It is during childhood that we learn who we are and how to relate to other people. In these early years, it is our emotional and social brain that wires up first, not the cortical thinking brain.
What is most important in childhood is both the quantity of time spent with our primary caregivers and the emotional quality of those relationships. It is through these relationships that we develop our emotional intelligence, our self-esteem and our ability to self-regulate – three important factors for leading a happy adult life.
As a society, it is relatively easy to notice when a child is being physically neglected or abused. However, emotional neglect is often more difficult to spot because it is about what is failing to happen for the child at an emotional level and is mostly invisible. The physical needs of the child are usually well met and from the outside it looks as if the family is functioning well.
Parents who are chronically busy, distracted, unwell or stressed are often unable to be emotionally present for their children. Others simply lack emotional awareness due to their own parenting. There is also the influence of the entrenched Kiwi culture, which diminishes the importance of emotions and places a high value on shoving feelings down and getting on with it.
What does this type of childhood look like? Parents don’t show interest in the child’s emotional needs for love, support and protection. Interactions are task focused. There is a lot of focus on what the child is doing instead of how they are feeling. Parents either don’t pay attention or condemn emotional expressions of need from their child. Often a family has a few emotions that are acceptable and others that are forbidden.
If this happened to you, it likely means that you have learned to ignore your own emotional needs and often may not know how you feel. You may experience an emptiness inside and suffer from anxiety or depression. You may struggle to feel close in relationships or feel like you don’t really belong. You may have developed low self-esteem.
Over time, we can develop physical sicknesses connected to the inability to feel, accept and deal with emotions in healthy ways. Emotional repression is linked to many physical issues as well as chronic pain.
There is a common misconception that we are thinking creatures who have emotions, but science shows that we are emotional creatures who developed the ability to think. Our emotional lives are incredibly important to our health and wellbeing.
Seeking help to change this can be life enhancing. Learning to build, deepen and safely understand your emotional world enriches your experience of yourself, your life and your relationships. As a parent, you will be breaking the intergenerational cycle, which will positively impact the emotional, mental and physical health of your family for many generations to come.
Jane Valentine, Warkworth Natural Therapies