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HSP: the devastating effects of emotional neglect in childhood

What happens when a highly sensitive person grows up in an environment of emotional neglect?

What happens when a hypersensitive person grows up in an environment of emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect is an overly neglected topic, yet it can have as big of an impact on a child as child abuse. It is not as visible or memorable as abuse, but nevertheless the consequences can be dramatic.

If you're here reading this article, it may be because the title certainly evokes something in you, and I'm sorry, I feel for you. Maybe you are highly sensitive or someone close to you has this trait? Perhaps you wonder about the devastating effects of emotional neglect, having experienced it, or seeing the repercussions on the highly sensitive person you know.

It is unequivocal that highly sensitive people can be affected even more, if they have lived in an environment where they were emotionally neglected, than a less sensitive person. They feel emotions so strongly that they can overwhelm them, so when those around them ignore them, it can only upset them more. Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are born with a nervous system that processes and “feels” things much more deeply than the average person.

So what happens when you grow up in a family that doesn't value your trait at all?

This could manifest itself in these well-known remarks and stereotypes which we, HSP, overhead too many times, which could mean :

Parents who keep telling you, “You're overreacting,” “Why are you crying? You are too sensitive. I barely say anything to you. », « What puts you in such a state again? ", " It's nothing. Why are you making such a big deal out of it? ", etc…

Parents who don't express their own emotions themselves, feel uncomfortable when you do, and/or don't respond in any way.

Parents who make you understand that you are different, too dreamy or whiny.

Finally parents who react in public and ridicule you, because you cry, calling you a “wimp” or a “chicken”.

Unfortunately, the examples I have just given you are not rare, and the list could be endless. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that many families, even those from privileged backgrounds, are raising their children in a state of emotional neglect. These parents are unable to value or respond to their child's emotions, because they often repeat patterns from their own emotional upbringing.

So all of this can have unhealthy consequences for any child, of course, but it's especially true for sensitive children.

(Not sure if you're hypersensitive? Here are the signs of a highly sensitive person. You can also take the test here or below)

test : are you highly sensitive

What does it mean to be emotionally neglected?

Childhood emotional neglect occurs when a parent fails to meet a child's emotional needs. It is not noticeable and will not mark the memory of the child as abuse, but the impact on the child is also significant.

What is most disturbing is that there is nothing particularly visible. In fact, parents can even take great care of the child on any other level. But behind the curtains (as they say), there is this invisible lack: the validation of the child's feelings, as well as a response to their emotional needs.

All this of course has consequences. Children generally feel profoundly alone and they have the feeling that their needs and feelings are not valid, but on the contrary negligible. Often they feel unable to ask for help, as it would confirm their signs of weakness, so they shut up.

Growing up, the child's emotional neglect can have repercussions in the form of unnecessary guilt, personal anger or low self-confidence. These consequences can go as far as feeling that they have a problem, that there is something wrong with them.

All of these implications aren't just for the highly sensitive people, of course. They are completely valid too, for anyone growing up in an environment of emotional neglect. Imagine, however, how a sensitive child can grow up in this environment, when his biology has made him very sensitive to emotions, emotions which, in many ways, are their first language. Imagine living in a family that doesn't speak that language.

How emotional neglect affects a sensitive child.

A child cannot become highly sensitive through his upbringing, because hypersensitivity is innate, it is a genetic trait. Similarly, one cannot make a child less sensitive by emotional neglect. Emotional neglect therefore does not change whether or not a child is highly sensitive; however, it affects them very differently from other children.

Now imagine a child growing up in a family where the parents avoid expressing their emotions or acknowledging those of others; it is like completely denying the most important part of their inner life of the sensitive child. Their intense feelings are ignored or discouraged, and their natural kindness seen as a weakness.

Unfortunately, many highly sensitive people don't need to use their imaginations, as they were often brought up in this environment of emotional neglect. Their personality trait was therefore flouted and they felt compelled to stifle it.

Harms of an Emotionally Neglected Environment

We are all affected by our childhood environment, either positively or negatively. No one escapes it. For HSP, this influence is even greater because of their sensory and emotional sensitivity. Research in this direction, which led to the definition of the term “Vantage Sensitivity”, has determined that indeed highly sensitive people suffer more in a bad environment, while they develop much better in a loving and harmonious family. It goes without saying that in an environment of emotional neglect, the impact is disastrous.

