The Invisible Trauma of Emotional Neglect in Childhood: What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“Whoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” —Francis Bacon

Solitude is not the same thing as loneliness. All of us need times when we are just alone with ourselves.  Perhaps we use that time to reflect on ourselves or just get away from the noise of the world. We aren’t able to enjoy relationships without alone time. However, there can be a dark side to solitude. Some of us have been traumatized by emotional neglect in our childhood. We use our alone time today to perpetually hide from the world and hide from ourselves. We conceal the emptiness within ourselves and have little ability to accurately see who we really are.  Arthur Erickson, a famous Canadian architect, once said “Illusion is needed to hide from the emptiness within.” We hide because we are lost in life. We are scared because we don’t know how to find our way. We expect to be rejected because we don’t feel worthy of human love. We live without the benefit of other people’s love or the knowledge of how to find it. Our illusions are the best that we can do sometimes.

“Solitude and isolation are painful things and beyond human endurance,” —Jules Verne

Some people live as extreme individualists set apart from human relationships. They may be social but cannot connect with others. They may do well in school and have career success but they do not allow themselves to depend on others, mostly because they are scared of relying on others and lack the social skills to know others more personally. These are people who have grown up with parents who gave them all the basics—food, clothing, and shelter—but were raised by people who were uninvolved with their emotional lives. They were raised to raise themselves. Can you imagine having parents that raised you and tended to you in practical ways yet were unable to delight in your existence or get interested in your feelings and who you were as an emerging person? Most of us would rather not imagine.

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 I remember waking up in a dark room in the hospital when I was eight. My parents said there would be ice cream after the anesthesia wore off. I looked around in the dark for the ice cream and there was none. I didn’t even wonder where my parents were.

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Consequently, such people were left with a traumatic belief that they are unworthy of human attention and have deep fears of being rejected. Often, they do not know that they missed anything in childhood since they never knew what they missed. They may even idealize their parents. What is missing is often invisible to them and they feel stuck with not knowing how to change their lives today for the better. Afterall, we can’t change what we can’t see and we can’t see what we’ve never seen. This syndrome is known as developmental trauma of neglect. This disorder is not just another way to blame parents or another way to use the word “trauma” as a cliché. It is a very serious, common pattern in our often impersonal and over busy world.

It is painful beyond belief and often results in depression, unexplained chronic anxiety, numbness and addictive behaviors and an inability to make lasting friends or have a life mate. People with this disorder are terrified by their own feelings and often lack language to put their emotional states into words. Most, but not all, addicts have this trauma at their core. People with this disorder are perpetual avoiders. They run away from people who could love them. If you ever met a person who seems like a very good person but is impossible to get close to, you know exactly what I mean.

The sad part of all of this is that it is not the traumatized person’s fault that he or she is like this. Afterall the most important human need is the need to emotionally attach to others.

Who would choose to be aloof from human love and blame themselves constantly for how other people shun them? Alan Watts, a famous philosopher, said “I owe my solitude to other people.” The good news is that there is hope for perpetual avoiders. If people can see their solitude and allow others to help them and have patience, they can change their brain wiring and eventually learn to accept themselves and change. This is not something that can be done on their own. We avoiders need one trustworthy person to see us and other caring people to support and save us. We all need each other a lot more than we realize.

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You know I am kind of an odd person. I never really fit in. I like to watch other people in social gatherings and stay on the edge. I’ve never figured out what’s wrong with me. People talk about this pandemic like it is a curse. For me it’s just normal—like how I have led my whole life—not getting close to people or letting others know me  It’s like I’ve been in a perpetual quarantine my whole life. I have to laugh when other say they miss seeing their friends. I don’t even know what it is like missing a friend. But I can solve my own problems. I take satisfaction in not needing anybody. Sometimes it gets lonely. Sometimes I get agitated. Then I just retreat into myself. I wouldn’t call this living, but it is the best that I can do.

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How do people get emotionally neglected in childhood?

Some people lose their parents at an early age due to tragic loss and never get needed nurturance. Others are children of narcissistic parents who reared their children to enhance their own self-image and were oblivious to the emerging identities of their own children. Some people were raised in families with abject deprivation and survival stress that precluded emotional connections. Some of us were raised in well-off households that overemphasized career and financial success to the exclusion of personal relationships. Some parents project overconfidence on their children and see no reason why their own children need any guidance. They expect kids to raise themselves. Other parents use their children as success objects and involve them in sports or academic activities, prizing achievement over personal closeness. These are parents that have to win. Some parents are simply not home, perhaps having a drug problem or mood disorder and their children are psychologically home alone. Finally, there are parents who have a “no talk” rule about anything that makes them uncomfortable. These are parents who like to pretend and live in a fantasy world or give their children the silent treatment when there is trouble at home. Many of these patterns occur in a society that is materialistic, obsessed with success and lacking any practice of looking at the bigger picture, meaning of life or doing good for others. Basically, when parents run on empty, their children do too and are severely and often unintentionally neglected.

Why are emotional relationships so important in childhood?

