Good child-rearing is one of the most vital responsibilities us parents carry with us throughout our lifetime. More and more research reveal the degree of influence parents have on their children’s long range mental health. It really isn’t about following the best child-rearing practices around; it is about what we personally bring to the table. And, oftentimes, we bring to the table what was left with us when we were growing up. Sadly, we transfer our own foibles to the next generation. Although we thankfully don’t carry the whole load, giving some credit to peer influences, genetics, their own life experiences, and society’s effects, parents are truly the ones that have the most impact.
There has been increased studies on the effects of plain, old, childhood emotional neglect. This doesn’t include other types of abuse, such as emotional abuse, or being frequently criticized or manipulated as a child. This is about not receiving sufficient affection, attention or nurturance. So, let’s say you are a depressed parent who doesn’t seek help, or a parent who works all of the time and with good intentions. There is no intent to harm, but the effects of child neglect can be great.
It is our human nature, especially at a young age, to feel cared about and loved. When emotionally neglected, a child is at risk for long-term adult problems, with common characteristics including feelings of emptiness, being hopelessly flawed with low self-esteem, dependency on others for validation, excessive guilt, feeling ashamed with some self-hatred mixed with anger towards those they feel harmed by, difficulty identifying and expressing their feelings, and their own lack of self-compassion. If there is no insight as to what they bring to the table, the table will be the same for the next generation; a depletion of affection, attention, nurturance, and without intent.
The good news is that not all adults who experience emotional childhood neglect struggle with these problems. We are all different, and children cope in various ways. Among many factors, children’s level of coping depends on their own personal character. For example, a child who is more sensitive and introspective is more likely effected from emotional neglect than a more resilient child who somehow holds some protective lining and is able to coast easier through times of vulnerability.
The other good news is that we, as parents, can change. With hope and understanding, we can gain insight about its effects and realize we can make a difference for ourselves and our children.
As no one can predict how a child interprets their own world until they gain some insight later in life, it is still a generational flow. Unless us parents deal with our own maladies, the table setting for our kids remains the same.
Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW
St. William’s Mental Health Services