More often than not, childhood abuse is visible. Friends notice the bruises, teachers notice the withdrawal and neighbours hear the screams. If people are paying attention, physical abuse or neglect is obvious. But how many people notice things that can’t be seen?

Emotional neglect is characterized by unresponsive, unavailable, emotionally stifled interactions between parent/guardian and child. It is often non-violent and relatively hard to pinpoint, and it constitutes a real problem that is often overlooked. It affects children across all strata, rich and poor alike because good parenting is not a function of financial capacity alone.

Many of us are victims of this subtle abuse. From medical personnel to legal practitioners, the modern-day family unit is full of fathers and mothers too busy chasing career or business goals to think much of parenting. While this may be partly excusable due to the difficult and competitive nature of today’s workplace, an even worse form of neglect is practised by many parents in which they demand unrealistic standards from their children, being perfectionists themselves. Other forms of emotional neglect include invalidating a child’s feelings due to the inability to admit fault or a lack of attentiveness, inattentiveness in itself, absenteeism which could be a result of divorce, illness or death, narcissism, authoritarian parenting or laissez-faire parenting. Actions that also constitute emotional neglect include: constantly or frequently downplaying or ignoring a child’s feelings, mocking a child for being emotionally vulnerable, discounting a child’s painful experiences, outrightly refusing to give affection, validation, or warmth to a child, exposing a child to extreme domestic violence, refusal to seek treatment for the child’s emotional problems, ridiculing a child for asking for help or support from other people, treating emotional needs as unimportant or childish, etc.

Childhood emotional neglect is a condition of childhood that manifests significantly in adulthood in the form of emotional, social and psychological effects. Adults who struggle with feelings of numbness, addiction, low self-esteem, depression, emotional unavailability, aversion to intimacy, perfectionism, inexplicable feelings of emptiness, eating disorders, poor self-discipline, guilt and shame, aggressive behaviour or outbursts, trust issues, as well as difficulty opening up to their own wards or children are often victims of emotional neglect. In adolescence, symptoms may present as poor academic performance, risky sexual behaviour, substance abuse, anxiety, social isolation, poor social skills, difficulty setting boundaries, depression and suicidal behaviour.

While the person experiencing one or two of these symptoms is not necessarily a victim of childhood emotional abuse, a combination of two or three of these symptoms may indicate otherwise.

Over time emotional neglect goes beyond self to erode the quality of interpersonal relationships. Thus, it must be regarded with the same importance a physical illness would be regarded. The first step in healing from this emotional trauma is to identify its presence. Next is finding ways to meet your own emotional needs. The unfortunate truth is that people are mostly unreliable. Hoping to gain closure from confrontation or talking things through may not always go as planned, especially in situations such as these in which the source of emotional injury is a parent figure. It is best to develop mechanisms of boosting one’s own self-image and overcoming insecurities in whatever way uniquely applies to the individual. If the parent figure is however open to discussion, it is best to have one with them. It is often surprising how ignorant many parents are of their wrongdoing in this regard. Having an honest, non-confrontational conversation about the matter can accelerate healing and also prevent the recurrence of the same mistakes in the rearing of younger siblings.

As adults today, some have decided not to have children to avoid subjecting them to the pain they experienced growing up. However, instead of giving up on parenthood and the joys that come with it for fear of failure, it is crucial that every victim of emotional neglect actively strives to break the cycle. Let each person venture into parenthood with the will to give more than they received, by creating a loving environment in which children can thrive to the best of their potential.

Opeolu Oreoluwa