passionate about.

Trauma-Informed Self-Guided Support for Mental Health

Research shows that self-help materials are often enough for people to overcome mild to moderate mental health difficulties without professional support.

If you’re interested in a trauma-informed self-guided program, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit.

The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit


About Rebecca

Rebecca Ogle, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social worker and therapist in Chicago, IL.

Rebecca provides therapy to people with anxiety, low self-esteem, and people pleasing tendencies. She uses a feminist and social justice lens, and interventions based in CBT, mindfulness, and motivational interviewing.

For helpful, free content, follow her on Instagram or go to her website.