The 4 Different Kinds of Neglect and How They Affect You

neglect and care

Neglect: Fail to care for properly.

We can neglect many different things in our busy lives. We can, at different times, neglect our houses, our gardens, our vehicles, or even our own bodies by simply failing to care for them properly. And many of us human beings do one or all of the above at various times.

But there is no form of neglect more personal, more powerful, or more harmful than the neglect of a child. There are several different ways that a parent can neglect a child and we will talk about those shortly.

But first, let’s take a look at some of the factors that can lead even the most caring parents to neglect their child.

Why Neglect Happens

  • Finances: This can go all the way from parents who are fighting to survive financially by working 3 jobs or long hours, all the way to the workaholic parent who is defined by their career/income and who therefore places work above all else.
  • Knowledge: Some parents have “holes” in their knowledge of what children need. Why don’t they know? The explanation for most of these parents is in the next bullet point.
  • The influence of their own childhood: We all learn how to parent from our own parents. Most people automatically use the experience of their own childhood as a template or guide to raising their children. This makes human beings prone to repeat the mistakes of their parents upon the next generation. How do you know what your child needs if your need were not met by your parents? Your parents’ blind spots end up being translated down to your kids unless you learn what was missing and make a personal decision to correct it.
  • Personal battles: These are parents who are so taken up fighting for themselves that they have little time or energy left over for their children. They may be depressed, taking care of a sick family member, addicted, or sick themselves. Parents who are battling to keep their own heads above water may inadvertently (or purposely) allow their children to fall through the cracks.

When parents bring a new child into the world, it is their biological imperative to meet that child’s needs to the best of their ability. For that reason, none of the above reasons should be thought of as excuses. It simply does not work that way.

But, on the other hand, human beings are fallible and the world can be rough on parents. Losses, pain, health, deprivation, and struggle can harm parents and prevent them from providing what their children need.

Not all neglect is the same and, unfortunately, most people use the word “neglect” to define all types. It is also common to use the term, “abuse and neglect,” to lump neglect with abuse. This dangerous over-generalization prevents people from talking and thinking more specifically about exactly what they did not receive as a child.

Truly, it’s important. And I want you to help you become aware of what you did and did not receive. As you read the list below, I encourage you to consider which of your needs were well-met when you were a child and which needs may have been less so.

The 4 Kinds of Neglect of a Child

  1. Physical Needs — Here, we are talking about the tangible and concrete things that you need to survive and thrive. It’s the need for healthy nutrition and water, shelter, comfort, and warmth. Since this form of neglect is visible it may be witnessed by someone outside of the family, like teachers, social workers, or pediatricians. They may step in to intervene and help the child.
  2. Physical Presence — This is the classic “latch-key child.” In this kind of neglect, the primary caretakers (parents) are simply not physically available enough to you. As a child alone you must fend for yourself so, as a lonely child, you learned how to take care of your own needs. As an adult, you may feel lonely and disconnected, or have a grave fear of needing, asking for, or accepting help from anyone.
  3. Verbal Interaction — A 2019 study published by d’Apice, Latham, & von Stumm in the journal Developmental Psychology found that children who were talked with the most by their parents had higher cognitive development and fewer signs of restless, aggressive, or disobedient behavior. If your parents did not talk with you enough, you may now, as an adult, feel more alone, less stimulated, and struggle to manage and express your feelings.
  4. Emotional Neglect — Emotional Neglect is literally what it sounds like. It is the neglect of your emotions. Emotionally neglectful parents may be loving and providing for all of your needs. But these parents simply do not notice, respond, or validate your feelings enough. If you grow up with your emotions ignored, you end up with your own feelings walled off and relatively inaccessible to you. This leads to a multitude of predictable struggles in adulthood like a feeling of being different, alone, and unsatisfied with your life.

Most adults who look back on their childhoods and see that all of their physical needs were met find it hard to believe that they could have been neglected in any way. Yet “neglect” is far more complex than that.

For example, your stay-at-home mom may often be home and may drive you to every activity, yet fail to notice or respond to your feelings (Emotional Neglect). Or your dad, who talks a lot, may simply be talking about impersonal logistics and facts, and end up still emotionally neglecting you.

The opposite is also true. Your parent who is struggling and rarely home may show such emotional care and attunement with you that you feel deeply known, understood, and loved by them. In this case, the physical presence type of neglect you experience may do far less harm.

