When kids grow up neglected, they can really struggle with self-worth, relationships, and grief as adults.
Neglect isn’t always overwhelmingly obvious. It’s not always ignoring-to-the-point-of-near-death (though it certainly can be— and that kind of thing happens more than many people would possibly believe).
More often, neglect is a consistent failure to meet a kid’s needs, when a kid needs their needs met.
It’s not about being an imperfect parent. Every human parent is imperfect. Imperfect parents can give their kids perfectly good enough childhoods.
Neglect is a CONSISTENT failure on the part of a caregiver to see and meet their kids’ needs.
Neglected children often grow up feeling invisible— because their needs often WERE invisible to the people who SHOULD have seen them MOST clearly.
Parentified kids— kids who had to assume adult-like caretaking roles in their families— were, essentially, neglected kids.
Kids whose caretakers formed sexual or romantic relationships with them were neglected (as well as abused) kids. Sexual or romantic relationships with kids is an utter disregard of their developmental needs and emotional safety.
As adults, it’s hard to convince a person who grew up neglected that their needs are important.
They’re “wired” to believe their needs “don’t count.”
When you tell a person who was a neglected kid that their needs DO count— that they SHOULDN’T have been neglected growing up— it’ll often feel hollow or sound false to them.
Why should ANYBODY see or prioritize their needs, when their caretakers didn’t?
People who were neglected in childhood often struggle to know what and who to believe in adult relationships.
People who were neglected as kids might feel they have to go out of their way, jump through flaming hoops, clear extraordinary hurdles, to “earn” basic safety and respect in their adult relationships…and even when they do wind up in respectful, relatively safe relationships, they may struggle to trust it.
Grief and letting go can be particularly hard for people who were neglected as kids.
We can get overwhelmingly sad or angry when someone close to us dies or leaves— and that sadness or anger can haunt us, sometimes for years.
When we experienced neglect growing up, our adult attachments are complicated because our models for attachment from back in the day were confusing and frustrating.
When we’re kids, we struggle with the idea that pain or problems in relationships are not always about us.
In the course of normal, healthy development, we ideally come to terms with the fact that not everything that happens in a relationship is about us…but in order to internalize that idea, we need the consistent presence and support of adults who can help us understand its implications.
Kids who grew up neglected didn’t have that presence and support.
Consequently, often we just don’t internalize that idea— that maybe not all the bad things that happen in relationships are our fault.
So we just keep on believing that.
Fast forward to us as adults, and many of us spend all day, every day, anxious about doing something to make the people close to us hate or abandon us.
“Are you mad at me?” is a question often asked by people who were neglected as kids.
It’s true that neglect and abuse are often found in the same family systems, and their effects can be difficult to parse sometimes— but I’ve also worked with many people who assumed that they hadn’t had a “traumatic” childhood at all, because they were never hit or berated growing up.
In fact, these people will often maintain, my parents barely interacted with me at all— I seemed invisible to them. Hell, they left me alone so much that my family members still regularly forget to text me on my birthday.
Neglect shapes the nervous system as surely as physical or verbal abuse— but we don’t talk about it nearly as much.
For what it’s worth, I don’t view the work of recovering from childhood neglect as heavy on the “blame.”
I view the most important thing as realistically acknowledging what happened, and how it affected you.
Neglecting the fact of neglect can stall the hell out of realistic recovery.