Emotional deprivation—or emotional neglect, as it is sometimes called—is an experience that can be extremely hard to identify. Like a mysterious ailment, it often is only seen indirectly through the symptoms it produces. People who were emotionally deprived in childhood often have no idea this happened to them. It just felt normal because they have nothing to compare it to. We might not recognize our own emotional deprivation because we grew up in it.
Most people are much more familiar with the definition of abuse than they are of deprivation. It is always easier to identify errors of commission rather than errors of omission. It is harder to tell when we have not gotten enough of something.
Emotional deprivation means that there were important emotional experiences that we may have missed because other people did not supply them, nor think they were important to give to a child. Many parents, especially in previous hard-pressed generations, believed that feeding and sheltering their children fulfilled their parental responsibilities, a belief supported by our culture. In the past, we focused on material things as signs of good parenting, probably because we were not as generally affluent as many are today. Feelings were ephemeral and often suppressed. We had a simpler understanding of what it meant to be a good parent.
Now, however, emotional and psychological issues have become much more important in defining health. It is no longer enough for a parent just to be physically present or technically available. For optimal child rearing these days, it takes more than just being there to raise a human being. It is not enough to just let them cling and get them their shots. Children crave active, interested engagement by the adults in their lives. When a parent takes the time to get into a back-and-forth social engagement with their child, the child believes they are worthy and lovable. It is crucial for children to feel that their parent enjoys seeking them out, not just that the parent is physically present. When parents reach out to their children, and honestly like their company, a powerful message is sent to that child that he or she is an enjoyable person to be with. As children, we all want to be pulled close, to be as essential to our parents as they are to us.
Children also need to feel that the parent is keeping a protective eye on them, and that what happens to them matters to the parent. A parent who will step in if a child is feeling overwhelmed makes the world a safer place to explore. Parents who step in to protect a child from bad experiences teach the child that help is available. Parental interest and curiosity toward a child makes the child into a person who expects others to find them interesting and fun to talk to. Self-confidence grows best when parents enjoy engaging their children at an emotional level.
A lack of social confidence is one of the cardinal signs of growing up in an emotionally depriving environment. If we feel that way, we find it hard to believe that other people would want to spend time listening to us. Emotional loneliness in adult life can also be a tipoff to relationships in childhood that were not nurturing or supportive enough. If we have suffered emotional deprivation, we may also be familiar with the experience of feeling unseen. If you grew up with emotional neglect within your family, you might also find yourself attracted to people who show either very little emotion or who are super-emotionally reactive.
So if you think you were emotionally deprived, what can you do about it? The very first thing is to understand that your feelings have a good reason, that it is never about you being deficient or unlovable. Your answer lies in gentle social exposure to other people under conditions that feel safe to you, preferably structured activities where the focus is on mutual tasks or activities, not just social chitchat. Finding comfortable opportunities to interact with kind, interested people can reverse the effects of earlier deprivation. Volunteer activities or educational classes are great opportunities to meet people interested in the same things. Another good idea is asking receptive, friendly people for innocuous advice or help on straightforward issues.
Reaching out to others may feel a little uncomfortable if you have been emotionally deprived, but it is the way to change your world. If all of this seems too hard, psychotherapy or other kinds of support groups can be enormously helpful. The important thing is to do the very thing for yourself that your parents may not have been able to do: invest time and interest in your future fulfillment by finding interesting ways to be engaged with others.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.