Take a few minutes to think about this. What did you get and what did you miss? Is it missing in your life now? If you are a parent or hope to be one, are you able to provide those missing ingredients to your children?

It is entirely possible to see what you didn’t get, understand why your parents could not, or did not, provide it, and fill those gaps for yourself. It is a process of providing yourself with the physical, attentional, and emotional nurturance that was missing for you.

Amazingly, once you have given yourself what you didn’t get, you can give it to others. Especially your own children. The reality is there is nothing more important than that.

CEN can be hard to see or remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Annette - January 18, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice,
Thank you, I understand after 54 years what I am feeling, I am struggling with weight issues for over 40+ years my dad died when I was 9, my mom cared for me but she was not very affectionate, I cant really say I remember her saying she loved me or her hugging me but I do remember her telling people friends/family that my sister and I were ugly and stupid, I guess to keep us humble, my sister got a’s, I did well some classes but struggled in others, got compared by teachers in school, I come to under how NEC has affected my life and her not being there either when I was sexually abused. I have made choices and been in relationships looking to feel loved and they have not worked out. I know that I can make things better. Where do I start now in a middle of a pandemic! I found some comfort in writing in a journal that I started today I just want to stop my struggling with my food choices and feel loved!

Elizabeth - November 22, 2020 Reply

I enjoy your newsletter immensely! I found the article on Procrastination of particular interest. My procrastination has gotten worse than ever. I had wondered why. Your article answered many of my questions.
Thanks so much for this and other helpful information. I see you making an effort to reach and help many people. Because therapy is not available to so many, you provide a link to professional help for lots of mentally fragile people.

Mafalda - November 12, 2020 Reply

I always felt isolated and different, damaged or inadequate. My childhood was apparently normal. My mom stayed home, she didn’t talk much, my sister was 10 years older, my dad worked a lot. When I was 10 my mom moved to her childhood house but my parents didn’t separate, it was for practical reasons.
I remember they asked us if we wanted to go with her, I said no and later blamed myself for it.
My dad yelled a lot and was very cold, my sister worked and studied. We saw my mom on the weekends but my dad was jealous of any of her attention to me.
At school I was bullied for having good grades, didn’t even think someone could help me so I didn’t tell anybody, no one even asked if I was ok ever.
I went to college and had lots of stupid self destructive relationships, I was very unhappy, I never could make friends. I thought people must see right through me and know I’m not right.
I moved from job to job till I felt like I’m not even good at that, no career, no friends.
I met my husband and he is very supportive of me. I stay home to raise my son. I think I’m trying to give him the care I didn’t have.
My parents are elderly , my mother is terminally ill, and I have so much anger and resent towards them.
I feel like even feeling this proves I’m not good enough.

    Nico - November 18, 2020 Reply

    Just writing to say you ARE good enough. Forgiveness can help a lot in your situation (besides getting the help you need). Try to forgive your parents. Forgiveness is an act of the will and not a feeling.

      Jonice - November 20, 2020 Reply

      Hi Nico, thanks for reassuring Mafalda about being good enough! I encourage you to see the blog I wrote on forgiveness. That force-of-will type of forgiveness is, in my opinion, problematic.

Julia - October 20, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice!

How I can join your emailing list?
I have some pivotal questions about validating emotions, I really hope you could answer!

If I say for example I’m very tired (because of work for example) my mother can say sarcastically “when I was at your age, I already had 3 children and was never tired” or something similar. Like whatever she was or wasn’t feeling even decades ago, it impedes, it does not “entitle” me to feel my feelings in this current moment.
I also easily feel this what is called “first world guilt” (or “luxury problems”). Like I’m not “allowed” to feel stressed and down for example because of acne in my face, when there are people in the world who live in war zone or whatever worse. Like I cannot feel, allow and validate my feelings…if someone has something worse going on. It almost feels like a stupid competition, whoever feels the worst emotions is the “winner” and only that person is entitled to have “valid” feelings (like in this example with my mother, her tiredness is supposedly more valid and had more valid reason, so mine doesn’t).

