Lesson 6 of 7  - learn to parent effectively

Perspective on Parental
and Self Neglect

Were you neglected
as a child?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/neglect.htm

 Updated  04-07-2015

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      Premise - millions of typical girls and boys become seriously-troubled adults because they didn't get key developmental needs met well enough by their caregivers - they were neglected. Often, their parents and ancestors were neglected too, and their society allowed that. 

      This article is part of online lesson 6 - learn to do effective parenting. It proposes...

  • Perspective on parental neglect

  • Why some parents neglect their kids

  • Toxic effects of significant parental neglect

  • Perspective on self neglect; and...

  • Options for converting self-neglect to effective self care..

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

      Before continuing, reflect: why are you reading this? What do you need?


      We humans are needy critters. Needs are physical, psychological, and spiritual discomforts. Nurturing means "filling someone's needs." Here, neglect means "not filling needs that you're responsible for." Our needs change constantly as we age and the world evolves.

      Families exist because they usually fill their members' (and society's) primary needs more effectively than other human groups. Some ''high-nurturance'' families do this better than others.   

      My experience as a family-systems therapist since 1981 with over 1000 average adults suggests that unawareness of "parental neglect" is common. That's partly because many parents weren't taught what their children need as they grow toward adulthood. This is part of the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is silently crippling many families and societies.

      Test this premise by taking this quiz about families with an open mind. Then see how many traits of a high-nurturance family you can describe. Then ask yourself how many families you know who consistently supply most of these traits to their members - starting with your own family.

      Healthy parents genuinely want and love their kids, and strive to prepare them for a safe, happy, productive adulthood. Parents who survived serious neglect themselves as young children are often unable to supply some of what their own kids need.

      Premise - typical people who were significantly neglected as young kids grow up neglecting themselves as adults. To avoid painful awareness, they often rationalize, joke, deny, or minimize that they do this, despite glaring evidence of the toxic results, like widespread obesity, major illnesses, addictions, and divorces. Many self-neglectful people are shame-based, and unconsciously feel they don't deserve to fill their own wholistic needs well. Do you know anyone like this?

Neglect 101

      Reflect, and say your definition of "parental neglect" out loud. Then picture yourself before the age of six, and/or any other children you care about at that age. Keep those images with you as you read.

      See how you feel about these premises:

  • Starting before birth, children depend on their birth mother and other caregiving adults to fill

  • daily survival needs - nutritious food, water, shelter, stimulation, touching, protection; and to fill...

  • their dynamic emotional + spiritual + socializing (developmental) needs.

  • Typical young children need a balance of male and female nurturance for healthy development. Widespread. divorce makes this a challenge for many families;

  • Parents who conceive children and/or care for other people’s children are morally, legally, and socially responsible for...

    • learning the youngsters’ range of primary needs at each stage of their growth, and...

    • doing their best to fill these needs (nurture) adequately, without neglecting their own needs..

      Healthy parents want to do this, vs. feeling obligated to from guilt, shame, and/or anxiety. For personal and/or environmental reasons, parents range from competent to inadequate in their ability to nurture a child over two decades to prepare them to live independently and nurture kids effectively themselves. So parental neglect may not be apparent until 25 or more years after a child's birth.

      Premise - parents who consistently want to provide a high-nurturance environment for dependent kids and themselves raise Grown Nurtured Children (GNCs). Two key traits of GNCs is that they (a) develop harmonious personality led by a wise true Self, and they clearly have filled their developmental needs well enough by the time they choose to live independently.

What are the Most Common Neglects?

      My experience as a family therapist suggests that these are the most common developmental needs that typical parents and grandparents neglect. The more the neglect, the greater the psychological and social damage to dependent minor kids: Option - star the needs below that you feel are the most critical for average young kids' healthy growth.

  • learn to be personally and socially aware

  • learn how to feel, give, and receive love

  • gain clear self-identity and stable self-acceptance

  • personal pride (vs. egotism) self respect, and self-confidence;

  • maintain personal securities - trust they belong, are valued, and are safe

  • enough nurturing physical contact

  • learn critical thinking and affective communication skills

  • learn to manage hurt, anger, guilt, frustration, and losses;

  • learn to handle confusion, uncertainty, and ambiguity;

  • learn to empathize and to share

  • learn to manage failures, mistakes, and disappointments;

  • learn self-discipline - i.e. learn when to defer instant gratification

  • learn to balance work, play, and rest (self-nurturance)

  • learn to set realistic goals, patiently achieve them, and enjoy success

  • have guilt-free permission to be a child (vs. a little adult)

  • learn to define, assert, and enforce personal boundaries respectfully

  • learn how to accept age-appropriate responsibilities

  • (add your own ideas)

      Common sense suggests that caring parents would not ignore these vital needs in their youngsters, so...

