Surprisingly, studies show that some of the seemingly less dramatic kinds of experiences, such as neglect, in childhood actually do more harm than overt abuse such as physical violence. Neglect isn’t talked about as much as physical, sexual, or even verbal abuse, and depressed adults who experienced neglect in their childhoods often wonder why they’re depressed.
Even when people think about neglect, they picture parents who are too drunk or high to take care of their children, who prioritize adult sexual relationships over their children, or who don’t care about their children and thus don’t bother to feed them or provide clothes and other necessities. They may imagine parents who are irresponsible and who forget or don’t know how to take care of their children’s needs. All of this happens, but it can happen without such extreme dysfunction.
Sometimes neglect can happen even when parents are trying to be responsible, when they simply don’t have the resources to parent fully. For example, when one parent leaves and the other has to work two jobs to provide food and shelter, they may have to leave the kids to fend for themselves or let the older ones to do the best they can to parent the younger ones. I’ve had clients from families in which this happened when the older one was as young as 3, taking care of a baby or two.
But neglect can also happen in families in which one or both parents are depressed, have demanding jobs, or have so many children that there isn’t time to meet all of their needs. It can happen when one of the parents, siblings, or grandparents is chronically or gravely ill or dealing with mental issues. Often this requires the rest of the family to put most of their time, energy, and attention into that person. It can even happen in families that value individuality and independence. Thinking they are teaching these values to their capable children, parents may overlook concrete and emotional needs even capable children have.
Neglect can cause children to miss learning the skills they need to be fully functional adults. When kids have to teach themselves how to handle life, they often don’t learn the best ways. Neglect can cause children to feel profoundly lonely and empty. It can make it more difficult for them to form friendships, causing them to feel even lonelier and preventing opportunities to develop social skills. They may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, and learn to cope alone. Perhaps most insidiously, neglected children often conclude they aren’t worth parental attention and care, or that their needs aren’t important or just aren’t ever going to get met. These beliefs, carried into adulthood, undermine the ability to develop loving, respectful, equally powerful relationships.
Not through parents’ intention or direct action or message, but through lack of action, children can turn in on themselves—blaming themselves for how bad they feel. They can grow up with these invisible wounds, not even associating them with their parents, who may be loving, well-intentioned people.
Clearly, there is a huge range of severity of neglect, depending on factors such as how young the child is when it begins, how extensive it is, whether there’s a basic foundation of love and respect from parents, whether there are other adults who provide at least some of what the child needs when parents don’t, what other abuse is involved, and whether other resources are available.
How people cope with neglect also varies, just as it does with abuse and trauma. Neglected children may cope by clinging and being dependent; by giving up and lacking motivation or hope; by withdrawing and resisting human contact; or by acting out with crime, dangerous sex, etc. They may experience depression, anxiety, self-attacks, eating issues, or addictions. Any or all of these results of the neglect can follow the child into adulthood.
If you don’t understand why you’re depressed and think you had good parents and no trauma, consider what you might not have had. Did you struggle with anything your parents didn’t protect you from or help you with—even things like unrealistic standards for yourself? Did you have to take care of yourself more than your friends had to take care of themselves, or that you would expect of your children, nieces, nephews, or godchildren? Did your parents show no interest in things that were important to you? Did you have to work at getting your parents’ attention? Did you get physically or emotionally hurt because your parents weren’t paying attention? Do you feel like your needs aren’t important? Do you not expect to have them met? Check in with yourself, your journal, your therapist, and maybe your siblings to see if you can find ways your parents weren’t there for you that others are for their kids … and look at how it affected you.