The hidden grief of childhood emotional neglect
In my work as a grief and loss counsellor, I’ve come to see how the threads of grief take on so many different guises in people’s lives and for so many different reasons; the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of health or of a dream. I’ve also come to see how there seem to be hierarchies of grief in terms of which type of grief is considered acceptable and worthy of compassion and acknowledgement and which are still very much silenced.
Perhaps, right at the bottom of that hierarchy, is that grief that gets tucked away and hidden, because no one died and no one really knows it’s there apart from the person experiencing it, and that is the grief for a relationship that’s never been experienced.
This is often the case with childhood emotional neglect because, on the surface, everything is present and correct; a family, a child who is fed and cared for, but what is absent is something that is so fundamental, it can change a person’s whole life trajectory, and that is the experience of a secure, loving and nurturing relationship with a parent or caregiver.
What is childhood emotional neglect?
Perhaps, to really understand the depth of this grief, we need to understand the impact that childhood emotional neglect (CEN) can have in terms of a person’s mental and physical health, their ability to form healthy relationships and their life outcomes in general.
Childhood emotional neglect is the term used to describe the lack of ability of a parent or carer to meet a child’s basic emotional needs. So rather than it being about the presence of something, such as physical abuse, it is about what is absent. This may mean a child growing up in an environment where emotions and feelings are not welcome, where their own emotions and feelings get invalidated or belittled. Where there is no acknowledgement of their basic need to feel seen and heard or to feel secure and loved.
This is something that can start in infancy where there may be no emotional attunement from the parent to the baby, for example, if a caregiver isn’t able to respond to a baby’s distress or form eye contact and facial communication. This, in turn, then affects a baby’s ability to self-soothe and regulate their emotions because they are dependent on their caregiver to teach them how to do this and show them that the world is a safe place. But if the caregiver is incapable of regulating their own emotions, if they have a mental health problem, are living with domestic abuse or poverty or have had no experience of a secure, loving relationship, then it is very difficult for them to be able to provide this to a child.
This is something that is described very powerfully in the book ‘Why Love Matters’ by Sue Gerhardt (2015), in which she explains the science behind the physiological and psychological impact of a lack of emotional attunement in infancy and how it impacts a child’s brain development.
In the context of attachment theory, which was developed, amongst others, by John Bowlby in the 1950s, childhood emotional neglect often occurs when there is an inability to form a secure attachment with an infant.
Attachment theory believes that this secure attachment with a caregiver is essential for a baby to move out into the world confidently, knowing that they will always have a secure base to return to, this then allows them to move through the normal stages of emotional development. They can be secure in the knowledge that their needs will be met and therefore be more open to forming new connections with others.
But, when a child doesn’t have this bond or secure attachment, their worldview becomes very different, they become insecurely attached, so their energy and focus is always on the caregiver, wondering if they are still going to be there or what they have to do in order for their needs to be met. The world becomes a scary place, where other people are seen as a threat and there is no expectation of having their needs met. All of their energy and resources goes into working out how they can adapt themselves so they can get their needs met, in effect, how to survive.
Part of this survival may mean learning to suppress their own emotions and feelings and learning to focus on the needs of others. In many ways, going through life as an adult who has experienced CEN, is like living in a house without any foundations, so there is no resiliency to protect them from the inevitable storms of life.
Is recovery possible?
Often, the impact of CEN can present itself later on in adult life in the form of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, low self-worth, complex PTSD or physical health issues such as chronic fatigue. This is because of the impact caused by living with this level of toxic stress for a prolonged period of time.
But it doesn’t mean that recovery isn’t possible and perhaps one of the biggest first steps in that journey of recovery is naming the experience for what it was, which is a type of trauma, and more specifically ‘relational’ or ‘developmental’ trauma because it was those essential early relationships that caused pain and confusion rather than providing a sense of love and security. Also, learning to experience what a healthy, nurturing relationship feels like and using that as an opportunity for healing, which is where the role of the therapist can play a huge part.
But sometimes naming it or calling it out can be too overwhelming and it can feel that the pain of admitting something was fundamentally missing can be too great, which is why people often get stuck in a form of denial about their childhood experiences.
Grieving as a part of recovery
Perhaps one reason this ‘naming’ or identifying can feel so hard, is because doing so means having to acknowledge what has been lost and this loss is something that needs to be grieved for.
I personally believe that this is a fundamental part of recovery from CEN. It’s not just grieving for the loving, close relationship that someone wanted to have with a parent but also grieving for the child and adult they could have been if they had known what it was like to have someone to turn to, someone who was emotionally available to them, someone who believed in them. It is the unbearable weight of knowing what could have been, of seeing those healthy, loving relationships getting played out in other people’s lives and families and knowing how alien it feels.
This calling into question of our parents and their legacy can feel like such a taboo in our culture. I have known clients really struggle with the sense of betrayal and disloyalty they experience when they simply speak the truth about what their relationship with their mother or father really felt like and how it impacted them. But it’s not about blaming or shaming those parents, it’s about acknowledging the impact. It’s about changing someone’s fundamental belief system about themselves from ‘I wasn’t lovable’ to ‘they didn’t know how to love me, and they didn’t have the support they needed to be able to do this’.
Prevention is better than cure
It seems that we have created a society that wants to keep this grief and trauma hidden away at all costs. That despite more and more research going into the understanding of the lifelong impact of adverse childhood experiences, it still feels like a taboo that mustn’t be spoken about.
We still live with the patriarchal view that motherhood is something that just happens naturally, it is innate. There is so much shame and stigma attached to the idea of not being a good enough mother or not being able to cope with motherhood. And yet, how can anyone know what a secure loving attachment feels like unless they’ve experienced it themselves? How can someone who is living in constant fear for their own safety, know how to calm and soothe a child? How can someone who is locked into the pain of their own unmet needs, ever be emotionally available to anyone else?
I believe to really make change, we need to get past all the shame, stigma and shying away from this issue. It’s about creating a trauma-informed society that fully understands how deep the impact of this trauma goes, and how it can often become intergenerational, getting passed on from one generation to the next. This is something that needs to be understood, not just in the therapy room, but in our schools, workplaces and reform systems. It’s about having a fundamental and realistic understanding of what a mother or caregiver needs at this crucial time and having the right support systems in place so that they in turn can give their child what they need and provide them with the best possible life chances.
Gerhardt, S, (2015) Why Love Matters, Hove: Routledge
Other useful reading on the subject of CEN
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson
Running on Empty by Jonice Webb
The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori