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Childhood Emotional/Physical Neglect and Impacts in Adulthood

What is Childhood Neglect and How Can it Affect Adult Relationships?

Emotional connection starts to occur when a very small baby makes a noise or gesture and the parent routinely responds with positive attention.  Connection is also built if the parent regularly initiates affection, and positive attention and simply enjoys their child.

When an infant is not attended to or if a child’s attempted connection gets little response, irregular response, or a poor/negative response stress systems become activated in the child and the brain is bathed in stress hormones.  Heightened stress hormones over a long period of time affect short term memory and capacity to learn.  The impact for both pre-school and school aged children is obvious.  Neuroscientists studying the effects of neglect on children’s brains refer to the harm being done by neglect as ‘relationship trauma’ and 'developmental trauma':  brain development is affected when positive attention is not consistently given, when the child does not learn to trust the bond with the care-giver;  an infant perceives neglect as ‘danger;’ and so the brain associates ‘close’ with ‘danger.’ (see the YouTube clips below for more detail).  If protection from others is not maintained or essential medical treatment is not sought the sense of dangerousness is only heightened in the confused child.

When children learn to distrust the safety of their connections with the closest people in their lives (parents/other caregivers) this can impair their capacity to trust those closest to them as adults.  Here is a clip about emotional neglect.



If neglect was physical in nature (a child is not fed or bathed enough and is not provided for adequately) the child is at risk of developing hoarding or ‘collecting’  behaviours that can continue as an adult.  Typically hoarding behaviour is associated with a fear of not having enough, or a predication that ‘I’ll-never-have-enough.’

If for any reason a parent has neglected to take responsibility for the closeness of the relationship with a child, the child may fear that there will be little or no closeness unless they take responsibility for the relationship themselves.  The child may work hard to take an interest in what the parent is interested in rather than the parent doing this for the child.  The child may act like they are ‘hyper-responsible’ in an effort to earn love and admiration, including doing work that is the parent’s work.  This is called ‘inverted-parenting.’  When they become adults, survivors of neglect-induced-inverted-parenting will often find themselves taking too much responsibility in their adult relationships but they may also be prone to giving up when their huge efforts do not generate the kind of loving response they desire or even demand.  Often they may battle an impulse to give up on faith in relationships because it seems “too hard” being responsible for both parties’ ‘relationship work.‘ 

Discovering neglect dynamics and the way they play out in adult life can help a survivor to see the need to place less trust in the distrust they have in the love or care of their closest people.

Any form of child neglect can lead to ongoing strong anxiety when trying to form a close adult relationship, when committing to a serious relationship, or staying close to a partner in a long-term relationship.  The source of the anxiety is often a long-term mystery to the adult since childhood neglect and fear-of-closeness was so ‘normal’ during their growing years.  While the adult survivor of neglect genuinely wants a close relationship the person can typically only tolerate closeness in small doses until the nature of the anxiety is understood and the symptoms are better managed.  Until that happens there is often a pattern of wanting short and intense periods of closeness that are frequently followed by long periods of emotional withdrawal, exceptional commitment to work, sport, or volunteer projects, and/or sabotaging closeness with anger or poor behaviour.

It is also common that adult survivors of neglect have been left so mystified about why they feel so bad so often that they begin to believe it is those closest to them today that are making them feel bad.  When the fog lifts about their apparently ‘normal‘ childhood then adult survivors of neglect may experience a sense of shock that they did not know just how hurt they were as children.  Once the shock is over they may then begin to take more responsibility for their own relationship-anxiety and seek counselling to find ways to manage it better.  With a trauma-informed counsellor’s support you might become much better at understanding relationship-anxiety, communicating the difficulties you experience in trying to stay close to your partner and children, and manage both anxiety and anger much better.  You may discover how hard it has been to ask for your needs to be met.  You may also become better informed about how fear-of-closeness can happen at the same time as fear-of-losing-closeness, and how this can play out in the bedroom.  Appointment details are listed above (to the right).

For more about the science of neglect view the clip below from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.