Neglect and Emotional Deprivation: Consequences and Prevention

There is a tragedy taking place in many households all over the world. It is not borne out of malice or ill-intent, rather through neglect and ignorance of consequences.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), few parents know when they are being neglectful. Children who grow up neglected, do not have their core emotional needs met, i.e., not having a sense of safety and secure attachment to others, lack of self-identity and autonomy, inability to freely express emotions and needs, inability to play and be spontaneous and lack of age-appropriate limits and boundaries.

As adults, such children often exhibit harmful schemas (a recurring pattern of thoughts or behaviors), usually resistant to change, that may unconsciously influence thoughts and actions in an effort to prevent emotional distress (Source: Healthline). 

An example of this is the emotional deprivation schema. The APA defines emotional deprivation as “lack of adequate interpersonal attachments that provide affirmation, love, affection, and interest, especially on the part of the primary caregiver during a child’s developmental years”.

Interestingly, in a child, whose every physical need has been met (food, toys, etc.), emotional neglect alone may cause such adverse effects. Such children feel invisible and unimportant, like their existence isn’t valuable. They fail to develop connections, feel lost, lonely, depressed, and bitter, without being able to identify the cause for this. As adults, they tend not to ask for help, protection or understanding, or expect warmth and affection. They are unable to express themselves emotionally and are filled with feelings of futility (Source: The International Pschological Clinic).

In fact, when taken to extremes, neglect during early childhood (as young as infants) yields problems like “poor impulse control (inhibitory control; being able to inhibit impulses and instinctive responses in favor of more appropriate behavior), social withdrawal, problems with coping and regulating emotions, low self-esteem, pathological behaviors such as tics, tantrums, stealing and self-punishment, poor intellectual functioning and low academic achievement.” They show poor or delayed development of the theory of mind (comprehending the mental states of others) and often suffer from high anxiety, as well.

Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” peaks and wanes in our bodies in a daily cyclical rhythm. However, children with a history of neglect have been shown to have an atypical cycle, which has been correlated with stunted physical growth, anxiety, mood disorders, behavior problems and post-traumatic stress disorder (Source: APA).

A good set of guidelines that one may follow as a parent to prevent this is called ‘attachment parenting’, which focuses on “a secure, trusting attachment to parents during childhood”.The Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting recognized by Attachment Parenting International (API), the worldwide educational association for this style of parenting, are:

  1. Prepare for pregnancy, birth, and parenting – to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings about pregnancy by readying parents for the emotional demands of parenthood.
  2. Feed with love and respect – using breastfeeding is the ideal way to create a secure attachment and teach infants that parents will listen to their cues and fulfill their needs.
  1. Respond with sensitivity – considering all expressions of emotions, including repeated tantrums, as real efforts at communication, to be taken seriously and understood rather than punished or dismissed.
  2. Use nurturing touch – maximum skin-to-skin touching possibly by joint baths and ‘baby-wearing’ – carrying babies during the day in a front-facing sling.
  3. Engage in night time parenting – having the infant sleeping the same room as parents so they can feed and emotionally soothe the child during the night.
  4. Provide constant, loving care – near constant presence of a parent including during walks, parents’ night outs, and work.
  5. Practice positive discipline – while disciplining, distract, redirect, and guide even the youngest of babies, and model positive behavior.
  6. Strive for balance in personal and family life – create a support network, live a healthy lifestyle, and prevent parenting burnout.
-- Priyamwada Singh


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