Cruel words hurt. They stay with you throughout life, especially when they come from the people who should love us, care for us, and support us. They often undermine our self-esteem and become a drag on our development. However, the impact of unsaid words, of a lack of affection, can also be immense, especially when that emotional indifference comes from the parents.
What fathers and mothers do not say to their children can be as important as what they express, especially when children need words or gestures that comfort, console, encourage or simply make them feel loved and valued. Negative and uncaring body language, repeated over a long period of time, can make children feel unwanted, unlovable, or insufficient. The consequences of this absence of attention and love generate a lack of affection that can carry into adulthood.
The weight of what never happened
Many people are able to remember their parents’ hurtful words or actions particularly well. They may remember that time when they were humiliated in front of everyone, when they were unfairly reprimanded or when they were threatened. After all, it is easier for our brain to remember the events that have marked us. We can identify who caused us harm, remember where we were, how everything unfolded and even how we felt.
However, remembering unspoken words is more complicated. Remember the hugs not given. Non-existent compassion. Zero support. The lack of knowing glances. The comforting pampering… It’s hard to remember what didn’t exist. But what did not exist can also leave an emotional mark that accompanies us for life. What did not exist can create a deep lack of affection.
In fact, emotional neglect suffered in childhood can leave wounds as painful as physical abuse. Both are forms of abuse, and while abused children feel physically, emotionally, and verbally hurt, emotionally abandoned children feel alone, empty, imperfect, and unworthy. As a result, many people carry this lack of affection without being fully aware of where it comes from.
Childhood emotional neglect = lack of affection in adults
Childhood emotional neglect refers to all the affection and support we needed, but didn’t get. It occurs when a child does not receive enough attention, love, and emotional validation from his or her parents, who ignore or minimize his or her emotional needs simply because they are too busy or because they think they are not that important.
Emotional neglect is often invisible, so it is not easy to identify, but its consequences have long tentacles. In fact, the insidious nature of childhood emotional neglect is precisely what gives it such terrible power.
Studies are revealing that emotionally deprived children, whose emotional needs have been neglected, have worse physical and mental health as adults. Many people who suffered emotional abuse as children show feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, dissatisfaction, receive less social support, are at greater risk of developing mental disorders, and may even suffer brain changes due to the stress suffered at a time when they were particularly vulnerable.
In this sense, researchers from the University of Heidelberg found that emotional neglect was associated with lower levels of oxytocin in the blood, known as the love or hug hormone, a neurotransmitter that generates pleasure and well-being, in addition to promoting empathy and affective ties. People who had been neglected by their parents also showed insecure attachment, emotional deficiencies, high fear and avoidance of social situations, which probably prevents them from building a solid support network to sustain them when things go wrong.
Give ourselves the love that our parents were not able to provide us
Many adults have not received the emotional care they needed and grew up without feeling the love, understanding and support of their parents. Approximately 36% of people believe they have suffered emotional deprivation in their childhood, to the point that emotional neglect is currently considered the main form of violence in the first years of life.
You may discover that your self-esteem and self-confidence problems, insecurity in relationships, that feeling of not being enough or that urgent need for affection come from emotional neglect suffered in childhood, from unsaid words of support and ungiven hugs.
However, although it may seem difficult to change the feelings you have carried for so long, you do not have to resign yourself to living with that burden. Maybe your parents may not have been able to give you the attention and love you needed, but you can give it yourself. Just because your parents weren’t emotionally present doesn’t mean you have to treat yourself the same way. It is never too late to make up for an affective deficiency.
Ask yourself: what do you wish your parents had told you? Your response is the key to start healing because it will reveal that deep unmet emotional need to you.
Next, ask yourself how you can give yourself what your parents refused or could not offer you. Listen to your feelings. If you have suffered emotional neglect, it is likely that you are not very used to connecting with your emotional part, but you can take on this exercise with curiosity, as a journey of inner rediscovery, an opportunity to connect with the emotions and feelings that you have silenced for so long.
Recognize that your feelings matter. Don’t repress or ignore them. Let them flow. Validate them. If deep down you feel that you are insufficient, you need to recognize your value as a person. If you are afraid that the others will abandon you, you need to recognize that you are worthy of being loved. If you desperately seek attention from others, you need to love yourself more to feel like you are enough. Reflect on what you needed and didn’t get so you can give it to yourself now.
Break old patterns with love and understanding
Remember that it is easy to fall into old mental patterns that you learned at home and push aside your feelings, treating them as if they are not important. However, if you keep in touch with that part of you relegated to the background, little by little you will be able to discover more about yourself and develop your Emotional Intelligence.
Thus you will begin a new generational pattern that you can give to your children or to the people you love. At the end of the day, remember that we all need a few kind words and a comforting hug.
Children especially need affection, encouragement and support. They need their parents to ask them how are they feeling? and pay attention to their answers. They need their parents to validate their emotions and help them manage them assertively, instead of simply ignoring them as if they don’t matter. They need their parents to tell them “I’m proud of you,” “I love you,” or “I support you.”
Phrases of reaffirmation and gestures of love do not spoil children or make them weak, on the contrary, they are the seeds from which a bulletproof self-esteem will germinate that will allow them to deal better with the world. Without hugs and understanding words, we risk raising broken adults. Therefore, do not miss the opportunity to tell or show your child how much you love him or her.
Mwakanyamale, A. A. et. Al. (2022) Childhood emotional neglect experiences as a risk factor for psychological distress among adolescents in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: A community-based cross sectional study. Journal of Clinical Images and Medical Case Reports; 3(1): 1533.
Kumari, V. (2020) Emotional abuse and neglect: time to focus on prevention and mental health consequences. Br J Psychiatry; 217(5): 597–599.
Müller, L. E. et. Al. (2019) Emotional neglect in childhood shapes social dysfunctioning in adults by influencing the oxytocin and the attachment system: Results from a population-based study. Int J Psychophysiol; 136: 73-80.