Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind. Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dr. Rahil Briggs as Dr. Rachel Briggs. We apologize for the error.
You’re probably pretty confident that you’d be able to recognize whether you or your child was being physically abused, but what about emotional abuse?
Abuse is abuse no matter which form it takes. And according to experts, emotional abuse in the form of childhood emotional neglect can actually be one of the most harmful.
“Neglect is the most damaging of all,” says Dr. Diane Robert Stoller, also known as “Dr. Diane,” a Boston-based neuropsychologist and co-author of Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. “Neglect is not being seen.”
As Dr. Rahil Briggs, PsyD, director of the HealthySteps program and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine explains, there is actually no distinction between emotional and physical abuse. All types of abuse fall under the umbrella of trauma. And trauma encompasses everything from physical trauma, like a child being beaten or hurt, to emotional pain and neglect.
“Trauma is not just a house fire or a car accident or something very headline-worthy,” she adds. “It can be very traumatic to children to consistently, constantly, and in a predictable way have their emotional needs disregarded. Or even worse, be told that they shouldn’t have them as children, if they are just asking for basic care and comfort.”
The effects of emotional trauma
Unlike physical scars, the long-lasting effects of emotional trauma are harder to see. Emotional neglect can take place in the form of a family that provides all of a child’s material needs, but never takes the time to get to know them. Emotional trauma can be in the form of a parent battling the demons of addiction that is unable to be fully present. Emotional trauma can look like a parent who favors one child over another, or a parent who is too busy to attend any of his kid’s sporting events. Emotional trauma, in a nutshell, is the repeated and consistent neglect of the emotional well-being of a child.
There is a lot of interesting research on how childhood emotional neglect affects both our mental and physical health. For example, one study found that childhood emotional neglect actually increases the reactivity of the brain’s amygdala, which controls how we interpret and respond to stressful stimuli. But all types of trauma can lead to a wide range of negative effects, both in childhood and later in life, including:
- Higher rates of negative behavioral activities, such as drug use
- More physical health diagnoses, like cancer and heart disease
- Increased ADHD
- Mental health disorders
According to Dr. Diane, childhood neglect is more likely to cause a child to grow up in fear, learning to either become very aggressive or withdrawn, and turn blame inwards. And because that consistent trauma triggers the autonomic nervous system, neglect also has long-lasting physical effects, as well. Dr. Briggs likens the physical toll that emotional trauma takes on the human body to a car being driven at top speeds 24/7 without a break. “The car would break down faster,” she explains.
What does emotional neglect look like?
Ironically, as talk to Dr. Briggs, I essentially ignore my 3-year-old as she clamors for my attention. So, am I neglecting her? Am I ruining her forever?
Dr. Briggs assures me that ignoring your kid now and then when you’re on the phone is not a problem — it’s a repeated pattern of neglect that causes damage.
“It can be quite overwhelming to parents; there are 24 hours in a day and if you think to yourself, ‘Well, I have to be emotionally responsive to my child all 24 of those hours’, that’s a benchmark that no one can, nor should, meet,” she explains.
Instead, she suggests starting with something as simple as talking with your kid at the end of the day and remembering that some positive stress for kids is necessary for children to learn and grow. Dr. Diane also points out that children require different emotional “watering,” just like plants.
“That parent is supposed to be able to see … when to water it and when not to,” she explains. “Certain plants you need to water every day; other ones you need to water every week.”
I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t a horrible parent after all, but not so relieved to discover that my daughter had adorned her entire body in green marker while I was on the phone.
How to identify emotional neglect in yourself
Outside of green markers, however, one issue adults may encounter is coming face-to-face with their own childhood trauma once they become parents. Because so many people have yet to recognize their own emotional trauma and the subsequent impact it had on their lives, it can take an event, like becoming a parent, for that trauma to come flooding back.
Dr. Briggs notes that if you notice yourself having “abnormally intense” reactions to your child’s crying, or if you are unable to parent the way you want to, you may have some repressed childhood trauma that needs to be dealt with. She even adds that parents who have had trauma in the past tend to struggle intensely with sleep training, simply because they can’t handle the thought of their baby crying.
Dr. Diane explains that you might even recognize the effects of emotional abuse in yourself in something as simple as how you react to acts of kindness, such as compliments or a hug. Ask yourself:
Do you immediately stiffen up when someone reaches for you in a hug?
Do you have a hard time getting close to people?
Do you think someone is lying if they compliment you?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, a history of childhood emotional neglect may help explain why. “If you’ve been neglected, someone being nice to you feels uncomfortable,” Dr. Diane says. Other symptoms include: excessive independence (because you learned quickly that you couldn’t count on anyone for your own needs) and caregiving to others (due to the lack of caregiving provided to you). All of these things can lead to the creation of an emotional wall that prevents you from allowing people to get close to you.
If you suspect that you may be a victim of childhood emotional neglect, there is hope. Overcoming childhood emotional abuse for yourself so that you can parent effectively starts with assessing your own mental health with a mental health provider.
Like many physicians, Dr. Briggs believes mental health check-ups should be just as common as physical check-ups. She states, “There’s no health without mental health, and there’s no childhood mental health without parental mental health.”