How Childhood Neglect Impacts All Your Relationships



“Your childhood gives you this blueprint that shapes your expectations and your interactions for all your relationships.

“When your emotional needs aren’t met by your parents, chances are they won’t be met in adult relationships either. You tend to choose people who are unavailable  or  you  learn  that  you  can’t  depend  on  people  so  you  aren’t  vulnerable  enough  for  emotional  connection  or  when  someone  tries  to  love  you, you  can’t  receive  it.”


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Episode transcript: 

Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse podcast where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author, and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life.

Emotional neglect in childhood has far-reaching effects in your life. In fact, most relationship troubles are rooted in the ways you coped with not getting your needs met and the way you learned to attach to people or detach from people. You’ll learn your particular attachment style, not only to transform your relationships, but to heal from the wounds of neglect.

I was a few years into my healing when I had a friend I’ll call Michelle. I’d known Michelle for at least a decade and she called me her bestie. We had a lot in common, we had similar interests and we had fun together. She was also very generous. Some of the best gifts anyone’s ever given me came from Michelle. Plus, she was there for me at one of the most difficult times of my life.

The trouble was she was there sometimes and then she disappeared and I never knew why. We’d make plans to do something together and then she’d do something else without cancelling with me. I was left with a lot of anxiety over never quite knowing what to expect.

I tolerated her on again off again terms as though I was just lucky to get some of her time. I was acclimated to just take things as they were and to navigate how to make the best of things. And in the past, I’d accused myself of being needy. I wanted too much. I expected too much. But this time, I was healing enough to really look at it instead of just blaming myself.

I realized that this relationship felt a lot like the one that I had with my mother. When I was a child, my mom was really good at taking care of some of my physical needs, but often showed impatience or frustration and resentment toward me as she was meeting those needs. Plus, she was emotionally distant. It’s like she just had no connection with me at all. Like she could take me or leave me.

I never felt secure in my relationship with my mother, and I didn’t feel secure in my relationship with Michelle. In both relationships, I felt disregarded, dismissed, and easily replaced. I was always anxious, wondering just where I stood with them. And I was confused because they did and said some things that made me hope for a stronger connection with them, but there were also a lot of other things that felt like they were keeping their distance.

I had settled for what I could get in my relationships, but I just wasn’t willing to accept the crumbs anymore. And so in my relationship with Michelle, when I realized that it echoed the dynamics that I had with my mother, I shared what I wanted in our friendship and what I didn’t want. Michelle either didn’t want to or wasn’t capable of meeting those needs,
so we parted ways.

It wasn’t a coincidence that I experienced that same relationship dynamic and those feelings that I had from childhood. Your childhood gives you this blueprint that shapes your expectations and your interactions for all your relationships. You learn in your early relationships. “This is what I can expect from people. This is what I’ll feel about people. This is how I’ll feel with people. And this is how I need to act around people.”

And when your emotional needs aren’t met by your parents, chances are they won’t be met in adult relationships either. You tend to choose people who are unavailable  or  you  learn  that  you  can’t  depend  on  people  so  you  aren’t  vulnerable  enough  for  emotional  connection  or  when  someone  tries  to  love  you, you  can’t  receive  it.  It’s  like  you’re  a  cup  that  someone  pours  love  into  but  there’s  a  cover  over  the  top  so  it  just  spills  out. 

I’ve  been  describing  attachment  and  the  attachment  styles  that  we  develop. There’s  research  that  says  about  95 %  of  what  you  experience  in  your  relationship  is  attachment-based  and  dictates  those  unconscious, just  knee-jerk  reactions.  Attachment  impacts  how  you  seek  comfort  or  how  you  push  it  away  or  how  you  trust  people  or  don’t  trust  people  and  how  you  approach  either  perceived  separation  or  real  separation, and  that  includes  conflict. 

A  lot  of  people  think  of  attachment  styles  as  though  it’s  a  personality  type  and  identity,  as  though  it’s  this  thing  that’s  set  in  stone  and  you  can’t  change  it. But  actually,  it’s  just  a  coping  style.  It’s  an  effect  of  your  experience  as  a  young  child  and  what  you  came  to  to  expect  and  how  you  adapted  to  that  expected  result.

