The Impact of Emotional Abuse & Emotional Neglect


A lot of the work I do in my practice is helping others sort through childhood hurts. Often a client is unaware that the emotional abuse or emotional neglect that they experienced in childhood is just that – abuse and neglect. They see themselves as “bad”, “failures”, or what I see so often – have the belief that they are “not good enough”. These ideas can be based on relationships with their parents. They were told directly that they were not good enough, or through the parent’s behaviors they were told indirectly. This could have been through manipulation, comparison to siblings or cousins, overall poor boundaries, parentification, triangulation, and/or putting too much adult responsibility on them. Children of emotional abusive or neglectful parents often feel like they have to protect or make excuses for their parents. I see this sometimes in my practice – where clients defend their parents, or minimize the hurt that they felt. “They did the best they could” is something I might hear.

A story that I heard at a training on trauma (yes, emotional abuse and neglect are traumatic!) plays in my mind at times. The presenter, a therapist working with trauma survivors, told this story about a client who felt the emotional abuse by her mother was much worse than the sexual assault she had experienced as a child. He first described her experience with gang rape. Walking home from school, the young girl (oldest of four), noticed that a group of older boys were following them. She started to feel uneasy and had the suspicion that they were in danger. Crossing through an open field, they followed. No where to hide or sneak away, she told her younger sisters to run home as fast as they could. In order to protect her sisters, she sacrificed her own safety. Though this was a horrific experience, she was able to make sense of it and process the trauma where it no longer deeply impacted her as an adult. Emotional trauma inflicted by her mother was a different matter. She told the therapist, among other memories, about a time when her mother acquired seven fur coats. They didn’t have much money growing up, so it was a huge deal when this happened. The client broke down in tears describing how what happened with these coats was so representative of how her mother treated her. Her mother gave one coat each to her three younger sisters, kept two for herself, and then gave the remaining two away. She said that she would have been alright with there only being enough for her sisters, or if their mother would have sold the other coats for money for the family. But instead of giving her one, the remaining two were just given away. She cried as she spoke to the therapist about never feeling good enough, that she didn’t matter to her mother, and that she never understood why.

I felt myself becoming tearful when I listened to this story at the training. I could really hear and connect with this woman’s pain in the belief that she didn’t matter. I thought of experiences of my own, and experiences of my clients. With or without any sexual or physical abuse, emotional abuse cuts us so deep. Much like the woman from the story, I have heard from clients that the emotional trauma they experienced was far worse than anything physical or sexual that happened to them.

It makes me think – why are we so dismissive of our emotional abuse? Why do we protect and make excuses for our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, or whoever it was that was abusing?

I’d like to share with you an article I have come across on this topic: 10 Huge Misconceptions About Emotional Child Abuse at The Invisible Scar. I refer people to this website who are struggling with trauma issues related to parents and family. They also have a great post about how to cope if you have made the decision to become estranged from your abusive family: Prepare Yourself for Backlash When Going No Contact (Advice for the Adult Child). I see clients try to set boundaries with abusive family with varying degrees of success (unfortunately it is mostly unsuccessful). Total estrangement is sometimes what a person needs in order to heal and breathe from the abusive parent or family. I also like on this website the information on identifying & coping with having a narcissistic parent.

What can you do? Whether the abuse still goes on or has mostly resided in your childhood, whether you still have a relationship with the abused parent or have decided to cut them out of your life, please take good care of yourself! Think of self-care, from the basics of nutrition and sleep to having healthy relationships to treating yourself in some way on a regular basis. It’s possible that you have denied your own wants and needs due to the belief that you don’t matter. It only makes sense that if we believe we are not good enough and don’t matter, there is no need to treat yourself well. Please try to challenge this belief. There is no reason to emotionally abuse or neglect a child, and this includes you! Becoming aware of your own abuse and neglect will be the beginning of your healing. Seek help through therapy if you are not already doing so. Do something today to treat your mind, body, and spirit well.

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