Emotions are biochemical processes that link our bodies to our brains. They serve both a biological and developmental purpose in our lives. Each one has a specific and deep-rooted function that has allowed our species to survive, adapt, and evolve. Experiencing emotion can arguably be one of the most collective human experiences we can name.
Fear, for instance, works to guard us against potential dangers. Anger often arises when we feel like our rights have been violated. Happiness can act as a reward and motivate us to invest time and effort into whichever activity triggers it. In contrast, sadness can be an indicator of loss.
Emotional regulation begins in childhood
It is easy to forget that children experience the same emotions as adults do, in all their complexities and nuances. The truth is that children are often left to their own devices when they encounter their feelings, and they rarely handle them constructively, as they have no actual knowledge of understanding, recognizing, naming, and appropriately expressing their emotions. Unless children receive guidance and support, they can tend to react in a disorganized manner to their feelings. This can be seen in children when they’re throwing tantrums or crying uncontrollably.
What is childhood emotional neglect?
Childhood emotional neglect is particularly difficult to spot. Unlike trauma or abuse, it is not blatantly inflicted upon someone; instead, it is more often about something missing from the child’s upbringing. And how are you supposed to know, as a child, that you grew up missing something?
Parents and caretakers can model healthy emotional management when they notice, acknowledge, validate and discuss their child’s feelings. This modeling, in turn, normalizes the emotional process and helps them grow adequately equipped to face and manage their feelings.
Childhood emotional neglect occurs in the absence of this normalization process. It will typically linger if it remains unaddressed and has the power to taint relationships well into adulthood. The irony also resides in the fact that there is no place for blame. More often than not, it is passed down from one generation to the next. Parents or caretakers, in most cases, are not aware that they are insufficiently catering to their child’s emotional needs. But being unaware does not take away from its impact on a child’s emotional health.
Some telltale signs of childhood emotional neglect can include, (only to name a few):
- Discomfort with the expression of feelings from self or others
- An internal conviction of being inexplicably flawed
- A tendency to berate oneself and lean towards guilt and shame
- A lack of understanding of how feelings work (spotting them upon trigger, naming them to oneself and others, and managing them constructively) A chronic feeling of emptiness or numbness
The impact on adult relationships
Emotional awareness is a necessary component of relationships. It allows both parties to support and understand each other and fosters a general sense of connectedness and security. If one of the partners suffers from unresolved childhood emotional neglect, this can lead to one or both partners feeling emotionally « lonely » in the relationship, which can be pretty daunting. From an interpersonal perspective, it’s like being separated from everyone else by a wall that you can feel but cannot see because you don’t know what you’re looking for. This is what makes it so pernicious: how can you tackle something you never learned how to recognize in the first place?
However, not all hope is lost for those of us who grew up without emotional education and guidance. We are not sentenced to lead emotionally vacant lives. We should not settle for this; what’s more, we do not have to experience it alone. Emotional awareness and connectedness are not something you have or don’t have; they are a set of skills you can foster in your life. Just like the muscles in your body, it’s something you build and get better at every day with continuous practice.
Healing from childhood emotional neglect
1) Educate yourself: The first step to emotional healing is to acquire the necessary knowledge to unlearn destructive cycles. In other words, it is about parenting yourself and providing your inner child with the comfort and validation essential to thrive emotionally. This is an ongoing journey, and the goal is to strive toward progress rather than perfection.
2) Drop the labels: Practical measures like learning to identify and name your emotions, and embracing them, can go a long way. Dropping the harmful labels, we grew up learning is also extremely helpful. There are no “good” or “bad” emotions; all emotions ought to be accepted, funneled, and regulated and altogether make up a rich and meaningful life.
3) Validate and share: It is essential to validate your feelings as much as possible and communicate them to yourself and others. You feel the things you feel for a reason, and that is okay!
4) Ask for help: You can and should, of course, turn to family, friends, mental health professionals, or anyone you trust and feel safe to engage with.
There is no shortage of ways to learn about and express our emotions. Soon enough, you can start to reap the benefits of your newly acquired emotional growth and perhaps even share your skills with others. For those of us who have or plan to have children of our own, this is an invaluable opportunity to pass their knowledge onto future generations by modeling a healthy expression of emotions.