You’re  biologically  wired  to  connect  and  also  wired  to  heal.  No  matter  which  insecure  attachment  style  or  adaptation  you  have,  secure  attachment  is  always  possible. When  you  know  your  attachment  style,  you  can  learn  new  and  healthier  responses  and  behaviors. 

You may not fit neatly into a single category or match the attachment style description exactly. You can even have more than one attachment style–it’s common to have distinct relationships and connections with the different people in your life.

I’ll share the 4 attachment styles and how that affects your relationships but first, you need to know what you were supposed to get and what that was supposed to give you. Because that’s a clue in how to heal.

When a child is in physical or emotional pain, she cries to alert her parents. The pain feels dangerous because if it’s a hunger pain, and the child isn’t fed, she’ll die. If it’s the pain of being too hot or too cold, that could lead to death too. And if it’s the pain of an older sibling hugging her too tight, that could injure or kill her. And emotional pain is the same. Emotional pain comes from that separation of lack of connection from the parent. That separation is dangerous because she can’t survive on her own. So the baby is extremely vulnerable and completely dependent. And when she feels pain, physical or emotional, that’s very stressful. Her nervous system is in the dysregulated state of fight or flight.

So the child cries and the parent attends to the child’s needs. But it’s not just the physical needs that matter. Because you can attend to a child in a rough or hurried or impatient or frustrated way. That’s not soothing to a child. That isn’t calming. That tells the child she’s actually still in danger because it communicates, and I don’t mean the child is conscious of this but she gets the message that the parent doesn’t want to be there.

And that means If it’s too inconvenient or difficult, they might not care enough to be there the next time. And that’s terrifying to a child. Again, this is not at all a child is conscious of but her nervous system knows. And that’s why she needs that emotional connection. She needs to know she’s safe now and in the future. A child needs that security.

So the parent comes and the parent’s rocking and patting, and soft voice tells the child she’s not alone. There’s someone committed to her and she’ll be okay. That feels safe to her.

The child’s distressed nervous system comes into regulation through the parent’s nervous system. The parent is in a calm state so the child can be calm. That’s coregulating. Regulating with someone else.

So what happens when the child doesn’t get that soothing response? She cries and the parents comes but they are distracted, rushed, impatient? Or if nobody comes? Or if sometimes someone comes but sometimes they don’t?

That’s where different responses come in.

The child might stay in the fight, that’s the crying and flailing, if it works to get the necessary attention, she might just do that. But another response is to move to another strategy, again, not at all conscious. We have amazing survival skills.

Another response is the freeze response. She might learn that nobody is coming so she conserves her energy and doesn’t cry. It doesn’t matter anyway. Or she is a “good” baby and doesn’t bother anyone. Shut up because you’re annoying when you cry. And it’s such a hassle to take care of you. So she tries to be invisible and not need too much. She doesn’t know when she’ll be considered too much of a burden and she’ll be abandoned.

You might remember the calm, regulated parent offers that calm regulation to the dysregulated child. That means if your parent or parents were in the fight or flight, or freeze response most of the time, they couldn’t calm you. The fight or flight might manifest in variety of ways. It might be never sitting still and overworking and always having something to do. And it might mean lots of yelling or even violence. There are many other ways it can manifest. And there’s the freeze response. You might recognize that by addictions, by being checked out. And they can alternate between the fight or flight and the freeze. Like maybe they are alcoholics and are checked out most of the time but get violent when they are triggered.

So when it comes to attachment, the main question the child is implicitly asking is, is someone nearby, available and attentive to my needs? That requires a mostly regulated parent.

Attachment is based on the child’s understanding of the parent’s reliability as a source of comfort and security when she’s hurt, upset, sick or afraid. And that becomes how she sees people as a reliable or unreliable source of comfort and security.

