By Becky Stadem who coordinates the Collaborative Service Team, providing early intervention and prevention services to schools in the Crosby, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd school districts.
The normal stressors in life affect our emotional state. For instance you’re late and have to get your kids off to the bus. One child wants to show you something they wrote, but you are too busy to look. Or maybe your boss calls while you’re waiting to pick up your kids from school. They’re excited to tell you about their day, but you have to tell them to quiet down so you can hear your boss on the phone. Or you decide to take a minute to check out Facebook and get engrossed. When you look up, it’s bedtime for the kids. You say goodnight without hearing about their day or finding out why they were excited. Sound familiar? With everyone’s busy schedules, there are bound to be times when you are distracted from your children. But, if those patterns persist over time, you may be neglecting their emotional needs.
According to resiliencetrumpsaces.org, “Emotional neglect is the failure of a parent to provide needed emotional attention, support, recognition, love and empathy so that the child’s emotional health and development are built on a solid foundation. Parents who neglect their children are often struggling with their own need – their own ‘cup’ is often nearly empty, and they find it challenging to give their children what they need (and what they didn’t receive themselves).”
Emotional neglect is particularly harmful during infancy and the early years of a child’s life. This is when the brain’s circuitry around emotional health is largely being built. Having adult caregivers who are tuned into and responsive to the child’s needs builds a sense of being able to trust others into the child’s brain. Trust is the basis of all positive human relationships.
Unlike emotional abuse, where an adult is actively engaged in shaming or blaming children, emotional neglect results from what a parent doesn’t do – pay focused attention to children’s emotional lives.
A child whose emotional life is neglected feels that they are invisible, that their feelings don’t matter, or aren’t important to the people who are most important to them: their parents. People who have experienced an emotionally neglected childhood have a harder time understanding their own emotions, can often feel detached from those around them, have feelings that they’re unworthy, difficulty with self-discipline, and may use food or substances as a way to regulate their emotions.
There are many situations that can affect one’s ability to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. You may be working too much, be the only parent in your child’s life, or have stressful relationships at work or in your extended family. These situations do not mean that a parent definitely is emotionally neglectful of their children, but they do increase the likelihood of not having the energy and emotional state necessary to be attuned to a child. How a child is treated, how their emotions are responded to in childhood, lays the foundation for how they see themselves in the present, and into the future.
– Become an emotion coach to your children by 1) being aware of your child’s emotions, 2) recognizing that emotions are an opportunity to connect, 3) listening with empathy, 4) naming the emotions, and 5) setting limits and finding good solutions to emotional issues (John Gottman)
– Books, movies, and real life situations all provide opportunities for recognizing and naming emotions.
– Accept and validate emotional expression. Emotional reactions to life situations are normal. Accept all emotions and teach about appropriate behavioral responses to emotions.
– Teach about soothing intense emotions. Taking a break, physical activity, and self-talk strategies can all be helpful. If taking a break from an intense emotional situation is necessary, be sure to make time later to talk about what happened once the emotional intensity of the situation has decreased.
– Help children develop friendships and a sense of belonging to a group. Positive emotional relationships with others is the foundation of emotional health.
– Take care of yourself. Seek out people who will listen to and support you in your own emotional life and growth.