Emotionally Neglected Children May Feel Like They Are Ghosts

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

“Emotional Neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.” (Dr. Jonice Webb)

Editor’s note: I use “he” because “he or she” can interrupt the flow of sentences. But abuse can happen to any gender.

An emotionally abused child may sometimes feel like a ghost in his own home. He passes through its corridors, affects its surroundings, interacts (as best as he can) with the other people in the house… but he feels like no one quite sees him.

Or listens to him.

Or understands him.

Or cares for him.

Or loves him.

People outside the house can see this child. And from the outside, these neighbors, family friends, relatives, and teachers may see this gleaming, shiny family, paragons of the community, and believe that all children in this family are loved and nurtured, their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs met.

But when the blinds are closed, when the front door’s shut, when all the windows are sealed up, and the parents have resumed their natural form, the child disappears in front of his parent.

The child feels so lonely, so very unimportant to anyone. Because home should be a place of nurturing, comforting, loving, growing, and playing. But for the emotionally neglected child, home is where you aren’t seen or heard. Home is the place you haunt.

And your parents only notice you when they want something from you. Not any other time.

Emotionally abusive parents are not always noisy gongs, overly boisterous buffoons, yelling caricatures. Some of them hurt their children by emotionally neglecting them.

When these emotionally abusive parents look at their children, the abusers see…

  • Themselves only
  • What they failed to be
  • Sources of energy, love, and approval for themselves

Here’s a more detailed look at what that all means…

Themselves Only

Abusive parents do not know, care, or understand their child. They rarely know what the child likes or dislikes, how the child reacts to things, etc. The parents only know (and care about) what makes them (not their child) happy, and they see their child through a self-reflective lens.

Examples:

Dad buys a sports jersey for his child on his birthday. But the child doesn’t like sports or the team, and has told this to his father. The father does. So, the father gets royally pissed off at child for not appreciating his token of affection.  The father never thought to dip into his knowledge about his child and purchase something that the child would love, not the parent.

Mom takes her child to acting classes because the child has such a natural talent for it. Oh, wait, no. The child hates being in front of people, hates performing, and would prefer to be behind the scenes rather than in it. Mom prefers that. The mom never considered talking to the child about what would be fun or discussing some options. It’s always about Mom, never the child.

Dad goes to visit his adult son’s house late at night for a beer because he knows how much of a night owl his son is. Wait, no. The son likes to go to bed early and has told his father this. The night owl is Dad, not son.

Mom buys tickets to go see a symphony with her daughter, who loves classical music. No, Mom loves classical music; the daughter cannot stand it. But the Mom already bought tickets for her daughter! Mom may accuse adult child of being an ingrate, being difficult, being selfish, etc. The mom never thought to ask the child, “Would you like to go to a symphony? Would you like to go with me? How does this date work for you? Would you like to do something else instead?”

These parents act like the world revolves around them. And that it should always be like that.

What They Failed to Be

These parents may talk about their children to others, but they don’t really know their own children.

Examples:

“Have you met my daughter?” Dad may tell new friends about his child. “She’s an amazing singer. Really, I think she’ll go far in her career.”

Dad himself is a terrible singer. He can’t carry a tune and knows nothing about melodies. Neither can his child. But Dad wanted to be a great opera singer, and when he sees his child, he sees his dreams fulfilled. Even if they’re not.

“My child is so popular!” Mom may say. “Honestly, the phone’s always ringing off the hook for her. You know, she’s an extrovert.”

Mom is incredibly shy and would rather stay home than go out. Her child is neither an outcast nor popular, but the mom can’t gauge when her child how her child feels because Mom wants the child to be uber-outgoing and amazing. Because mom isn’t.

These parents make assumptions about their child. They talk lies about their child. They live in delusion about who their children are.

Sources of Love and Approval

Parents should not demand love and approval from their children. Repeat: Parents should not demand love and approval from their children.

Good parents love their children and nurture their souls and bodies. These parents know that children are a gift from God and treat their children accordingly, with love, tenderness, affection, gentleness, and guidance. Good parents love their children, and that loving behavior will inspire their children to love them back.

But good parents don’t demand that their children fill up the holes in their heart or confidence or self-worth.

Abusive parents see their children as sources of love and affection. An abusive parent will have a lousy day at work and go home and vent their issues to their child and expect the child to serve as a cheerleader, a source of support, make them feel better. They expect their child to fill a role that is not meant for the child. (Often this role is meant for a spouse or a good friend. But the abusive parent will demand kindness, support, etc. from their child… all things that the parent does not provide to his own child.)

Examples:

Dad has a big fight with Mom and takes the child out for some ice cream. He tells the kid about the entire fight, demands (whether overtly or subtly) for the child to take his side, wants the kid to tell him that he’s a good person, etc. Dad doesn’t realize that the child is a child. And the child wanted to just have ice cream and play, or to hang out at home and draw. The child did not want to become Daddy’s Little Therapist.

