How not feeling loved as a child can affect adult relationships

Sadly, there are many adults today who consider they had a ‘normal’ upbringing, yet as adults feel they aren’t as emotionally resilient or healthy as they would like to be. When asked about their childhood they may say that nothing especially traumatic or out of the ordinary happened to them that would explain the way that they feel now, yet know they have trust issues or feel insecure with partners. As the conversation develops, they may reveal that deep down they feel they are not worthy of love, or that they don’t believe that people are inherently trustworthy. So why would such devastating beliefs lodge within these adults?
The messages that we receive as children from our caregivers (both overtly and covertly) can shape our belief systems about ourselves and others. This doesn’t mean that the caregivers (let’s refer to parents for the sake of ease here,) necessarily mean for us to pick up these belief systems or intend to do us any emotional harm, but they may well do this unconsciously, (therapeutically referred to as intent versus impact). Most parents want their children to be happy and successful. However, their own unconscious emotional dents will come out somewhere during child rearing and can have lasting effects.


Feeling loved 'enough'

Here are some examples of why a child may not feel loved ‘enough’:

  1. Parents rarely at home. The parents needed to work very hard to bring in enough income to keep the household going and this meant they were rarely at home, leaving the children with others to care for them. In this case, it may well be that the children were, in fact, very loved, but they may not have felt it. Emotions are not rational and whilst a child may say, “Oh, mummy has to work in the evenings to earn money”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t feel abandoned or unimportant on a deeper level.  
  2. Daddy is emotionally unavailable. Mummy tells the child that they mustn’t bother daddy as he is working in his office/is too tired to read them a bedside story as he works so hard. At the weekends he is either back at the office or playing golf. When he sees the child he may offer some words of praise, but little time or emotional connection. The child may internally digest this as that they are not important enough for their parents’ time and love.
  3. Mummy/daddy is emotionally unstable and needy. When they are going through difficult times, they are unable to put their own troubles aside and put the child’s needs first. It is not that they want their child to feel unloved or unimportant, but that they are so caught up in their own pain they cant’s see the child’s hurt, or deal with it.
  4. Mummy or daddy is an addict. this can be drink, drugs, sex, love, gambling, work, etc. In all addictions, the object of the addiction itself becomes more important than anything else. This includes the child. Again, I reiterate, it is not necessarily that the parent doesn’t love the child and want them to be happy, but that their entanglement with the drink/affairs/money/work doesn’t leave room for them. The child becomes an adjunct to the adult’s addiction and will feel uncared for and ‘less-than’.
  5. The parent has strong narcissistic tendencies.  E.g. it’s always about them. In these cases, whenever a child has a need -whether that is to be listened to, played with, helped, or loved etc, the parent brings the attention back to themselves; (whilst this is probably due to their own developmental trauma during childhood it doesn’t make the impact any different for their child).
  6. Sibling with extra needs. The parents have another child that has extra needs (such as a physical disability) and this takes away a lot of the time and attention from the other child.

There are many other examples of why children feel they don’t get ‘enough’ love. The parents may disagree, or have very robust reasons why they weren’t able to be there for them and argue that they DID love them enough, but, the important thing to note is if a child felt that was their reality, then it will have an impact.

How might this affect a child and a grown adult?

A parent’s job is to nurture the child - to help them feel valuable, safe loved and cared for; To develop resilience in the face of the inevitable knocks in life, to believe in themselves, to learn how to establish healthy boundaries and healthy loving relationships.

By not being there, (long-term), either emotionally or physically, the inadvertent message is that the child is not important or worthy enough to be there for. Remember, this is impact, and not usually the intent of the parent.
The child believes that they do not deserve love/attention etc. and may make up a narrative as to why that might be. Maybe they are too stupid/lazy/fat/not funny enough/too bookish/etc. etc. The child believes they are the problem and carries this belief with them into their relationships, often unconsciously.

It can also be that the child learns that people aren’t reliable- they may not be there for them when its most important, and may not be capable of providing safety, love, and care when it is most needed.

If these belief systems are seeded in childhood, it is easy to see how they can translate in important adult relationships- particularly romantic ones, but also close friendships.

A deep sense of being unlovable or not worthy of a healthy loving relationship can lead to:

  • constant reassurance-seeking
  • self-sabotage behaviours
  • inability to appropriately self-care
  • abandoning self through giving everything (energy/time /emotions/money) to others, but not self.
  • putting others’ needs above their own.
  • not striving for the best for themselves (they aren’t worth it or capable of it.)
  • being afraid to develop a meaningful relationship
  • becoming very upset if a partner isn’t perfect in their care of them.
  • staying out of any limelight
  • avoiding stressful situations
  • feeling unsure of themselves and their decisions
  • feeling they are just waiting for their partner to leave them.

Distrust can pervade the relationship without there necessarily being any cause from the other party, who can be left bemused, upset, angry and ultimately feeling like they just can’t win – as whatever they do their partner doesn’t believe or trust them. The fear that the partner may abandon them creates a set of behaviours that make a healthy relationship difficult.

Mistrustful belief systems may create:

  • jealousy
  • constant reassurance-seeking, 
  • blatant mistrust and accusatory behaviours such as checking where their partner is, what they have been doing, who they have been talking to etc. 
  • emotionally shutting down
  • being cold towards them
  • leaving the relationship without due cause

What you can do to help yourself

  1. Notice what the triggers are when you feel unloved or untrusting, (e.g., your partner looking at their phone often, or not turning up to your dates on time).
  2. Notice how you normally react, (e.g. withdrawing, getting angry, blaming ,etc.).
  3. Pinpoint what your thoughts are, (e.g. ‘they have stopped loving me’, or ‘they don’t care about me enough to get here on time- if they did they’d make more of an effort’).
  4. Stay with the feeling and see if you can identify how old you feel in that moment (it is usually one stemming from early childhood).
  5. Remember that your thoughts are not necessarily the truth- if they are old patterns how else could you perceive the current situation?
  6. What does the child-like part of you need right now (perhaps reassurance/space to think)? Become the adult and provide that for the hurt part of you (e.g. give yourself a pep talk about how wonderful you actually are)/ take yourself out for a walk/coffee/see a friend).
  7. Speak to your partner and let them know how their behaviour has left you feeling, but own that the feelings are yours. Ask for their perspective on the situation and be prepared to really listen to their side. Ask them to help you both find a way forward.
  8. Try to stay as an adult in this conversation. Recognise what are your thoughts and feelings and don’t blame the other party.
  9. It is important that you look after your needs; If the adult part of you genuinely has cause for concern about your partners behaviour then take the appropriate action to take care of yourself- e.g. say that your boundaries are not being respected and state what needs to happen in future. (E.g. They need to turn up on time out of respect for you) or even that you no longer feel the relationship is good for you.

 It can be difficult to separate out reasonable and appropriate feelings from old childhood-induced ones. If you are struggling with a destructive or distressing pattern and would like some help, please visit Full Stop Therapy or get in touch with me at:  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Gillingham, SP8 4FE
Written by Helen Lickerish, MBACP. PGDip Counselling/Coaching. Dip Trauma therapy. EMDR
Gillingham, SP8 4FE

Helen is an experienced and holistic therapist who specialises in anxiety, trauma, depression and developmental trauma (ie. parenting that has left emotional wounds that affect adult thinking and behaviour.) She is an integrative counsellor and coach, and uses EMDR and NLP to help minimise trauma and phobias.

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