So what has childhood emotional neglect got to do with your eating disorder? Well any abuse or trauma suffered in childhood is going to have an adverse effect on us as we get older. We are looking to feel loved, to feel valued, to feel we exist, someone hears and sees us. If we did not receive the emotional support that we needed as a child, some of us turn to food to help soothe and heal. Food is a coping mechanism. Think about when we start off as a small baby, one of our first actions to survival is learning to suck and eat. It is soothing and comforting. I know when I was breastfeeding, if my daughter cried, I would offer her the boob and she would feel comforted and loved. By us learning in what way our emotional needs were not met as a child, can help us to meet them now so we stop turning to food to help us heal.
What is childhood emotional neglect
This is such a hidden trauma because it can be so insidious. Physical neglect can be seen by others like if you are not fed or you may have bruises. Professionals like teachers, doctors can pick it up. Emotional neglect is the covert neglect. How do professionals pick it up, because it can be so subtle. Many children will not know they are being emotionally neglected; they will think it is normal parenting. I know I did and did not recognise it until well into my adult life. A lot of the time, it may not be done on purpose. It can be the result of our parents not being emotionally developed as adults and they are parenting us how they were parented. They may not know how to help us emotionally as children and are cut off from their own emotions.
Emotional neglect is when your parents or caregivers were not there for you emotionally. They could have displayed the following actions or non actions;
You were never listened to as a child, never asked what you wanted or your opinion or you were even ignored.
You were put down, told to shut up, made to feel like a bother, told you were challenging.
Parents shouting at you, telling you off constantly. Telling you negative things about you. Withholding love and affection from you. Behaving like children themselves.
They would take their frustrations out on you and made to feel like everything was your fault.
Signs of emotional neglect are;
You never learnt to know your own emotional needs.
You might feel like you can’t ask anyone for help or even ask for what you want or need.
You might feel that you are not worthy or love or attention.
You might have low self esteem, be sensitive to others thoughts about you.
You might have the same type of people coming back into your life – narcissists, addicts, bullies or others who are emotionally disconnected and not there for you or concerned about your wellbeing.
How does this relate to our eating disorder
Unfortunately any of those actions could lead us not developing ourselves emotionally and we can become detached from our emotions, denying ourselves love and emotion. We can be ridden with guilt for just being children, not feel worthy, we hate ourselves or think that there is something wrong with us. We miss the connection and love that we desperately need.
Food can become our friends, food feels good. We can end up building a connection with food rather than humans. It can also be a way of attracting attention from our parents if we are not eating enough or putting on weight. In the end that behaviour becomes so ingrained, that when we reach adults we don’t know why we eat the way we do, we are just left with our eating patterns.
How can we heal ourselves from Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Start small and start somewhere, it’s a cliché but this life is a journey, so just make small changes and know that they will have a bigger impact as you go along. Those small changes could be doing a little thing each day for you. Even if it is sitting down for a cup of tea, your favourite tea. Sitting by yourself in the sun for 5 mins with no interruptions. Giving yourself recognition for something that you have done that day.
- Keep a journal and start practising checking in on your feelings from time to time. You could be in the car, walking the kids to school, cooking dinner and ask yourself ‘ how do I feel right now?
- Develop your emotional vocabulary. Expand from just’ nice, fine, ok, angry. This is not to develop your English but really to help you become aware of the details of your emotions. I am frazzled, excited, happy, ecstatic, sad, disappointed, embarrassed, fuming, disgruntled. Have fun with it. It helps you also determine the intensity of that emotion and widens your emotional awareness. On a side note, whatever that emotion is, there is no right or wrong. Each emotion is what you are feeling, we are never wrong for feeling that emotion.
- Find the joy. Find enjoyment in life. It can be something like walking in nature, cooking. What do you enjoy doing in life? Filling ourselves up with what we love is starting the process of our brain getting used to good and positive feelings. It is also telling us, that we are putting ourselves first and that is ok.
- Accept help and support. Try asking for what you want, small things or help with things. Keep an open mind as to what help comes your way and start by accepting it. Even if it is not emotional help, practical help. It is the actions of receiving, letting others help and come into your world and you noticing and experiencing others doing things for you, connecting with you, feeling what it is like that others are there for you.