8 habits you likely adopted if you were emotionally neglected as a child

Nature versus nurture is a big debate when it comes to how we behave as adults.

In terms of how we were nurtured as children, factors such as emotional neglect can have lasting negative impacts.

Emotional neglect during childhood can be subtle and less obvious at the time (making it far more difficult to recognize). 

Largely because it’s not about what happened, but rather what didn’t happen – a lack of something often being more difficult to pinpoint than an excess.

These habits that children of emotional neglect often display tend to be subconscious attempts to fill the void or protect themselves. 

In addition, these methods might have soothed a child and helped them to cope with difficulties when they were little, but are often extremely detrimental when carried through into adult life.

Plus, who knows – maybe you exhibit some of the 8 habits often adopted by emotionally neglected children. In recognizing these patterns, you can kickstart your own healing journey.

1) Hyper-independence

This one isn’t for the kids who grew up with overbearing parents who did everything for them, but rather for those who had only themselves to rely on when growing up.

Absent or incapable parents leaves children with few options but to assume the role of responsibility themselves. They come to believe that they alone are their only reliable source of support, thus developing a strong sense of hyper-independence.

In adulthood, this looks like trying to control or micromanage situations (as you think you can do it better), declining help even when it’s offered, and downright finding it impossible to ask for help. 

Oftentimes, people mistake this stubbornness as you implying that they can’t do it, or that you’re purely a control freak…

When the reality is that you’re just learning to trust others after a great deal of being let down and disappointed.

2) Emotionally inexpressive

My mother once came home from a day at work slightly deflated. She had been told that her face was far too expressive on camera, and had realized her own difficulties in limiting her emotions and expressions.

In contrast, I am constantly told that my face gives nothing away. It oscillates between resting bitch face and emotionless. In addition, I find it very difficult to compensate for my lack of expressions by voicing them (in other words, finding it very difficult to express any form of emotion). 

I grew up in a household where my emotions were met with curt disdain, seen as bothersome and otherwise unnecessary.

As an adult, this has translated into me swallowing my emotions, keeping them under lock and key regardless of the situation. 

It’s taken a great deal of inner work to move from telling people who have upset or hurt me that “it’s fine”, to actually being capable of standing up for myself.

Emotions are important. 

They help us understand ourselves and communicate with others, and despite the walls you might’ve built around your feelings growing up, it’s crucial that you learn that it is more than okay to express those feelings.

3) Extremely self-critical

Growing up without emotional support often leads us to internalize the idea that we’re never good enough. Try all we might (often under extreme perfectionist conditions), we still have never managed to crack a smile on our parents’ faces. 

So, we become our own biggest critics.

Your inner voice tearing you apart, criticizing every move and telling you you’re never good enough can lead to a whole host of bad consequences such as chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression. 

And whilst learning to be kinder to yourself takes so much patience and compassion, it’s crucial to remember that everyone makes mistakes and it’s okay not to be perfect. 

4) Self-care struggles

Whilst so hyper-focused on perfectionism and proving your worthiness to your parents, you might’ve lost track of how important looking after yourself is.

Studying hard, getting good grades, performing well at work. All top priorities.

But brushing your teeth or eating leafy greens? No time for that!

When you grow up without the emotional support you need as a child, it can be easy to disregard your own needs as an adult. 

You might find yourself working excessively to please your inner critic, ignoring the warning signs of exhaustion, or neglecting your own well-being for the sake of people-pleasing.

Constantly seek approval from others 8 habits you likely adopted if you were emotionally neglected as a child

5) Difficulty in trusting others

Being constantly let down as a child means you have little hope in the rest of the world.

You’ve been disappointed time and time again, learning that the only person there to pick you up when you fall is…well, you.

Hence why you struggle to form deep, meaningful connections with others (the sort needed for successful relationships).

What’s worse is that you even sabotage these connections as you prophesy the disappointment, often driving people away by your guardedness and thus reaffirming your own narrative about people being untrustworthy.

It’s not that you don’t want to trust. Hell, you’d give your right leg for someone trustworthy in your life.

It’s just that past experiences have taught you to be cautious.

Learning to trust takes time and patience, and involves understanding your past and slowly lowering your guard. Just make sure that you surround yourself with the right people to do so.

6) Hunger for validation

The thirst for attention which is usually sated by parents grows stronger and stronger when this need isn’t met.

Hence why as adults, we may find ourselves going above and beyond and doing everything we can to please others, just to hear one teensy tiny word of appreciation or approval.

Love me love me love me.

As if trying to fill the big black hole of emptiness left behind by our childhood, we seek approval by trying to do good deeds, assume chores, and give gifts that we hope will win approval.

And this habit is awfully detrimental as some less pleasant individuals can smell this readiness to please and will use it to their own advantage. 

So whilst your head might tell you that paying for someone’s holiday or doing their laundry will win their love, remind yourself that love is never transactional – you won’t have to work for it with the right people.

7) Fear of abandonment

A deep fear of abandonment is a common thread among many who have experienced emotional neglect in their early years.

For me, it manifested in anxiously holding onto relationships longer than I should have, even when they were toxic. Of digging my claws into people who were even hurting me and begging them to stay.

It’s a tough habit to break…

But acknowledging your own behavior is the first step. 

To overcome a fear of abandonment, you have to learn to understand that not everyone will leave. 

More importantly, you have to accept that being on your own doesn’t equate to being unloved or unworthy, and you alone can complete yourself.

8) Difficulty setting boundaries

When you’re raised in an environment where your emotional needs are consistently overlooked, it can be challenging to learn how to set boundaries.

As we’ve covered in point 6), you might be prone to a touch of people-pleasing and find yourself constantly saying yes, even when you want to say no. 

Or as in point 2), perhaps you find it hard to express when something makes you uncomfortable. This is often because you’ve been conditioned to prioritize others’ needs over your own.

Either way, you likely have a vague idea of your limits when it comes to personal space, emotional needs, and other dealbreakers – but when these are pushed, you teeter and sway and quickly give in. 

As difficult as setting harsh limits sounds, remember that setting boundaries is a healthy part of any relationship and will only benefit your growth and self-respect.

Not allowing the past to define us.

It sounds easy to read over this list and point fingers at those who could’ve done a better job at meeting our emotional needs.

But what would that achieve? 

Resentment and blame help little in healing.

What does help is understanding how our experiences have shaped us, and allowing ourselves the self-compassion we might not have received as children.

This sort of healing isn’t linear and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But with a good dose of patience, understanding, and self-compassion, you can learn from the past and let go of these habits that no longer serve you.

Liv Walde

Liv Walde

London-based writer with big thoughts, big dreams, and a passion for helping others.

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