This makes me feel bad, guilty and wrong.
Also an ex-partner…whenever he had said or done something that hurt my feelings and I tried to address the issue, he was quick to fire back “but YOU hurt my feelings…” and then he referred to some ancient, already forgotten case where I might or might not had hurt his feelings. It always happened that he quickly deflected the attention away from my hurt feelings to him and his feelings…ignored and invalidated me. That’s why he is an ex. I had the gut feeling, that this is not normal. Why someone behaves this way??
I’m not a negative person. I do not have the habit to complain all the time about everything. But sometimes I do have…yep, real feelings. But the other people or external circumstances make me feel that I shouldn’t have those feelings. It causes huge inner conflict. The feelings do not go away simply because I’m “shoulding” them!

If someone indeed is suffering and lives in war zone or something…then what difference does it make to them whether acne in my face heals or not and my feelings? For me it matters; it feels acne interferes with my career and romantic life. Could it also be the effect of CEN, that I so easily feel guilt, if I focus on myself, my happiness, put myself, my feelings and needs first? Doubting whether I deserve all the good things. Why should I always “sacrifice” my life because of others? Jonice, is that somehow inherently wrong or “sin” to do so…to pursue my own happiness and wellbeing, to “want more”? Don’t we all? I do have empathy and care about other people and their feelings…but it just cannot be right that I completely ignore and invalidate myself in the process!

I think these are very profound questions about life…maybe you could do a blog post about these in the near future? 🙂
Sorry about the long mail!

    Jonice - October 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Julia, thanks for sharing your questions. I will keep them in mind while blogging. And you can join my newsletter by signing up to the the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. That automatically puts you on the list.

    Patrice - October 27, 2020 Reply

    Hi Julia,

    I was touched by what you wrote, because it sounds isolating, frustrating and familiar. 🙂 This is a good place to find validation and understanding of your experience that Jonice offers. 🙂 Similarly, I’ve found relatively few people who are aware they can “afford” to set their own unmet needs aside, even briefly, to validate and connect with those of others. In Adult Children of Alcoholics and dysfunctional families 12-step meetings I often find at least a few fellow travelers who are self-differentiated and self-aware enough to share their own experience, strength and hope, while also listening with acceptance and respect to mine and others. It’s a wonderful experience when that happens. Hope you also find supportive fellow travelers. 🙂

Tania Breard - October 15, 2020 Reply

Thank you for how you communicated the various reason why parents neglect their children. I grew up in and with very dysfunctional situations/people. I didn’t know what I didn’t know stepping into adulthood. Subsequently, I married into a very narcissistic family that was very toxic and abusive. Simultaneously, I was going through a great deal of trauma outside of that as well. Consequently, as time, abuse and trauma unfolded I became more compromised. I have CPTSD and now realize I had it for a long time and didn’t know. I hurt my beautiful children. My oldest daughter and I have a healthy relationship due to the years we have worked on things, together. My youngest daughter has not communicated with me in ten years and doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. It’s hurtful, and I respect her right to choose. I want what is best for my children and their families. If it is best to leave my daughter alone, then I will honor that and not make any attempt to communicate with her. However, if the most loving and responsible thing I can do is reach out to apologize and take responsibility for how I have hurt her, I want to make sure I’m doing that respectfully. Thank you for your work and the tools it provides. As well, I appreciate any guidance you may offer regarding how I may respectfully and healthily honor my daughter.

Mahnoor - October 12, 2020 Reply

I’ve signed up for your email updates, and do not regret it one bit. I had no idea what Childhood Emotional Neglect was and now that I’ve read a few of your articles, I’m convinced I have it. I’ve always been confused about my feelings and it was through books and stories that I realised that people could feel so many emotions and that you would be allowed to have and feel those emotions.
I always feel so inadequate, lonely and just plain hate myself. I always felt confused about my parents as well, they do love me and my siblings and all, but emotionally they never understood our thoughts and feelings. I’m the eldest of 5 and I usually confront my parents, because my siblings don’t, or can’t, I believe it’s the latter. When I would confront them about it, they would laugh it off and say, “No, of course, we care about you”, “you are so sensitive”, or they would then change the subject because they were uncomfortable. I always felt broken inside because of this, because they wouldn’t listen. It’s like that feeling where you’re screaming your lungs out and hope that someone will notice, but everybody walks past and ignores you. Thank you for making me realise what is wrong about my situation. I hope to read your book.

    Jonice - October 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mahnoor, your description sounds very much like parents who do not understand the world of emotions. I applaud you for realizing this and being willing to heal yourself.

