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Emotional Neglect

-Written by Dagless Kangero

Maya was born into a single mother's home. Her father neglected both mother and child from the second her mother fell pregnant. When Maya was 2 years old, her mother lost her short-lived battle to cancer. Of course, Maya can't remember her mother in detail, if at all, but Maya is traumatised. She knew the trauma of neglect. Luckily for Maya, her grandmother decided to take her under her wing and raise her in a home that served everything she would ever require, except her parents. She built a close and intimate relationship with her grandmother. At the age of 12, her grandmother gave into the struggle of old age. Maya was shattered. She was triggered by yet another loss of a caretaker and loved one. She grew weary and faint.

In CALD societies, the age factor tends to minimise the impact of emotional neglect. In fact, research suggests that some of our most vulnerable moments are experienced in childhood. We all know the old-age anecdote of a therapist asking you about all your childhood hurt and experiences to understand any self-destructive behavioral patterns in middle-age. Childhood emotional neglect is significant enough to address in therapy and all elsewhere.

Like Maya, experiences at a young age form our initial perspective in life. Children are so impressionable. Maya felt alone, hurt, and abandoned when she looked at the card's life dealt her. Her mother's death was her earliest encounter with pain and neglect, but she had no one to possibly blame. Absent parents lead to overburdened children who never get the chance to fully live a life that every child deserves to live.

Experiences of loss and single-parent households for several different reasons are more common in CALD societies. This may partly be attributed to poor resource distribution across society, marginalising CALD communities and families. To another extent, the value system in CALD societies may devalue the importance of child development and a stable family structure. We have probably all seen parents arguing viciously in front of a toddler. Or older siblings watching mature television in front of younger siblings. The justification being, "they don't understand anyway". This way of thinking needs to stop- children are smarter than we think them to be. They absorb emotions, sight, and sounds as you would imagine a sponge could. They may not be able to identify which event resulted in a later event or trigger, but their core has already absorbed and encrypted information down on the inside of them. So much time in adulthood is spent digging up this information inside of them in order to understand behavior, struggles, and patterns.

In Maya's case, her extended family continued to shuffle her between households until eventually sending her to boarding school. She downloaded the information that her emotional well-being was not important which reinforced her loneliness. They focused on her education and financial well-being, but no one took the role of attempting to fill the emotional void of caretaker. She excelled in school, but her depression still multiplied. She could not see an end goal for her efforts. She started failing and her family took notice, scolding her. Eventually, Maya's anxiety grew, and she spoke very little to anyone and everyone. She preferred to blend into the room. Maya grew up with a survivor's mentality. But- survivor's mentality can only take us as far as when breath becomes air.

My proposition is that healing begins from childhood. Let's redefine the roles caretakers, older siblings, teachers, etc. play in child development. A crying child is not to be ignored, but to be paid the most attention to. A quiet child is also to be listened to. What if Maya's extended family had paid more attention to Maya's emotional neglect and affirmed that Maya was loved, important, and very much seen? Their neglect was not intentional, but the failure to respond to Maya's emotional needs convinced Maya that her emotional needs were not important, so she failed to cope, and stopped seeking support. Emotionally neglected children result in adults who must deal with the consequences. These troubled adults will likely pass that on to their children. 

To all the Maya's of the world, here are some practical tips that may begin the journey to healing childhood emotional neglect:

1. Label all your emotions- positive and negative

This will reconnect you to the feelings that your neglect disconnected you from. If you can't label your emotions, describe them.

Identify your needs and map out how to achieve them

2. Validate your own needs and know that you are deserving. Once you have identified them, take action. This is you gifting yourself your power back.

3. If you believe you are undeserving of your needs, still recognise the belief and see it as just that—a (false) belief, not a fact of life

This is the step to un-learning all your childhood lies. Discover what your inner voice is telling you and respond with the truth. You are loved. You are important. You are deserving.

4. Practice self-compassion

Give yourself the self-care that you think every baby deserves in a perfect world. The healing process is a journey, not a destination. Have compassion for your healing and your healing journey.

The hurt inner child is in everyone. Let's nurture the emotions of our children as much as we encourage education, career seeking, and financial planning.

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