Although not all highly sensitive children who suffer from emotional neglect face all the scenarios below, studies on this subject have discerned the following cases:

Taunts, jokes and negative qualifiers that leave traces.

The sensitivity of the child is the subject of ridicule, even from the parents. I noted some of them at the beginning of this article: “too sensitive”, “whiner”, “emotional”, to which we can also add: “impressionable”, “susceptible”, “irrational”, “touchy”, etc…

Even if these comments are not all ill-intentioned, they still have a negative connotation that will inevitably be felt by the child.

When siblings get involved...

When the siblings also attack the hypersensitive child, following the parental model of course, we must not forget that they too generally suffer from emotional neglect, unless there are differences between the children's upbringing. But whether in the latter context or because the siblings are less sensitive, they are bound to react differently to jokes, because they take them less to heart. All this will therefore lead to a hierarchy within the siblings... from the weakest (the HSP) to the strongest (the non-HSP).

The feeling of inadequacy and of being “abnormal”

Here is a feeling that never goes away, unless you work on yourself and above all accept your sensitivity as a gift, it is that of believing that there is something wrong with you. During childhood, this feeling is all the more powerful, because of the derogatory remarks that we hear constantly, and which reinforce this idea. So sensitive children learn to internalize their emotions which are described as “bad” and a mark of weakness by those close to them.

Loss of self-confidence.

Considering the above, all these feelings of rejection will, of course, create issues of self-confidence, self-doubt and poor self-esteem. This will only reinforce the judgment of weakness of the parents who will pressure the child to be more confident, without recognizing where the real problem comes from: their emotional neglect!


Inability to distinguish constructive criticism from negative ones.

HSP react badly to criticism, children too, in general. A highly sensitive, emotionally neglected child cannot distinguish constructive from negative criticism, because in his emotionally neglectful environment, they have seen only the destructive and negative pattern. They will therefore not be able to build and develop a positive and constructive model for handling criticism in a healthy way.

Fear, panic, anxiety.

Overstimulation is a real problem for highly sensitive people. Where an adult will identify the causes of their agitation, they can completely escape the child who does not know what is happening to them. So, a noisy or crowded environment can sometimes overwhelm them with strong emotions. Children who grow up in an understanding environment, know how to manage this overstimulation, by withdrawing to their room away from the noise, for example, or in a more isolated corner, away from the crowd. But if parents do not understand this need, they may witness “overreactions” from their hypersensitive child. If, in addition, the parents react with anger or punishment, then the child may be afraid, feel guilty and panic, because of their reactions. All of these factors can combine to leave a sensitive child in permanent anxiety, fueled by the fear of always doing things “wrong”.

Deep loneliness.

When the child feels all that we have described previously, a deep loneliness can invade them. They have the feeling of not being understood, and they are completely right! So they can, little by little, isolate themselves and feel alone against the world.

Inability to ask for help.

When your emotional needs don't matter to your parents because they neglect you emotionally, you learn very quickly that asking for help is pointless or insignificant, that your request will not be considered or taken seriously. So you have to manage on your own or nothing! This will have lifelong repercussions…

If you are, like me, one of the highly sensitive people who grew up with parents or one parent, in emotional neglect, try to have a lot of compassion for them. They must have been brought up in a similar environment themselves. This is a very healing, first step. It doesn't take away the devastating effects their actions or non-actions have had on you and your future as an adult, but it helps a lot.

Then, analyze the mistakes your parents made, this will help you better understand what you have been through, and create a more positive association with your emotions and special qualities.

If you haven't already, ask for help! Do to yourself now what you were denied in your childhood. Do not be ashamed ! Emotional neglect has a major impact on our emotional health and self-esteem, don't underestimate it by thinking you don't need help. Discomfort related to your emotions can run deep and should not be ignored.

Calling on a therapist who specializes in emotional neglect or childhood trauma, or a coach for HSP can help you overcome these negative things from childhood. This will allow you to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy and healing way.


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What is your biggest struggle?

  • Feeling emotionally drained

  • Moving on and letting go

  • Criticism and conflict

  • Being under pressure

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