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What are the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Neglect?

This is a dual-authored article featuring the insights of Parisa Ghanbari, MA, and Janine Ilsley, LMSW.

Neglect in childhood can have devastating effects on our self-image and future relationships. Emotional neglect, during childhood, means our emotional needs for care, safety, and protection were not adequately met by our parents.

When we have been emotionally deprived and neglected early in life, we may come to think of ourselves as inadequate, insignificant, and unworthy; and assume that the setbacks we face in our career, personal life, or relationships are due to there being something wrong with us.

If your thoughts are, “I am not good enough,” or “there’s something wrong with me,” then you can be sure these are the messages that you have internalized based on your past experiences and how you were treated by others. A history of emotional neglect in love relationships may make us feel we are either unworthy of love or unlovable. The experience of emotional neglect in childhood also makes us experience significant self-doubt, lack of inner trust and confidence, and being sensitive to any feelings of rejection. Any form of potential rejection and inattentiveness by a partner can trigger deep old wounds of not feeling cared for and feeling small. In some cases, having these deep wounds and being afraid of getting hurt again make us emotionally pull back to protect ourselves. Over time this tendency can be a challenge to building intimacy in relationships.


"Childhood neglect" is broad and encompasses several different forms. For the purpose of this article, I will be speaking primarily about the trauma rooted in abuse, neglect, or loss that was inflicted during childhood and that impacts the developmental trajectory into adulthood. I must emphasize that it's not what happens to the child per se, but rather how the child experiences what happened or, more appropriately, what did not occur, such as having their emotional needs met. In other words, it is what happens inside the child to adapt to the external situation within the family system but unwittingly leads to a fundamental disconnect within themselves and to what's around them.

Generally speaking, trauma makes it much harder to access a felt sense of safety and security in the world, relationships, and within ourselves, which leads to chronic overworking and hyper-vigilance (hyper-arousal; attachment anxiety), chronic detachment or avoidance (hypo-arousal; attachment avoidance), or chronic shutdown and collapse (disorganized attachment). These can manifest in a myriad of ways: it can look like procrastination, fear of commitment, being unreliable, being too perfect, people-pleasing, no boundaries, minimalizing behaviors, avoiding things that seem harmless and safe, making excuses, withdrawing from friends and family, periods of significant slumps, insomnia, chronic pain, and chronic illness, i.e., hypochondria, missing more than average days of work, aloof, addictive behaviors, promiscuity, affairs...the list is endless and which is why we must ALWAYS contextualize the neglect in a context and condition.

Again, the fundamental limitation is an inability to reestablish safety physiologically, emotionally, and cognitively even when circumstances are safe. In other words, the adult experiences life as feeling imprisoned to the childhood wounds stored within the body.

What can we do?

The roots of the wound began in a relationship and, as such, must heal in a relationship - this is why I cannot understate the importance of seeking a therapist who can provide a relational container to whom the individual can express their feelings to and have their feelings mirrored back to them.

In a similar vein, I encourage therapeutic modalities that use the here-and-now moments of the relationship to assist in emotional regulation and emotional integration, which are the two pillars to hold healthy, reciprocal interactions with ourselves and the world around us. Emotional regulation essentially requires the willingness to re-parent oneself to self-soothe. It is most effectively facilitated through the restorative experience of a safe and secure therapeutic relationship upon which the therapist is herself emotionally attuned and regulated.

Only in the present can we be liberated from the past.

*Attachment theory offers a conducive framework here, as does polyvagal theory. I’d recommend resources by Gabor Maté, Diane Poole Heller, and Clementine Morrigan on Instagram.


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