So let’s get into the variety of attachment styles and how your childhood impacted that and how it’s impacting you now.

The first one is the secure attachment style. A little over half of adults have secure attachment: If you have secure attachment:

  • your needs were noticed, understood and met consistently
  • your parent connected with you emotionally. They allowed the full range of emotions and responded to your emotions.
  • they modeled emotional connection with themselves
  • they modeled safe emotional expression
  • you learned the normalcy of rupture and repair (there’s disconnection and reconnection) in conflict and separation.
  • you learned the joy of play
  • you were protected

If you had those things, you felt understood, comforted and valued.

Children who are securely attached usually transition into adulthood:

  • mostly regulated
  • knowing their worth and feeling positive and self-assured
  • feeling loveable, cared for and respected
  • able to be present and self-aware
  • alert and responsive to their own needs and able to express their needs
  • tend to see the world as abundant, believing their needs will be met
  • equipped to handle conflict and stress more easily
  • can address problems to repair and resolve conflicts
  • communicate clearly
  • tending to be more trusting of others and feel more positively about others and relationships
  • comfortable with emotional intimacy
  • comfortable with affectionate touch
  • have an easier time creating long and meaningful relationships

Since secure attachment leads to exploratory behavior:

  • aren’t worried about rejection or aren’t too preoccupied with a relationship
  • more likely to try new things
  • see most problems as manageable––while viewing stressful events as opportunities for learning

So that’s secure attachment. The next one is anxious attachment. About 20ish percent of the population are anxiously attached. If you have anxious attachment:

  • experienced “on again, off again” caregiving
  • your needs weren’t noticed, understood or met consistently
  • your parent didn’t connected with you emotionally. Maybe they met your physical needs but not your emotional needs.
  • you were taught that only some emotions are acceptable
  • you learned that disconnection or conflict in a relationship is unsafe
  • you were unprotected

If you were mistreated that way, you likely fear abandonment and feel anxious, insecure, unloveable or even undeserving of love.

Children who are anxiously attached usually transition into adulthood:

  • having trouble staying self regulated and are dependent on others to regulate them
  • desperately want connection and have the feeling of not being able to be close enough; so it looks like being clingy, jealous and possessive
  • having anxiety and insecurity when the other person is absent; prefers to be with the other person at all times
  • hyper aware of loss or potential loss, signs of others pulling away
  • searching for cues as to how their behavior does or doesn’t elicit a response
  • driven to receive lots of reassurance
  • pushing the other person away with unrealistic demands or expectations
  • using complaints or criticisms as a cry for connection
  • believing in very limited resources so they tend to fixate on one person
  • feeling insecure and unsafe so focuses on seeking connection rather than pursuing interests or growing or taking risks
  • when in a relationship where the other person has stated they don’t want a serious relationship, the anxious person play it cool as if it’s wrong or bad to have feelings for the person or to want something more. Saying it’s fine that they call when they have a need but don’t stick around.
  • imagining love where there is no love. fantasy, hope,

This is all on a continuum so you might recognize this in yourself but it might not be this extreme. I know a lot about this because I used to be in this anxious attachment a lot.

And it’s really heartbreaking because it’s so self sabotaging. The thing you want the most, you push away. That’s because even the most generous, loving, kind person will feel suffocated by the needs and demands. You’re dependant on the relationship to make you feel better. When you’re dysregulated, feeling afraid, or sad or insecure, you have to have a hug immediately or talk to them immediately

You rely on the other person to calm you down. That puts a lot of pressure on the other person. And a lot of time, anxiously attached people are attracted to the wrong person, The person who is avoidant, who is unavailable, unattainable, who will confirm original belief you learned in childhood that people don’t want you, or will leave you or that you’re not lovable. Even if your needs were met this time, you don’t believe they will be met next time. They will leave, They don’t really care. You will be dumped, You’ll be forgotten and ignored. You’ll be disappointed.

That original wound stays open and you keep getting wounded in that place.