Roger - October 12, 2020 Reply

I am having difficulty with the concept of “giving my adult self what I did not get from my parents as a child.” Exactly how can one do that? It was easy to identify the childhood emotional neglect I experienced and not repeating it with my child came naturally. Providing it to myself seems as feasible as someone trying to stop the physical abuse they endured 40 years after it happened. Its just not possible. Am I missing something? Thank you!

    Jonice - October 12, 2020 Reply

    Yes, Roger, I think you are missing something. There are 5 steps of CEN recovery and they are structured and help you do this work. You can start with the exercises in the Running On Empty book. All my best to you!

Emily - October 12, 2020 Reply

I found out about you in the newsletter, “Introvert, dear.” I’m so glad I did! I’m 65 years old and have been trying to get past my problems that stem from my childhood. I’m actually doing pretty well. I’ve been helped by some wonderful councelors over the last 35 years.

But one day recently i was talking to one of my 3 older brothers. We are all damaged to varying degrees. He is suffering the most but won’t seek help. I realized not long ago that we were negleted as children. Both physically, but more importatly, emotionally. Our mother was a very unhappy, stay-at-home alcoholic. (We were poor and my father worked alot.) She was the product of her own unhappy upbringing. So, I’m hoping your expertise will help me. And I hope that I may be able to help my brother.

I have you book and will show it to my counselor. She is willing to guide me.

Thank you!

    Jonice - October 12, 2020 Reply

    That’s great, Emily. I hope you and your counselor find helpful information in my book.

Jamie - October 12, 2020 Reply

I thought I read on your site something about the link between procrastination & CEN. But I clicked on something else on your site & now can’t find it. Can you please direct me to how to find that article. Thanks

Richard - October 12, 2020 Reply

I think I had a variation on a common scenario when a child. When I was two my sister was born with very nearly fatal health problems. There simply were not enough parents to go round and I was either left or put in a playgroup which was led by someone who did not really like or understand children. Even though I asked to I was not allowed to see my sister in hospital and the medical issues to do with her were not explained even when I grew up. When she did come home she had her own nurse who would shoo me from the room when I tried to bond with her. I do not blame my parents or my sister for what happened. It was no-ones fault. I would say also though that as well as emotional neglect being an issue there is also the issue of uneven attention with children and young people. My grandfather had a word with my parents saying they should spend some time with me because I was in a bad way. As a result I had a lovely holiday in Norfolk with my mum and Dad for a week or so. Phew I thought the nightmare is over. However when we got back everything went back to how it was before leaving me more confused and upset than ever. It taught me a powerful lesson I am still unlearning now. Don’t trust the good times. The rug will be pulled from under your feet. Fortunately through starting to learn about mindfulness I learning to live in the now. My relationship with my parents and my sister are both good.

Jenny - October 12, 2020 Reply

You are wonderful.

    Jonice - October 12, 2020 Reply

    Thanks for your kind words, Jenny.

Jamie - October 12, 2020 Reply

I think there is a category of neglect missing.
Parents who put their own desires (especially social or more specifically sexual desires) ahead of their child’s needs. People who put dating as a priority above their child and make bad choices tend to go from one love interest to another creating additional problems for their child/children.

    Jonice - October 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jamie, these are certainly ways that parents can emotionally neglect their children. They sound like they would fall into the “Self-Involved Parents” category which is covered in the “Running On Empty No More” book.

Vivien - October 11, 2020 Reply

The more I find out about my early child hood the more I come to understand the real neglect I experienced – I was completely unaware of this though I have all the after effects – I just thought there was something wrong with me – my mother is 95 and much more unguarded about what she is telling us now which all fits in with the picture I have through my own therapy and reading. I have an excellent therapist fortunately – I have read both your books – keep up the good work or raising awareness and offering positivity for the future. Thanks so much

    Jonice - October 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Vivien, I will keep going, for sure. I hope you’ll do the work of healing your CEN 🙂

Jenn - October 11, 2020 Reply

All my physical needs were met, but likely suffered a mix of 2, 3, AND 4. My dad was gone, a lot, and I was left alone with my stepmom who wanted to have NOTHING to do with me- limited words spoken to me with ZERO attention or affection. She did her best to ignore me and it worked. Now I’m suffering from anxiety, adhd, Cptsd and still single at 42. Sucks. But EMDR is helping!!!

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