If you have to ask this question, chances are that you have been affected by emotional neglect. But out of fairness, let’s try to answer this question. A famous study was done on emotional attachment patterns between parent and child during the 1970’s (“The Still Face Experiment” by the Developmental Psychologist Erick Tronick). It poignantly captures what happens when a parent ignores the powerful charm of their child and gives their usually well-loved child the still face for an extended period of time. It is very painful to watch. One can only imagine what a child goes through when they routinely see the still face of their parent and how that might affect their development. A partial glimpse of this experience can be seen when parents continually check their cell phones and ignore their toddler’s cries for attention. In your own adult life just recall a time when you were supposed to meet up with a group of friends and nobody showed up or left a message for you. Perhaps you felt confused, worried, unloved, and unlovable until you found out what happened. This is what it is like for people with developmental trauma of neglect. Except they have no explanation for their abandonment.

So why are emotional relationships between parents and their children so important? Our emotional life with our parents is a major factor in our entire brain development—it allows us to feel worthy, to trust in human relationships, and to regulate our own emotional states, to be smart in relating to others and accurately understand other people’s emotions, and ultimately to have our own unique identity separate from others. On top of that, our feeling relationship with our parents turns on our cognitive development, our physical and moral growth, and our creativity. It is the whole nine yards of our identity. A good resource to understand this precious relationship is found in The General Theory of Love by Dr. Thomas Lewis et alia, (Double Day Publishers, 2007). Children need the emotional relationship with their parents until their brains reach full adult development at about age 25, and of course beyond that age.

How does shame keep people stuck?

Shame is the internal experience of feeling unworthy of human love. It is often learned in early childhood when parents show little interest in you or else compare you unfavorably to others. Because children cannot see that they are being targeted for failures in their parents and not in themselves, they internalize these beliefs as their own failings. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic book, The Scarlet Letter, the story of a Puritan woman vilified by her community for having a child out of wedlock, typifies this dynamic. Certainly, shame keeps people from realizing their potential and cuts them off from social support. It is a silent mortal wound some people carry.

SEE ALSO  Finding Hope by Being Close to Others

Often, I tell a story to people who feel chronically ashamed and lost in life. It goes like this: You’re on a walk alone with a group of friends in the woods. As you proceed you notice that you are getting lost and that other friends are getting through the woods better than you are. If they get lost, they find their way again and are back on their way. You seem hopelessly stuck in the woods and are left behind by your pals. You feel like a failure when you compare yourself to others and worry about not reaching your goal of getting through the woods. You are alone, lost, have no sense of direction, and make a lot of bad turns. Eventually, you get through the woods much later than others and then find out that everyone on the trek had been given a map at the very beginning of the walk. You wonder why you were never given a map but understand for the first time why it was so hard to get through the woods all on your own.

You are amazed that you got through the whole ordeal at all and that your failure is more about not being given the map like everybody else. It’s not your failure alone. It’s other people’s failure. Today you have the option to draw your own map with the help from a caring guide and friends who see and love you. With their help you can do it. You need not be stuck without a map.

Guidelines for growth

This whole subject is a lot like trying to play a musical instrument. It is generally not something we can do all on our own, but effort and patience are required once we find a good music teacher. The relationship you have with your music teacher is what makes all the difference. In this area, getting a professional helper who is well-versed in attachment theory, the study of how humans learn to connect with others, and trauma recovery are essential. Otherwise, the help you get will not go to the depth you need to overcome your avoidance problem. Professional societies have web pages (like Psychology Today website or Sensorimotor website) which can be valuable resources. Someone who does psychodynamic/psychoanalytic work, who is trained in attachment theory and emphasizes strength-building is best.  Clearly you can call me in a pinch.

I can recommend a good movie and some books on this topic: A Bird of the Air (on Tubi website), the story of a lost young man who gets found by a tropical parrot and a caring girlfriend. This movie is based on the book by Joe Coomer, The Loop (Scribner Press, 2002). A good book on this topic is Running on Empty: Overcoming Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb (Morgan James publisher, 2012).

Don’t fret if you can’t recall your childhood or you aren’t in touch with your feelings today. As you thaw out emotionally with a helper, the necessary memories and feelings will come to you when you are ready for them. Don’t assume that you know how others feel about you since your perceptions may be quite skewed by troubling life experiences. Often you are a lot more lovable than you ever imagined and are not good at reading people. It will be a slow experience of letting other people care about you, but it will be very sweet to let that happen. You will have a river of tears for what was missing in your life. You will rise higher in your river of tears. Congratulations on reading a tough article on this topic.

How we all can help

The problem of social avoidance is something we all have a part in, not just the person with this disorder. All of us can be more welcoming, less judgmental, and open to people who are socially awkward. The more rejecting that we are with people who are different, the more alienated such people become. We also don’t need to save these people. Socially avoidant people can find their own way through life that is likely different than your own. They can also become great writers, artists, and musicians. Let us instead look for the unique strengths such people offer all of us. We will likely be blown away! If you have any doubts, read about Emily Dickenson, Vincent Van Gogh, Chuck Berry, Michael Jordan and Billy Joel. Or you can reach out to your reclusive next door neighbor.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).  

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