And maybe the saddest part is, this strategy will never, never lead to feeling better for more than a moment. It’s never going to feel like enough because you’ve already abandoned yourself. It’s like that cup that is being poured into butthere’s a cover on the cup so nothing gets in. There’s a block to receiving love.

A part of that is not noticing caring behaviors. And other part is that in the anxious attachment, you’ve abandoned yourself so in a sense, you’re getting a home delivery but there’s nobody there to open the door and accept it. The abandonment is in trying to gain that connection with others and ignoring your own needs and believing that only others can fill them.

So that’s anxious attachment. The next is avoidant attachment. About 25 percent of the population is avoidant attached.

If you have avoidant attachment, you likely:

  • your needs were never or almost never noticed, understood or met “You’re not really hungry.”
  • your emotions were shut down through shame or punishment
  • your parent didn’t recognize your emotional or developmental needs. That might have looked like total neglect. I have a friend who describes it as running feral. being left unprotected. It can also look like over protection, smothering, helicopter parenting. The reason that’s a lack of connection is because the smothering is motivated by fear so there’s dysregulation in the parent and the parent isn’t helping the child regulate. It doesn’t feel safe to be smothered. And neither of those extremes prepare you for life so they aren’t safe.

If you were mistreated in those ways, you likely fear connection and believe it’s unsafe to trust people.

Children who are avoidant attached usually transition into adulthood:

  • experiencing connection, emotional intimacy and commitment as smothering
  • feeling they are “on their own” and respond by withdrawing or isolating
  • are overly-attuned to their own needs (over-focused on self) they don’t let people in far enough to be aware of other’s needs.
  • at the same time, may be numb and ignore their own body and emotions
  • denying they have needs
  • experiencing extreme discomfort asking others for help or trying to express what they need
  • feeling it is better to “just do it themself”; are fiercely self reliant because they learned there’s nothing to be gained from trusting in other people
  • finding fault in others as a form of avoidance (history of brief, non-committal relationships, one night stands or the emotional equivalent, pull away when things are good or sabotage the relationship)
  • have a tendency to send mixed signals. “I want to be close but go away.”

When parents are emotionally unavailable, insensitive, rejecting or neglectful the child copes by disconnecting––both physically and emotionally. The brain’s neurobiology never receives the signals and stimulation it needs to build social responses and develop proper bonding.

From the outside, and maybe to themselves, people with avoidant attachment seem as though their greatest fear is intimacy but it’s actually abandonment.

What if I let you in? What if I tell you my needs? What if I’m vulnerable with you? It’s very difficult to trust when the people who should have been the most reliable weren’t there at all.

So that was avoidant attachment. The last is disorganized attachment.

This is about 2 to 3 percent of the population. If you have disorganized attachment, your parents caused you harm. The people who were supposed be your source of comfort were the reason you needed comfort. The people who were there to protect you were the ones you needed protection from. the attachment system gets entangled with the threat response—your fight/flight/freeze survival instinct.

The disorganized is the most complex because disorganized is the extremes of avoidant and anxious and alternating between the two strong reactions of shut down disconnection and or extreme neediness and really distressed trying to connect, trying to grab on to someone to help regulate.

This is two very strong human needs at odds with each other. One for connection and the other for safety. Connection and closeness is supposed to feel better, not worse. Connection versus being on your own is meant to keep you safer. The inner conflict over whether to move closer to someone or farther away produces internal chaos. It can look and feel like flailing and panic.

Navigating relationships and intimacy can feel dangerous .

  • Crave intimacy while appearing to avoid it; confusion and ambivalence about relationships
  • Waiting to be rejected or hurt
  • Difficulty self-soothing and also co-regulating
  • Constant vigilance for danger or shifts in mood
  • Inability to express needs
  • Disorganized in relationships can look like hot and cold, push and pull. It can look like one night stands because there’s a form of connection but no emotional intimacy. Or other sexual relationships where there’s no emotional intimacy or commitment like friends with benefits.
  • It can look like being obsessed with someone, wanting to see them all the time and constantly thinking about them and then pushing them away.
  • can’t leave and you can’t stay. accepting breadcrumbs

Attachment styles are in play from the first time we meet someone and they impact how a relationship ends.