Mom is feeling incredibly depressed. Instead of seeking help or taking the right meds (if needed) or calling up a friend, Mom manipulates her child to attend to all her needs, to treat her as if she were a fragile and delicate thing that needs to be pampered. Mom doesn’t care about the child and how that freaks out a kid to take on that role; Mom needs a parent and the neglected child will become that substitute parent.

Emotional Neglect

All the above are examples of emotional neglect.

“Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse,” writes Dr. Jonice Webb. “Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”

And though it’s an act of omission, it is quite damaging…

“Psychological neglect, though less obvious [than physical neglect], is just as serious,” writes Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. “Children who are constantly ignored, rejected, threatened, or belittled grow up without the inner resources that everyone needs to cope with difficult times.”

That emotional neglect leaves children vulnerable to such terrible relationships and situations.

“When children get little or no affection and physical comfort, they are vulnerable to anyone who will give them attention,” writes Hartwell-Walker. “Often they become sitting ducks for people who exploit them.”

That’s one reason so many emotionally neglected children end up as adult survivors in hard relationships or in tough situations. They often just want someone, ANYONE, to see them to hear them. And they often cannot discern who is toxic to them or who will be a good person. So, they often fall for people who will treat them with the same level of disinterest that their own parents exhibited.

Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Symptoms of childhood emotional neglect that show up in adults may include (but are not limited to):

  • “Numbing out” or being cut off from one’s feelings
  • Feeling like there’s something missing, but not being sure what it is
  • Feeling hollow inside
  • Being easily overwhelmed or discouraged
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Pronounced sensitivity to rejection
  • Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own expectations for yourself

However, adult survivors can heal and get to the point where they have emotionally healthy lives.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse can find a better way, a brightly lit path, through counseling, reading about healing, talking to others in a support group, praying, etc.

You can heal in time. You can learn to re-parent yourself.

If you were an invisible child at home, know that you are not doomed to be forever invisible. Just because your parents lacked the intelligence, compassion, or just very basic human instinct of nurturing their young, that doesn’t mean you aren’t real, that you don’t matter, that you are unworthy.

Because you are worthy. As a human being, you have dignity. You matter.

Perhaps not to your parents, and that’s a very tragic truth to accept. It’s hard and terrible. Almost no one will understand what you mean when you tell people that your parents are “toxic” for you… but the readers here at The Invisible Scar do. I do.

You’re not alone.

We see you. We hear you.


veronica-jarski-managing-editor-the-invisible-scarVeronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

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April Is Child Abuse Awareness & Prevention Month: Let’s Talk About What People Don’t Talk About

childabusepreventionmonthThis post is about emotional child abuse—but, please, keep reading it anyway, especially because April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, especially because reaching out can make a huge difference.

Most people will ignore the subject, turning the page or changing the channel or hopping to another website when the subject comes up. People who abuse their children often may not seek help, so the subject will be ignored. And people who don’t abuse their children will just be glad the topic ECA-logo-smdoesn’t concern them and move onto another one. But I want to talk about emotional child abuse and how you specifically can make a great difference.

During Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month, most media outlets will refer to the physical abuse and sexual abuse of children, both absolutely horrific types of abuse. But the one that underpins them all—the abuse that is invisible and the most damaging—often gets ignored. That type of abuse is emotional child abuse.

“Emotional abuse is at the core of all major forms of abuse and neglect, is more damaging in its impact than acts of physical and sexual abuse alone, and requires special attention to disentangle it from physical and sexual acts of maltreatment.” (The Emotionally Abused and Neglected Child: Identification, Assessment and Intervention: A Practice Handbook)

Whereas physically abused and sexually abused children have the physical proof as witnesses to their abuse, the emotionally abused child does not. The scars are inside.

“The bruises don’t show on the outside, so there are no statistics on how many children are victims… but anyone who works with children knows the problem is widespread.” (Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, chief of pediatric primary care at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital)

What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

“Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of children: love and protection.” (child advocate, lawyer, and author Andrew Vachss, You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart essay)

Another definition by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is:

“Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. It may involve causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of ill treatment of a child, though it may occur alone.” (Department of Health et al, 1999, p.5-6)

The words persistent and systematic are crucial to the definition of child abuse. Emotional child abuse isn’t a parent telling his child once, “Why did you spill the juice? Don’t do that again!”

