Skip to main content

Healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect

May 2, 2024

Written By Tina Hamilton, The Healing Parent

Childhood emotional neglect is the “failure of caregivers to provide adequate emotional support, validation, and attention to a child or dependent adult1.” Last month, we dove deep into Childhood Emotional Neglect – what it is, what it looks like, the signs you experienced it as a child, and how it relates to you as a parent. If you missed it, be sure to check it out here.

If you identified as possibly experiencing emotional neglect as a child, the next question you likely have is: Now what?

Experiencing emotional neglect as a child essentially means that you grew up without having a trusted adult or caregiver who could support you through big emotions. 

As a parent who experienced childhood emotional neglect, this can mean several things. Three of them being: 

  1. Those big emotions were never processed and released. They live in your body, stored in the inner child. Those big emotions are then triggered whenever you experience a similar situation as an adult. This may mean that your reactions feel overwhelming or bigger than what might feel necessary. 
  1. Your emotional intelligence and development is limited. Said without any judgment, this is common for adults who were not given the space to feel their emotions as children. You may find that you are not familiar with how some emotions feel in your body or you may find that you have a predominant emotion (such as anger or shame). 
  1. Helping your children through their big emotions feels impossible. You might find yourself shutting your child’s emotions down or hurrying them through an emotion. You can feel uncomfortable and irritable when your child is experiencing a big emotion. 

Healing from the effects of childhood emotional neglect can be difficult, but it is not impossible given appropriate resources and strategies. Here are several ways that you can get started:

  1. Practice self-compassion. When you are overcome with an emotion, it is likely that it is accompanied by a sense of shame. You may find yourself saying things like:

You’re overreacting. 

You don’t deserve to be upset.

Big girls don’t cry.

When you notice this, close your eyes, place a hand on your heart, and take a deep breath. Allow the breath you reach the deepest part of your lungs. Slowly exhale as though you are blowing out candles, and as you do, imagine the thoughts leaving your body. 

Replace those thoughts with a positive affirmation such as: “I feel deeply, and that is OK,” or “I am a human having a human reaction.” Remind yourself that you are safe. 

Why is this important? As a child, you may have been taught that your feelings are not important or that they are overwhelming or inappropriate. Feelings are just feelings. They are not good or bad, nor do they say anything about who you are as a person. To be human is to feel. By practicing self-compassion and allowing yourself to experience the feelings, you are allowing your body to experience the full breadth of humanity. The more you affirm that you are safe and that feelings are a normal part of living, the more comfortable you will become experiencing feelings as they arise in your body. 

  1. Engage in somatic exercises. Somatic exercise is the practice of moving your body with the goal of connecting with your inner world, rather than focusing on a performance-driven outcome, such as muscle toning or increased stamina. Somatic exercises include modalities such as yoga, interpretive dance, and conscious breathing. The idea is that the movements that you do are specifically attuned to your individual needs, rather than a prescriptive program. 

A simple somatic exercise is a progressive relaxation technique coupled with diaphragmatic breathing. 

  1. Find a comfortable position, preferably lying down. 
  2. With one hand on your belly the other on your chest, inhale and send your breath toward the hand on your belly. Allow your belly to expand, pushing your hand out. 
  3. Inhale to a count of four, hold for two, and exhale for six. Repeat this breath as you scan your body, beginning at the toes. 
  4. Tighten the muscles in your toes and feet as you inhale and hold. On the exhale, release the muscles. 
  5. On your next inhale, tighten your calf muscles. On the exhale release. 
  6. Continue this process, moving up your body, one muscle group at a time (knees/thighs, glutes, abdomen, shoulders/chest, arms/hands, neck/jaw, face). 
  7. Once you finish, take 3 – 5 more diaphragmatic breaths, allowing the sensation of complete relaxation to move through your body. 
  1. Build your emotional awareness. Did you know that there are 87 different emotions? Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart is a fantastic resource to help you learn about the different emotions and what they look and feel like in the body, and how to move through them.

The more you can learn about the different emotions available to you, the better able you will be able to identify and navigate through them as they arise within you. As an added bonus, you will be able to identify the different emotions as they present in your children, supporting them as they experience the emotions. 

  1. Write your inner child a letter. Perhaps one of my favorite practices, this is a great way to connect with your inner child to provide the support and comfort that was needed as a child. If you can, find a picture of yourself from childhood. It is often easier to connect with your inner child with a picture present, but if you don’t have access to one, close your eyes and bring to mind a younger version of yourself. Try to bring the child in with as much detail as possible. How did you wear your hair? What type of clothes did you like to wear? What colors are you wearing? Do you have a favorite toy or stuffed animal with you? 

Once you have an image (or picture) available, begin writing a letter to your younger self. Acknowledge the pain and loneliness that they experienced. Validate those experiences, and tell your younger self what you needed to hear as a child. Offer them the love, compassion, support, and encouragement that you wished you received at that time in your life. If you are a parent, it can sometimes help to imagine what you would say (or wish you could say) to your child when they are experiencing a big emotion.

  1. Seek support from a licensed therapist or coach. Having a trusted therapist or coach can make the process of healing from childhood emotional neglect feel less overwhelming. This person can hold space for every part of you that longs to be seen and heard, and help you to find self-compassion and understanding. 

These practices are the start to a lifelong journey of healing the wounds from childhood. It is important to remember that there is no finish line. Healing is a practice that has mountains and valleys. Some days you will swiftly move through an emotion with ease, and other days, you may find yourself repeating patterns and behaviors that you thought you processed and released. 

Remember to always have compassion for yourself. You are permitted to feel exactly how you feel without adding shame or guilt. Everything you feel is a normal part of life. Allow the emotion to bubble up, feel it fully, and then allow it to move through you.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized medical advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.