Securely attached person won’t freak out when their needs aren’t met. Secure attachment usually allows for better conflict resolution in a relationship and for the ability to leave relationship when it’s called for. Securely attached people’s high self-esteem and positive view of others allows mean they’re confident that they will find another relationship. In secure attachment, there tends to be better processing of relationship losses like death, rejection, infidelity, abandonment. That means they are more available and open to other relationships after the loss.

The ability is to talk about difficult things is necessary for a healthy relationship.

In a difficult conversation, attachment styles come into play. If there’s an anxiously attached person and a avoidant attached person, their stress response will be activated. They aren’t regulated. Part of that regulated state is the social engagement system, also referred to as , “Tend and befriend, So your empathy and compassion are accessed when you’re calm and regulated.

Thy need to stay regulated.

The anxious attached person believes they’ll be regulated when they feel connected to the other person so they will try to stay engaged, even if the other person walks away. That need to connect might then look like attacking, provoking, pleading, nagging.

The avoidant person believes they’ll be regulated when they have space so they will leave or will shut down

Need to self soothe and have time out but agree for a specific time to come back together.

If you’re disorganized avoiding, you’ll tend to, when you have a strong connection, you withdraw and ghost the person. The other person is thinking, Oh, our relationship’s deepening. And then, they don’t hear from you for six weeks.

And if you’re disorganized anxious, your panic over someone pulling away will be even more extreme.

Avoidant attached people often pair with anxiously attached people because part of them wants connection. But it takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain that casual, dismissive attitude toward their own biological need to connect. Ironically, that leaves less energy to pour into the anxiously attached person and it can amplify the fears in both people. The avoidant person feels drained by the demands of the anxious person and the anxious person senses the avoidant person pulling away and tries to cling on more tightly.

Anxious attached people are drawn to avoidant because the avoidance, in their self reliance, they wear a mask of strength. they don’t show vulnerability. And anxious are looking for coregulation in another and the avoidant appears regulated. But being shut down isn’t regulated.

In trying to get their needs met, the anxious person’s life becomes small and all about the avoidant, who becomes BIG in their life. Their dependency causes this repulsion in the avoidant and the avoidant pulls away. Anxious tries to mend the separation. Arguments, threatening to leave, ignoring, provoking jealousy, acting busy

Those attachment styles prove their own beliefs. The avoidant says, “See! Connection is weakness. They are so needy.” The anxious says, “See, I knew you would leave me!”

There is a tendency that when anxious people are in relationships with securely attached people, it doesn’t feel exciting enough because they are regulated. Boring. The intensity is missing. It feels too stable. Also, there’s a sense of, “I don’t want to be a part of a team I’m picked for.” But if you can stay the course, you can change your attachment style.

Avoidance fantasies about the ex. The one that got away. It’s a fantasy that it would be different because the fear of connection is still there and it wouldn’t be any better this time around. but the fantasy itself is a “safe” type of connection. It’s all in your imagination rather than in the messy reality.

Love addiction is insecure attachment style. It’s mistaking intensity for intimacy.

So recognizing all those patterns can be empowering. One thing to remember is the person you’re in a relationship with can’t fix this. Can a securely attached person be instrumental in healing? Yes! That’s what my relationship with Don has been for me. He gave me a sense of safety because he didn’t freak out when I did. He just kept on loving me. And he modeled healthy relationship dynamics and refused to play my dysfunctional games. But he didn’t do my work. Only I could do that.

If you want to do that work yourself so you change your relationship dynamics and heal the wounds of neglect, I have a free masterclass for the step by step to reverse the effects of abuse and neglect. Register for free by going to the shownotes page at As a bonus to the masterclass, I have an attachment style quiz for you to get even more clarity on your attachment style.

Thanks for joining me today. I’m bringing you more on healing and self-care and boundaries and family and relationship issues, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any of it.

How Childhood Neglect Impacts All Your Relationships

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