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The Role of Therapy in Healing from Childhood Neglect

“The pain of childhood emotional neglect is invisible, but its effects are profound and long-lasting. Healing begins when we acknowledge our hurt and take steps to care for our inner selves.” – Jonice Webb


Child setting alone.

Imagine growing up feeling unseen, unheard, and unloved. For many, this is the reality of childhood neglect, a silent but profoundly wounding experience. At least two-thirds of adults in the U.S. reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) between 2011 and 2020. One in six reported experiencing four or more ACEs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2023).

ACEs, including neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction, can leave lasting scars that shape how we perceive ourselves and interact with the world. These early adversities can lead to a host of challenges, including mental health issues, behavioral problems, physical health concerns, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships.

Understanding and addressing these experiences is crucial for healing. By acknowledging our past and seeking support, we can start to mend the wounds left by childhood neglect. Healing is about overcoming past traumas and reclaiming our lives, building a future where we feel valued, understood, and capable of forming healthy connections.

This blog will explore the profound impact of childhood neglect and how therapy can provide the necessary tools and support to navigate the healing journey. Together, we can move from merely surviving to truly thriving.


Understanding Childhood Neglect

Many people struggle to recognize neglect as a form of abuse, often misunderstanding its true impact. Neglect involves failing to act in a child's best interest, resulting in unmet basic needs and lack of emotional support. This can include a lack of healthcare treatment, education, supervision, protection from environmental dangers, and failure to provide basic necessities such as food and clothing. Neglect is the most common form of childhood abuse, as highlighted by multiple studies and reports (Gonzalez, Bethencourt Mirabal, & McCall, 2024; CDC, 2023).


Physical Neglect

Example: Sarah, a seven-year-old girl, arrives at school daily with an empty lunchbox and wearing the same unwashed clothes. Despite the school's efforts to reach out, her parents fail to provide adequate food and clothing, leaving Sarah hungry and improperly dressed for the weather.

Explanation: Physical neglect involves failing to meet a child's basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Sarah's situation exemplifies physical neglect because her parents are not providing her with the necessary resources to maintain her physical well-being, which can severely impact her health and academic performance.


Emotional Neglect

Example: Johnny, a ten-year-old boy, feels invisible at home because his parents are preoccupied with their own issues and rarely show him affection or acknowledge his achievements. When Johnny tries to share his feelings or accomplishments, he is met with indifference or told that his concerns are unimportant.

Explanation: Emotional neglect occurs when a child’s emotional needs are consistently ignored. Johnny’s experience illustrates emotional neglect because his parents fail to provide the emotional support and validation necessary for healthy emotional development, leading to feelings of unworthiness and emotional isolation.


Educational Neglect

Example: Lisa, a twelve-year-old student, has struggled with reading and math for years. Despite her apparent difficulties, her parents refuse to engage with the school’s recommendations for special education services or extra tutoring, causing Lisa to fall further behind her peers.

Explanation: Educational neglect involves failing to ensure a child receives appropriate education. Lisa's case is an example of educational neglect because her parents' lack of engagement and refusal to provide necessary educational support are hindering her academic progress and potential.


Medical Neglect

Example: Michael, a nine-year-old boy with severe asthma, experiences frequent attacks because his parents skip medical appointments and fail to refill his prescriptions, putting his health and safety at serious risk.

Explanation: Medical neglect fails to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment. Michael’s situation is a clear example of medical neglect, as his parents are not following through with prescribed treatments and appointments, putting his health and safety at serious risk.

Recognizing the different forms of neglect is crucial for intervention and support. Understanding and addressing these issues can help ensure that every child receives the care and support they need to thrive.


The Benefits of Therapy for Childhood Neglect Survivors

A safe place is the crucial starting point for seeking therapy as a childhood neglect survivor. It’s important to consider how one feels around the counselor, the environment, and throughout the therapeutic process. When starting therapy, consider multiple factors to find a supportive fit, including budget, therapist specializations or training, location, and insurance. Although this can be overwhelming, addressing these factors can significantly influence the process and benefits, reducing roadblocks to care.


Why consider therapy? Over the last decade, therapy has become less stigmatized, just as mental illness has. It’s more openly discussed and accepted instead of hushed. Experiencing early neglect impacts how we see the world and others through a lens of survival and self-preservation. When the brain focuses on surviving or meeting basic needs not addressed in neglectful homes, it struggles to learn other skills. Some benefits of therapy for adult survivors of childhood neglect include:

  • Learning to identify and build trust with safe support figures

  • Processing and understanding the impact of trauma on current behaviors

  • Having a safe place to discuss the experience from your perspective

  • Unpacking the influence of others or social beliefs that enable abusive behaviors

  • Learning to manage emotional outbursts and hardships with problem-solving skills and mindfulness

  • Improving self-worth and self-esteem

  • Identifying, understanding, and implementing boundaries for self-protection


Conclusion

Recognizing and addressing the various forms of childhood neglect through therapy is essential for healing and personal growth. By understanding the profound impact of neglect and seeking professional support, survivors can move from merely surviving to truly thriving. Therapy provides the tools and safe space to rebuild self-worth, establish healthy boundaries, and develop trust with supportive figures.


Call to Action

If you or someone you know is struggling because of a tough childhood, it could help to talk to a professional. Contact Crabtree Counseling PLLC for support and guidance on your journey to feeling better. For more information and helpful resources, check out the National Institute of Mental Health website and other reliable mental health organizations.


References

American Psychological Association. (2017). The Road to Resilience. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences Among U.S. Adults — Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2011–2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 72(26), 1-9. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7226a2.htm


Gonzalez, D., Bethencourt Mirabal, A., & McCall, J. D. (2024). Child Abuse and Neglect. In StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459146/


Harvard Health Publishing. (2018). Mindfulness Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/mindfulness-meditation


Mayo Clinic. (2019). Psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/psychotherapy/about/pac-20384616


Mental Health America. (2020). Setting Healthy Boundaries. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/setting-healthy-boundaries


National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Psychotherapies. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies


National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition


Psychology Today. (2017). Boundaries: Definition and Types. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/boundaries


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). (2016). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459146/


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. (2024). Child Maltreatment 2022. Retrieved from https://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/article/2024/february/just-released-child-maltreatment-2022-report/5369c4041bf3f190145dedf7624bcb10


Verywell Mind. (2021). How to Improve Your Self-Esteem: 12 Powerful Tips. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-improve-your-self-esteem-4163098

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