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What is Emotional Neglect?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Emotional neglect is a type of abuse that can be thought of as a lack of something that should be present in a normal relationship. In the case of children, withholding love or nurturing can result in severe developmental or emotional problems, so emotional neglect is taken very seriously in custody cases. It is also possible for emotional neglect to exist in other relationships, although when the neglect occurs between adults it is often not considered a problem of the law because either party can presumably exit the relationship at any time. People who are experiencing or witnessing emotionally neglectful behavior cannot always specifically voice why the behavior is wrong or disturbing because they have not been taught to give voice to these concerns properly, so it is important for a professional to look at the situation and determine what is going on.

Children who experience emotional neglect can have severe problems later in life, so this type of neglect is a serious concern in custody cases. It is, however, hard to prove. Withholding physical items, like food or medicine, is easy to document, but withholding love is not. Given the problems with documentation, it is important to demonstrate that the neglect is having negative effects on the child, as the standards for expressing love differ among families and cultures. A person making accusations of neglect should keep in mind that those accusations are very serious and can destroy a family.

Between adults, emotional neglect is often the reason for dissolution of relationships like marriages. People who experience this type of neglect in an adult relationship often cannot voice to their partners why precisely the neglectful behavior is hurtful, which leaves them open to manipulation by the neglectful partner. For adults who are being neglected and emotionally abused, it is important to remember that a person does not need a reason to leave a hurtful relationship and there is no need to justify the choice to the neglectful partner.

Occasionally, there are cases in which an adult experiences emotional neglect but is not free to leave the situation. In these cases, the law may need to intervene. For example, a senior citizen who is being cared for by another adult may experience this type of neglect but be unable to terminate the relationship due to lack of funds or lack of access to help. It is extremely difficult to prove that emotional neglect exists in these cases, but because this type of neglect often comes with more material neglect, it is often not necessary to prove the emotional component.

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Discussion Comments

By anon937299 — On Mar 04, 2014

Well you reap what you sow. My parents couldn't wait until I turned 18 so they could kindly ask me to get out. So needless to say, now that they are in their declining years, I really don't concern myself too much with their health and well being. Not my problem.

By leafgreen — On Apr 11, 2013

My own emotional neglect during adolescence (I don't recall it during my childhood, but I think this is because I didn't have such intensive emotional needs at the time) was not done on purpose, but it was still done to me. Mostly by my mother, although my father also played a role.

My problem is that I am still hurt and angry about it. I wonder why they didn't see that it was a problem sooner, or why they didn't take me to a counselor when I finally got up the courage to ask for one, etc., etc. But they will probably never acknowledge this was an issue, because they didn't "try" to do it, therefore to them, it simply didn't happen. I don't know if I can ever talk to them about it.

I do know, however, that living away from my immediate family has never seemed troublesome to me in any way, and I am never lonely for them. (Sometimes I am generally lonely, but it is never any of them whom I want around to alleviate the loneliness.) I was also not hugged or kissed much, so I have a lot of strange issues with touch, including being hugged by friends.

The neglect helped form the personality disorder that currently destroys parts of my life. Yet I'm supposed to not have a right to feel angry about it, and I'm supposed to forget it ever happened? Please. I'm not going to lie about it just so certain people can be comforted. It happened, it was real, and it's been a defining feature of why my mental illness has been the way it's been since I was 15 years old. (I'm almost 27 now.)

I definitely consider it a form of abuse, even if it was unintentional. And I find myself completely unable to forgive it, because both my parents are in such denial that they won't even accept the possibility that it could be true. This is because my mom can't handle things that cause her emotional pain, ever. She will deny something to her deathbed before she can ever deal with pain, even for the sake of one of her daughters. What kind of mother is that, I ask you?

By anon315167 — On Jan 22, 2013

I'm a psychologist who just wrote a self-help book about emotional neglect. It can be extremely subtle and unmemorable in a person's childhood, yet can result in an adulthood filled with feelings of emptiness, disconnection, and excessive selflessness. I hope my book will help the untold legions of people who are suffering, but have no explanation.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 11, 2012

I had a friend in elementary school who was a victim of child abuse. It came in the form of both physical and emotional neglect, so social services had no problem getting her out of her home.

Her mother would leave her alone in the house for days. She would have to eat whatever she could find, which sometimes was nothing more than dry cereal and crackers. She looked really skinny, and she eventually collapsed at school from malnutrition.

This was when social services got involved. The school called them, and they sent an agent out to the house. The agent saw that no one was home, and after a brief interview with my friend, she had enough information to call the police and report the abuse.

By orangey03 — On Aug 11, 2012

My friend experienced emotional neglect in her marriage. She knew that trying to prove this in court would probably be unproductive, so she just agreed to signing divorce papers that cited “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for the split.

Her husband got bitter over the years, and he slowly began to shy away from any form of affection. At first, he just stopped cuddling and hugging. Later, it got so bad that he would not even show emotion at all.

She knew that the problem was in his head and had nothing to do with her. However, she could no longer live that way.

By healthy4life — On Aug 10, 2012

@Oceana – Emotional abuse and neglect usually go together. It's easier to see the signs of emotional abuse than it is to spot the ones of neglect, because abusive words can be much more damaging.

In my opinion, emotional neglect is a type of abuse. For me, there is nothing worse than being totally ignored or being refused a hug when I need it.

It can be hurtful, just as receiving unkind words is hurtful. It can create an emptiness inside a person that seems to go on forever.

By Oceana — On Aug 09, 2012

Child neglect is easy to prove if the adult is leaving the child without shelter or food. How can you really prove that they aren't showing enough love, though?

Isn't it pretty much the child's word against the parent's? I suppose a social worker could spot signs of neglect, but still, no one knows what really goes on in the home.

I imagine it would be totally illegal for someone to install a spy camera in a home where neglect is suspected. However, that might be the only way to get solid proof.

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