If your emotional needs were ignored, dismissed, or minimized as a child, it can be difficult to identify the impacts on your mental health as an adult. The beliefs about yourself that you form when you’re young can seem like facts, but they’re not.
Can emotional neglect you experienced as a child cause low self-esteem? Absolutely. Early social interactions determine how we perceive ourselves. If your parent(s) neglected your feelings, your sense of self-perception is likely skewed. That skewed sense of self can translate to low self-esteem over time.
Unpacking how emotional neglect can cause low self-esteem is the first step on the journey to a better relationship with yourself. It’s crucial to acknowledge how you have responded to your emotional needs not being met in order to heal. Then you can begin to learn how to accept and identify your feelings and needs.
Can emotional neglect cause low self-esteem?
Emotional neglect is a failure by the caregiver to act in a validating, supportive way. When children express emotional needs and they are validated and supported, they develop a stronger sense of their feelings and who they are. When children express emotional needs and they are dismissed, ignored, or minimized, the child begins to question the validity of their emotional needs, or whether they are worthy of support.
Those crucial social interactions begin to define your perception of self. Self-appraisal is how we estimate ourselves in terms of our strengths, weaknesses, feelings, and preferences. That perception of self, whether correct, partially correct, or incorrect, is the basis for your sense of self-esteem. So, when your ability to appraise yourself is destabilized by emotional neglect, your self-esteem is too.
Low self-esteem can present in different ways. Someone may experience frequent negative self-talk, or critical thoughts turned inwards, like “I’m not good enough,” “I won’t succeed,” or “I’m not worth it.” These thoughts may also impact how we talk about ourselves with others, which may present as feeling pessimistic to those around us. If you have experienced childhood emotional neglect, these thoughts may be rooted in actions or inactions by our caregivers that over time shaped our sense of worth.
Viewing oneself in such a lens can also lead to having difficulty connecting with others. Self-esteem is how we view ourselves, and when our self-view is so negative, we may have difficulty believing people who may view you in a positive, encouraging light. When people in our life compliment you, do you have a tendency to brush off or invalidate their praise? This may be an indication of an ingrained negative view of self.
However, low self-esteem doesn’t always present in a way that is noticeable towards others. Although feeling insecure is common, it’s not the only indication of low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is not the same as being an introvert, or someone who struggles in social situations. We may be able to enjoy spending time with others in social situations, especially when the focus is on our friends or loved ones; It often is much easier to validate someone else’s worth than our own.
How do children respond to their emotional needs not being met?
Emotional neglect can cause low self-esteem by making it hard to perceive yourself accurately, and that doesn’t end when an emotionally neglected child grows up. That disconnect between who you are and how you appraise yourself informs every aspect of your decision making as an adult, such as friendships, jobs, relationships, where you live, etc. An inability to self-appraise correctly makes it a struggle to identify your feelings about your options and what you truly want. It can feel as though you’re trying to make life choices for a stranger.
Low self-esteem based on an inaccurate perception of self can impact how you form connections with others, as you may care too much or too little about what they think of you. Not being able to identify your feelings or connect well with others can lead to a sense of emptiness that permeates your life.
During childhood is when we begin to develop our identity, which is impacted by all aspects of our life: our family, culture, friendships, etc. As this sense of self grows and develops, we begin to shape how we connect to others socially, usually based on how our own behaviors and emotions are responded to at home.
If a child’s form of expressing emotions is discouraged, invalidated, or ignored by their parents/caregivers, they will most likely “shut down” those expressions, developing different reactions to emotions. Over time, this may lead to the inability to identify emotions or express how they are feeling in a moment.
How to identify and accept your feelings and needs
If this emotional neglect is not addressed in childhood, these inabilities can carry with us into adulthood. Attachment theories in psychology tell us just how impactful our family dynamics and our relationships with our parent(s) or guardian can be to how we experience relationships as adults.
The good news is that as an adult, it is easier to explore your sense of self-appraisal and come to a more correct perception of yourself. The first step is to realize that many of your long-held beliefs about yourself are beliefs, not facts. They aren’t serving you. It is okay to let them go and form new, more accurate, perceptions of yourself. Therapy can help you to identify those beliefs that aren’t serving you.
A therapist may use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques to help explore and identify your thinking patterns, reactions to those thoughts, and what emotions may be behind our behaviors. Bringing these thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to light can help you better understand the roots of your self-esteem struggles, empowering you to reframe and challenge the negative patterns that are not benefiting your sense of self.
Another aspect of childhood emotional neglect therapy work focuses on being able to identify and verbalize our feelings. It may sound simple, but when emotions are invalidated or suppressed as children, our vocabulary surrounding emotions may be limited. When asked “How do you feel in this moment?” we may find it difficult to properly articulate a response. Working with a therapist to practice not only identifying feeling words, but processing what specific feelings represent and how they present in our bodies can be an empowering step when working through our childhood emotional neglect.
Treatment can provide you with the coping skills necessary to prevent you from falling back into those same negative self-appraising thoughts. A therapist versed in childhood emotional neglect can’t eliminate the way your caregiver raised you, but they can help you unlearn, reframe, and heal.
So, emotional neglect can cause low self-esteem. What else can it impact?
Childhood emotional neglect may impact more than your self-esteem. If you struggle to communicate your feelings, maintain meaningful connections, say no to people, put yourself first, or connect with yourself, you are in the right place.
Just like low self-esteem can be experienced in different ways, so can childhood emotional neglect. However, there are certain struggles and traits that are common signs in adults of having experienced emotional neglect. If you tend to be the “people-pleaser” in your friendships and relationships by putting others’ needs in front of your own, while at the same time feeling as if you aren’t as important as others, this may be a sign that your emotional needs were not recognized or responded to during development.
Childhood emotional neglect can also impact the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Feeling nervous or uncomfortable in social situations, tending to isolate when overwhelmed, or experiencing low self-esteem can all be signs of different mental health conditions and childhood emotional neglect. A licensed provider can work with you to explore and process these symptoms while beginning the journey of identifying how past experiences may be impacting your day-to-day life.
Treatment for childhood emotional neglect addresses all the above, as well as low self-esteem, and can help you begin to identify and communicate your true feelings with ease. If you feel ready to talk to someone about it, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.