Childhood emotional neglect has a high correlation with addiction. It is not uncommon for a person in addiction treatment to have an aha moment where they realize their emotional or physical needs were neglected as children. They see for the first time how this neglect influenced their choices, feelings, and behavior as adults.
Emotional Neglect as a Child Can Lead to Addiction
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We know addiction can develop from a number of factors. And we also know the experiences we have during childhood can play a role in who we become as adults.
One of the childhood experiences that can have a huge impact on us as we grow older is emotional neglect. In fact, research shows it can even put us at higher risk for developing an addiction.
What is Emotional Neglect?
Childhood emotional neglect can occur when parents neglect their children’s emotions and emotional needs.
This means they do not ask about their children’s feelings, connect with them on an emotional level, or validate their feelings enough.
These parents may be physically present but emotionally unavailable, or they could be so damaged by their own childhood experiences of emotional neglect that they have no idea how to nurture their own children.
Emotional neglect is a form of abuse. Emotional neglect is more difficult to spot than physical abuse, but can be just as damaging.
Who are Emotionally Neglectful Parents?
Jonice Webb describes childhood emotional neglect in more detail in a recent Psychology Today article.
The one failure of the emotionally neglected family is emotional. There may be enough hugs. There may be enough money. There may be enough food and clothing. But this family does not manage to provide enough emotional awareness, validation, compassion, or emotional care to the children.
Emotionally neglectful parents usually do not notice what their kids are feeling and, therefore, may have no idea that they’re neglecting their children’s emotions at all.
Connecting the Dots Between Emotional Neglect and Addiction
It is not uncommon for a person in addiction treatment to have an ah-ha moment where they realize their emotional or physical needs were neglected as children. They see for the first time how this neglect influenced their choices, feelings, and behavior as adults.
Researchers acknowledge that it’s impossible to identify the exact role of emotional neglect and other forms of abuse play in addiction. Dr. Cora Lee Wetherington, the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Women’s Health Coordinator says:
The sheer weight of the many reports over the years certainly implicates child abuses as a possible factor in drug abuse for many people, but we lack hard data that clearly establish and describe the role of child abuse in the subsequent development of drug abuse. Is child abuse indeed a cause of drug abuse, or is child abuse a marker for other unidentified factors?
Emotional neglect and abuse causes:
- Persistent feelings of fear and a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- High risk of developing anxiety or depression
- Learning deficits
- Delayed developmental milestones
- Difficulty processing positive feedback
- Difficulty with social cues and situations
These effects also have a high correlation with addiction. For example, research indicates that 30-59 percent of women in treatment for addiction have PTSD and 55-99 percent of these women have a history of childhood trauma, such as physical or emotional neglect.
What Are the Signs of Emotional Neglect?
Webb identifies eight signs of emotional neglect in a family:
- Family conversations tend to focus on surface-level topics, meaning they are seldom about emotional, meaningful, painful, or negative things.
- You sometimes feel unexplained resentment or anger towards your parents.
- You go to family events with hopes of having a good time, but oftentimes, you come away feeling empty or disappointed.
- Interpersonal problems in the family are generally ignored instead of acknowledged and discussed.
- It feels like your siblings are competing with each other, but you’re not sure for what.
- Affection in your family is expressed through acts of service (i.e., doing things for people) and not through emotional expression.
- Emotion, in general, seems to be off-limits in your family.
- When you’re with your family, you feel lonely or left out.
If you identify with any of the above signs, here’s the good news: The way you were raised does not have to dictate the rest of your life.
Can You Repair the Effects of Emotional Neglect?
While you cannot change the family you were born into, you can start by working on yourself, according to Webb. She recommends selecting an item from the list that applies to your family, and then to start behaving the opposite way.
Webb also recommends making an effort to:
- Talking to others about meaningful things instead of only talking about superficial things
- Fighting against feeling guilty for your emotions
- Focusing on self-care when with your family
- Expressing your affection and warmth toward others through words, rather than actions
By taking these first steps, you will be better able to offset the impact the emotional neglect you experienced will have on your life moving forward.
Addiction and mental health treatment often involves addressing issues like emotional neglect that influence behaviors you want to change, such as substance misuse. Call 800-407-7195(Who Answers?) to find treatment.