Emotional neglect is an issue that effects all kinds of children regardless of their socioeconomic status. Emotionally distant parents come in all types and from all backgrounds. Pound for pound, it’s also the most harmful type of neglect. Love, affection, and emotional attention is just as important to children as food. Emotional neglect effects every aspect of a child’s health; their self-image, sense of self-worth, social development, intellectual ability and cognitive functioning, not to mention their overall psychological health. Emotional neglect is one of the most common forms of neglect out there, occurring at levels from slightly detrimental to severely harmful, often times in environments that give no outward appearances of being lacking.
Let’s start out by discussing the worst of the worst. Severe emotional neglect is horrendously damaging to children. It can bring about social-emotional and cognitive impairments on par with mental retardation, As discussed in chapter x, it can even lead to death. Mortality rates soar to 50% or higher for severely neglected children, and can be as high as 100% for kids who are completely neglected emotionally, even if all their other needs are met.
Studies of Romanian orphanages, an environment where children were often abandoned for up to 20 hours a day with no one to care for them, show that deprivation from adult interaction can have serious consequences. Many of the children died in such an environment. Those that survived showed severe impairments. Even after being adopted by loving families, the kids were ultrasonic, they hoarded food, showed little interest in playing and were often void of emotion. Things improved over time to be sure, but brain scans of the children several years later showed that their social-emotional areas were still significantly underactive. (Chugani et al., 2001) The bottom line: severe emotional neglect for any significant amount of time brings about damage in the brain that can never be corrected.
Most cases of emotional neglect don’t rise to such levels of severity, but it doesn’t take such a degree of severity to do some serious damage. Even in relatively mild doses, emotional neglect can deliver a potent punch. Emotional neglect ultimately comes down to the fact that it attacks a child’s primary need: attachment.
Love & Affection
Attachment is dependant upon the amount of love, attention and affection a child is shown. This affection is an integral part of emotional development. Children need as much touching, squeezing, kissing, caressing, nuzzling, holding, and physical contact as they can get.
They also need to be talked to, smiled at, have others take an interest in them, and overall be shown that they are loved, wanted, and cherished. There is no way a child can be given too much affection. The more affection shown, the more secure the child. It’s the most important aspect of raising a child, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
For starters, emotional neglect impacts a child’s stress response. The more physical contact and nurturing children receive, the more resilient they are against stress. Less nurturing leads to more Cortisol receptors being formed in the brain, thus wiring a child’s brain for more stress, (add ref) More stress receptors means a child will be more crippled by difficult situations. This impact will be with a child for the rest of their lives. Emotional neglect forms a less resilient child who will be more deeply affected by life’s inevitable downturns.
Neglect & Cognition
Emotional neglect effects not just psychological wellbeing, but cognition. A child who has been severely neglected may have a brain weight of 25% less than that of a typical healthy child. (Koenen et al., 2003)
There is accumulating research which suggests that children with delayed cognitive development are not getting the frequency of exposure they need from adult-child interactions. (Ramey & Ramey, 2000) In other words, when children lack quality adult-child interactions in the frequency they need, intellectual ability suffers severely.
Neglected children become less able to recognize emotion and to handle their emotional states appropriately. (Pollak et al., 2000) This is something that once again develops through adult interaction. If children aren’t shown love, they don’t learn how to love. If they aren’t shown affection, they don’t learn how to give it. Emotional development depends on these interactions, and when they are lacking, so is the development. But most of all, when children are emotionally neglected, they feel insecure. When they feel insecure, When they feel insecure, they feel more vulnerable. And when children feel more vulnerable, they are much less able to roll with the punches and react to emotionally charged situations in a reasonable manner. Emotional intelligence requires emotional security, which is built through plenty of strong, secure attachments. Without it you get a moody, easily depressed, easily upset and neurotic child. Emotional intelligence, of course, is something heavily correlated to positive life outcomes in numerous ways, (add ref)
Future nurturing habits are also at stake. Studies show that the type of nurturing behavior a child receives when young dictates the type of nurturing they’ll show towards their own children as adults. (add ref) So an emotionally neglectful environment can cause suffering throughout the generations. Racism, prejudice, hostility and aggressive attitudes are all linked to attachment issues in childhood as well. Because attachment effects security, those with less secure attachments in childhood grow up to be more frightened and distrustful as adults. They’re more fearful of the intents of others, more suspicious, more judgmental and less secure themselves, which leads to this generally over paranoid, schizophrenic state out of which racism, prejudice and mob-mentality arise.
Measures of Emotional Neglect
So how much is enough? Emotional neglect is difficult to measure, but we’ve put forth a few guidelines for parents. The following would represent a healthy emotional environment:
1. Physician affection (hugging, kissing, holding, caressing, cuddling) should be shown to children by each parent or primary caregiver numerous times daily. If you can count the displays of affection shown to your child in a particular day on one hand, or worse yet, can’t remember any at all, things need improvement.
2. Quality time…in mass quantity. Some studies have tracked the amount of quality time that working parents and their children have together to as little as 8 minutes a day for fathers, 12-18 minutes for mothers, (add ref) This is scary. We know better than anyone else how hectic modern living can become, but parents must find the time to interact with their kids.
Quality time is defined as one-on-one or intimate family time where the focus is on each other. (Watching TV together and yelling at the kids to get their shoes on doesn’t count.) This means things such as sitting down to read the child a book, wrestling in the living room, playing together outside (not sitting on a bench in the park with a neighbor as the kids play off on their own), taking a walk together; any time where there is focused interaction between the parent and child. Kids need lots of this, and 8-12 minutes a day isn’t going to cut it. You should try to find time for at least an hour on weekdays, much more on weekends. Cozy up and read some stories together before bedtime (might we suggest our safety books?) Set aside at least 1/2 an hour every evening to join their play, enjoy a quality meal time together and spend at least 10 minutes a day holding them tight and telling them how much you love them, especially when they’re young. (It will be too late later.)
3. Parents need to show legitimate interest. Faking a desire for interaction isn’t going to work. Kids can see straight through half hearted attempts at caring. Do you show up for your child’s school events? Invite them into your conversations, even ones between adults? Show interest in their play? Ask them what they’re doing? Share your own life with them? (Without dumping baggage on them.) Is spending a day with your kids at the park your idea of a good time? Or would you rather have a beer at the bar with friends? Is your interaction with your children restricted to times when it is required? Think back to the conversations you’ve had today. If most of it was stuff like “get your shoes on; get ready; don’t run in the house; time for dinner; sit down and do you homework; don’t hit your sister;” then you have deficiencies to correct. If those kinds of interactions comprise virtually all of your contact, you’ve got a severely neglectful environment on your hands. It may not seem like it. Families can go months or years like this, simply maintaining the ship without quality interaction. But kids need more than simply being told what to do all the time. They need loving interaction. It will catch up to you sooner or later.
4. Children need to be told their importance. This is done indirectly. Have you told your child at least once today that you love them? When you return home, do you tell them you missed them? That you were thinking about them at work today? Do you talk about the fun times you’ve had together? Do you tell them you love spending time together.
5. Preferably, children should have this in multiple attachments. They should be getting this kind of treatment from multiple people in their lives…aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends of family, and teachers. The more secure attachments, the better.