Emotional abuse is systematic. It’s a consistent destructive force in a child’s life. For example, an emotionally abusive parent will tell a child, “Why did you spill the juice? You are so clumsy…” and then, at some point in time (close enough to be linked to the first event), “You spilled something again? Can’t you ever do something right?” and then later, again at another point close enough in memory that the child ties it together, “You are always spilling things because you’re not careful. You don’t pay attention. You’re always messing things up.” And so on…

In time, the emotionally abused child adopts the phrase into his or her memory as something that defines them: “I am always messing up. I don’t pay attention. I am not careful.” He takes the words as a description of who he is… and the phrases will come back to him often.

All the destructive words, whether encased in subtle phrasing or baldly hurtful, will become part of the child’s “self talk.” The words will become truths to the child.

Types of Emotional Child Abuse

An emotionally abusive parent demonstrates one or a combination of the following abusive behaviors.

Rejecting. Parents constantly criticize the child; call the child names; insult; belittle; verbally humiliate the child; tease; refuse hugs; do not allow the child to make his or dismissive-parents-smher own choices; and/or physically abandon the child. The child feels that the parents reject who the child is.

Exploiting. Parents demand behavior from a child that are beyond the child’s developmental stage, have unreasonable expectations, and/or force the child into porn. A type of exploitation is parentification in which the child is forced to take on the role of the parent. In emotional child abuse, a parent demands the unconditional love and understanding from a child that is really the parent’s role. In emotional parentification, the parent is mostly concerned about being loved rather than extending love to the child. According to Psych Central, the most damaging form of parentification is emotional.

 “[Emotional parentification] robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent.” (Psych Central, Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent)

Ignoring. Parents ignore the significant events in the child’s life. They ignore the child in general and refuse to discuss any interests or activities that the child may have. They seem bothered by the existence of the child. The abusive parent will cut short conversations, interrupt the child, mock the child for his/her interests, and treat the child as if she is a nuisance.

Corrupting. Parents teach the abused child to be a racist and bigot. They encourage violence and anger, and they advocate bullying. The parents reward the child for substance abuse or bigotry; promote illegal activities; and/or reward the child for such behaviors as lying, stealing, etc. boy-left-out-sm

Terrorizing. This behavior is what people first think about when they think of emotional child abuse. Parents threaten the child verbally; they yell, scream, or curse. The parents swing from rage to warmth to rage, ridicule the child, and/or force the child to watch inhumane acts. The abusive parent keeps the child on edge, jumpy, nervous about meltdown. Emotionally abused children often end up extremely attuned to the parents’ tone of voice, slightest movements, nonverbal cues, in order to try and avoid a blow-up. 

Isolating. Parents leave the child unattended for very long periods of time. They keep the child away from family, friends, and peers, etc. They punish the child for engaging in normal activities choresand make the child become a misfit. They force the child to do excessive chores or excessive studying to keep them isolated. The child will not have the same opportunities as his or her peers to engage in social interactions but be forced to constantly sacrifice his childhood for the sake of the parents’ demands.

Inappropriate control. Parents exercise overcontrol—which robs children of the opportunities for self-assertion and self-development. Or parents show a lack of control—which puts children in dangerous situations or at risk to be in them. Or parents show inconsistent control—which leaves the children feeling anxious and confused.

Though difficult to detect and substantiate from the outside, the child is abused… and the emotional abuse leaves deep-rooted, invisible scars in the child’s psyche that can “impede their intellectual, social, and emotional development.”

Receiving Help (If You Are the Abused Child)

healing-from-emotional-child-abuse-smPlease visit the above sites and either seek help from those resources or a trusted adult. I highly recommend that you print out the information about emotional child abuse and share it with a trusted adult—so they can read more about what emotional abuse is.

Please know you are not alone. Please do not do anything drastic.

  • Seek help from a trusted adult or counselor.
  • Turn to a trusted friend and share your feelings.
  • Remember that you are worthy of love, of respect, of dignity.
  • Find a healthy outlet for your feelings.
  • Always remember that your life does matter.

Receiving Help (If You Are the Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse)

maskUnfortunately, most emotionally abused children seek help only as adults. As children, they assumed how they were treated at home was natural. With everyone else in the family accepting the abusive behavior, a child developed a skewed sense of what a relationship is—unless they have trusted adults in their lives.

Sometimes, however, an adult who has been emotionally abused as a child will slowly awaken to the truth of their abusive childhood. Though some abused children grow up to become abusive parents, the majority of abused children grow up and do the opposite of what they have been taught. If the adult seeks therapy and healing from an abusive childhood, the adult can break the cycle and not perpetuate the abuse with their own children.

Healing from an emotionally abusive childhood can be very difficult, but as child advocate lawyer and author Vachss says:

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.

It’s time to stop playing that role, time to write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does come down to “forgiveness”—forgiveness of yourself.

How you forgive yourself is as individual as you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the battle. Much more.

And it is never too soon—or too late—to start.

Please seek professional help, read good books, turn to supportive friends, and don’t give up. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up on  your life.