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Neglect: The Silent Scream

October 16, 2018

Neglect is often discussed in conjunction with other forms of child abuse and lacks definition; for many, I believe, it is not given its due. It is perhaps the hardest form of abuse to describe and make sense of because it is about “what did not happen” instead of “what did happen.” One of the problems with identifying neglect is that it is an incredibly painful experience for the child and even in adulthood, people often lack the words to adequately describe what did not happen or what was missing in their childhood. Those same people often are aware, on some level, that they are trying to fill a void that they recognize inside of themselves.

It is also a difficult subject because neglect is elusive and often an unintended consequence of survival on this sometimes hectic planet. I often hear people say “my parents worked really hard” or “ they were good people, but just didn’t have time for me” and I believe that is accurate. Neglect can be unintentional on the major care giver’s behalf. They may not know exactly what a child needs depending on what they experienced in their own childhood or, perhaps, there is dysfunction in the family, such as untreated mental health issues and/or substance use disorders. Perhaps poverty or major illness has impacted the family system.

There are many things that can lead to neglect. The problem lies in the fact that children need their parents or major caregivers to provide for them in order to survive and grow into healthy well-adjusted adults. A child cannot meet all those needs on their own, as we are born with a brain that requires socialization and connection to grow. Brain development and neural connections are created in childhood and continue throughout our lifetime. Which is why those formative years are so important and child neglect can have such a deep and lasting impact.

Children need attunement, support, guidance, reassurance, and kind words which reflect the child’s inherent value and worth from the adults around them. Pia Mellody discusses the importance of these needs and the deep impact on children who do not get these needs met in her ground-breaking book Facing Codependence. Children need major caregivers to provide food, shelter, clothing, and a protective surrounding. Children need guidance, limits, and a safe secure environment from which to explore and grow. One of the more important questions then becomes: what needs were not met in childhood that impacts us in adulthood? The impact of not having those needs met is as varied as the people and the type of neglect they experienced. In infants and young children, neglect can even cause death.

Neglect is ultimately abandonment of the child and, therefore, can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of not belonging, and a belief that they are a burden. It can contribute to chronic hard to treat depression and anxiety, as well as other mental disorders. It can create attachment disorders in children which often leads to unhealthy relationships in adulthood and difficulty breaking away from those relationships. Addiction issues are also common in those who suffered neglect. Often these maladaptive coping skills are attempts to fill the void or emptiness that neglected people feel inside.

As a Survivors Workshop therapist, I have the distinct honor and privilege of helping people make sense of their past; particularly, focusing on what happened or didn’t happen in childhood and how that ultimately impacted them and their ability to live fully in adulthood. I have devoted several years now to the study and practice of recovery from childhood trauma and addictions. The most important thing I know as a human being and therapist is that recovery is possible and that survivors of childhood abuse and neglect are resilient and adaptive; the brain, body, and spirit are wired for healing. The human brain and nervous system can heal in both childhood and adulthood—people can continue to learn and grow. No one has to stay stuck! I have come to understand that though someone may be wounded in relationship, conversely, that same person can heal in relationship. This is one of the essential components of recovery and what I believe helps make all of our workshops at Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows so powerful. I like to call this work the Reclamation of Self which is now the process I get to walk others through on a weekly basis in the Survivors Workshop here at The Meadows.

Jeannette LaChappelle, LMSW
Workshop Facilitator, Rio Retreat Center