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3 Phrases You Probably Can't Stand If You Experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Childhood emotional neglect is an often-ignored form of trauma that can really do some lasting damage on the children who grow up without the emotional support they deserved. Then, because we don’t talk about childhood emotional neglect, the child grows up thinking there’s just something wrong with them for being so “weird” and needy and clingy, or “weird” and distant and aloof, or just “weird” in general.

Especially when it comes to seemingly harmless phrases that can actually make people with a history of childhood emotional neglect very upset. You aren’t weird if these phrases upset you. You went through trauma, and that’s not your fault.

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is often less about what happened and more about what didn’t happen. In households where CEN is a problem, there tends to be a lack of emotional support rather than the presence of something actively harmful.

Emotional support is essential for healthy relationships, especially for developing children, and can take the form of:

  • attachment (feeling safely connected to your caregiver).
  • attunement (feeling like your caregiver is invested in you).
  • mirroring (seeing your feelings mirrored in your caregiver).
  • validation (feeling understood by your caregiver).
  • attention (feeling important to your caregiver).

When this emotional support is lacking, children grow up with childhood emotional neglect, which can have a lasting impact on their self-concept, future relationships and more.

What Does Childhood Emotional Neglect Look Like?

Childhood emotional neglect can look different in every family. But there are a few typical arrangements for an emotionally neglectful household.

First, there’s the “cold” household, where affection is withheld and open discussions are rare and deeply uncomfortable. In this household, there is a lack of pretty much any form of emotional support, from attachment to attention. You may know your caregivers love you, but only in the intellectual sense. You rarely feel loved by them in an emotional sense.

Second, there’s the toxically positive household, where affection abounds… as long as everything is good. Positive emotions are celebrated, but negative ones are ignored or invalidated, and there may even be an element of gaslighting to try and convince you that your negative emotions aren’t real.

Finally, there’s the “good enough” household, where negative emotions are invalidated, just like the toxic positivity household, but so are overly positive emotions. Everything is expected to be “fine” all the time, and anything that rocks the boat, for good or bad, is seen as a threat. These households typically involve caregivers with their own unresolved trauma that they subconsciously pass on to the next generation.

3 Phrases That Are Probably Triggering If You Experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect

If all of this sounds familiar, then you may have experienced CEN growing up. If you did, then you probably find these three phrases to be very upsetting or even triggering:

1. “Don’t be so sensitive.”

Ah, a classic. I want to be clear that the use of this phrase does not automatically mean you experienced (or caused) CEN. Although I would argue that this phrase is never actually helpful, it is not inherently neglectful. However, when it’s used over and over in response to a child’s feelings, it can definitely be part of a system of neglect. As an adult, when you hear other adults say this to their kids, your heart might race or you might get very angry or sad. If other adults say this to you now, you may completely shut down, burst into tears, or spiral into an identity crisis.

2. “Everybody feels that way.”

This phrase demonstrates a complete lack of attunement, and if you grew up with CEN, when you hear this now, even if it’s perfectly well-meaning, you probably have an extreme reaction like the one described above. When we’re children, all of our feelings are big, unmanageable things that we need to be guided through, but if our caregivers dismiss our big feelings by saying things like “everybody feels that way,” then we are neglected, left to figure out these big feelings on our own. Plus, the implication of the phrase “everybody feels that way,” is “so you’re not special.” And every kid needs to know that their feelings are special and they matter.

3. “I love you.”

For those who grew up in emotionally neglectful households, the phrase “I love you” can be loaded with fear. If you grew up with CEN, then you might immediately dismiss it when others say “I love you.” You don’t trust them, because you grew up with caregivers who said that they loved you but didn’t show it emotionally, so you don’t expect others to either. Or maybe “I love you” triggers feelings of longing, desperately wishing you’d heard those words growing up because you never really did. Or it’s possible to feel ashamed, as though love is a weakness because it’s a display of emotion, which were always dismissed growing up. Unfortunately, even positive phrases can bring up a lot of pain for people with a history of CEN.

In some households, emotional support is treated like a cherry on top of a sundae: a nice treat, but totally unnecessary. In reality, emotional support is the cornerstone of healthy development, and without it, children grow up to be dysfunctional adults with significant trauma to process.

If this is you, don’t worry. Your pain is valid and real, and you deserve attention, attunement and so much more. It’s possible to get it now, even if you didn’t get it growing up. The work is hard and slow, but it’s available to you. Inner child work, reparenting, attachment work can all be done in therapy and lead you to a far more functional, enjoyable experience of your life.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Healing Unscripted.

Photo by Ali Abiyar on Unsplash

Originally published: April 22, 2021
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