Is Emotional Neglect From Childhood Holding You Back?

Originally Posted in: Psychology Today by Dr. Jonice Webb, Ph. D.

As an expert on childhood emotional neglect, I have discovered that scores of people have had something vital robbed from them in childhood. And most don’t know that it’s missing.

It’s their voice.

Not literally, of course. Most emotionally neglected people have plenty to say and they say it. They are quick to say things like:

How are you?

Is something wrong?

Yes, I’ll do that favor for you.

All’s well here!

I’m fine.

I don’t need any help.

Sure, I’ll do that with you.

I’m happy to take on that task, go ahead and give it to me.

While this may seem like a random collection of statements, they all share a common theme. They are all about “you” and not about “me.” They are all made frequently by people with childhood emotional neglect. They convey the life stance of those who grew up with their emotions ignored: “It’s all about you.”

The Voice of a Typical Child

If you have ever spent time around an infant, you know that they express themselves freely. Before they have words, they cry or giggle to communicate what they feel. They point out the car window and yell, “Truck!” as soon as they know how to say it.

Children are born with a voice that they are innately wired to use. What a baby feels and thinks has no filter. It comes out automatically and immediately.

But sadly, too many children must start filtering their voices all too soon.

The Voice of the Emotionally Neglected Child

Imagine being a child and your feelings are hurt. Your face and body language show your emotions clearly for all to see. But your parents act as if everything is fine and don’t seem to notice.

Imagine going to your parents for help, but they are not available.

Imagine walking through every day of your life as a child seldom being asked:

Why are you sad today?

Did something happen at school to get you upset?

Is this scary for you?

What do you want?

What do you feel?

What do you need?

When you don’t get asked these questions enough, it is natural for your child brain to assume that your personal feelings, wants, and needs do not matter. Why express them when no one really cares anyway?

Imagine going through every day of your childhood receiving little feedback about who you are. Feedback such as:

You are amazing at math. But we need to work on your focus at school.

You seem to get bored at baseball practice.

You have a great sense of humor!

Your temper gets the best of you sometimes.

You’re my little pizza lover.

You like to help others. It’s so sweet to see.

I love how you want to make the people around you laugh.

You seem to be unhappy when your friend _______ is here.

When you don’t hear these kinds of observations and feedback enough, you don’t learn two vital things that you are meant to learn in childhood:

You don’t get to learn who you really are.

And you do not find out that you are worth knowing.

Your Voice Now

This is how, growing up in a family that did not notice, validate, or show interest in you, you learned that your feelings do not matter. It is how, bereft of enough emotional response and care, you learned that you should hold your true self back.

This is how, by asking for things and having your words enter an empty void, you learned that it hurts to speak up. It is how childhood emotional neglect took your voice away.

How to Take Back Your Voice

You were born with a strong voice. Your voice is there, inside of you, waiting to be reclaimed.

When you learn about childhood emotional neglect, you will begin to realize how it happened to you and start to see it in many different aspects of your life. You will discover how separated you have become from your true inner self, and so also from others. Understanding this will help you see that there is a “you” inside that you have been ignoring all these years.

Start tracking what you want, feel, and need. What do you like? What and who do you enjoy? Where do you want to go? What bores you, annoys you, or troubles you? Pay attention.

Once you know who you are better, you can learn the skills to express it. Learn all you can about assertiveness, which is the ability to say things in a way that others can, and will, hear it. Practice saying, “I want__.” “I feel__.” “I need__.” Each time you speak up, it is easier to do the next time.

Every Time You Speak Up You Send a Message to Your True Self

Just as each time you speak up makes the next time easier; each time you pay attention to that small, quiet child within, you send him or her a powerful message.

By doing the opposite of what your parents did, by providing for yourself what they couldn’t give, you are validating who you are, and hearing what you need. You are saying to yourself and that silent little child within: You do matter.

What do people do when they know that they matter? They express their feelings, their desires, and their needs.

What will you do when you realize that you matter? You will learn to speak your truth. You will take your voice back.

Jonice Webb, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.




To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You’ll find the link in my Bio.

Gibson JL, Newbury DF, Durkin K, Pickles A, Conti-Ramsden G, Toseeb U. Pathways from the early language and communication environment to literacy outcomes at the end of primary school; the roles of language development and social development. Oxford Rev Educ. (2020) 20:1–24. doi: 10.1080/03054985.2020.1824902

Clegg J, Law J, Rush R, Peters T, Roulstone S. The contribution of early language development to children’s emotional and behavioural functioning at 6 years: an analysis of data from the Children in Focus sample from the ALSPAC birth cohort. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. (2015) 56:67–75. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12281

One thought on “Is Emotional Neglect From Childhood Holding You Back?

  1. Thanks for sharing. This article can help us look at ourselves but I see it as a way to speak to students as well. Great article. Beth

    On Thu, Feb 10, 2022 at 4:15 PM Rural Resiliency Community Alliance wrote:

    > davidcote2014 posted: ” Originally Posted in: Psychology Today by Dr. > Jonice Webb, Ph. D. As an expert on childhood emotional neglect, I have > discovered that scores of people have had something vital robbed from them > in childhood. And most don’t know that it’s missing. It” >


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