Why Do Some Parents Neglect their Children?

      Try answering this question out loud. Then compare your idea to this opinion: parents fail to fill their kids' physical, psychological, and spiritual needs for four interactive reasons:

  • Psychological wounds - neglectful parents inherited significant wounds from their unaware ancestors, and they need to deny or ignore that and what it means. Common results: (a) they unconsciously choose wounded partners who also may be unable to nurture kids effectively, and (b) they often have unplanned and unwanted conceptions; and...

  • Unawareness and ignorance (lack of knowledge) - neglectful parents' ancestors and teachers didn't educate them adequately about (a) these hazards,  (b) kids' developmental needs, and (c) how to best fill these needs while (d) steadily nurturing themselves and each other;

Another reason for parental neglect is......

  • Societal denial, ignorance, and permission. Our (wounded, unaware) cultures tacitly promote the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle spreading down the generations by denying it and its toxic results.

      Paradox: our society tests for competency to operate a vehicle and to provide professional legal, medical, pastoral, and financial services. Societies require no proof that parents are qualified to raise healthy new citizens. Our wide range of costly social ills is one tragic result

      Pause and reflect. Can you think of other reasons parents can't fill their kids' developmental and special needs well enough? If you know parents in a low-nurturance (dysfunctional) family, do any of these proposed reasons fit them?

Typical Effects of Childhood Neglect

      Significant early-childhood neglect promotes...

  • kids inheriting up to six psychological wounds:

a disabled true Self

trouble trusting appropriately

excessive shame
and guilts

significant reality distortions

excessive fears

difficulty loving,  empathizing, and  bonding

These have far-reaching toxic effects on the person until they admit  and commit to reducing them. This is most common in middle age. When you finish here, see this research report on how childhood neglect changes young brains. Web searching finds many similar reports.

  • the wounds of reality distortion and excessive shame often promote significant self neglect, which promotes poor health, stressful relationships, and premature death. These cause significant stress in family members and supporters.

  • combined with adult and social unawareness and denials, these psychological wounds are apt to pass on to the next generation, spreading their toxic effects in society.

Do these effects seem credible to you? Can you think of any other common effects of parental ignorance and child neglect?

      A widespread secondary effect of early parental neglect deserves special focus: neglecting yourself.

   Perspective on Self Neglect

      Often kids in low-nurturance households learn to ignore or devalue their own physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing (wholistic health). Their wounded parents don't model or teach self-care - or they preach it but don't practice it. Epidemic examples are eating unhealthy foods, avoiding exercise and regular dental and health checkups, obesity, working too hard, using toxic chemicals, ignoring bodily warnings, and not getting enough quality sleep. Typical shame-based children and young adults deny, justify or minimize these traits.

      Self neglect may be amplified by self dislike, self disgust, or self hatred. All of these are clear evidence of a disabled true Self. They usually stem from excessive shame and guilt learned very early - fostering a certainty that "I'm worthless and unlovable, and I don't deserve to be happy or healthy."

      Typical personality subselves contributing to self neglect are the Shamed, Guilty, and Scared Inner Kids; and the Pessimist, Perfectionist, Procrastinator, Worrier, Magician and Inner Critic Guardian subselves. One result of effective wound-reduction ("recovery") is that these well-intentioned subselves learn to trust the resident Nurturer and true Self, and start to genuinely value the host person's health and welfare. A useful Manager subself to develop during recovery is a Health Director.

      Do you know people who are neglecting their health and wellbeing? Are you? Keep your perspective: social denials and tolerance for the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle are the primary problems. Self neglect is a symptom and a secondary problem. Do you agree?


      Common reactions to parental and self neglect are...

  • denial ("Neglectful? No Way!"),

  • minimizing ("It's not so bad"),

  • reasoning ["You should take better care of (someone), because..."],

  • threatening ("If you don't stop belittling our son, I'm going to..."),

  • scorning ("When are you going to grow up?"),

  • criticizing ("You're a poor excuse for a parent."); and/or...

  • generalizing  ("You know, people who don't take very good care of _____ often _______.")

These classic false-self reactions will never produce better nurturance because they don't validate and reduce the underlying wounds and ignorance. They usually amplify anxiety, guilt, shame, and frustration.

      Better options include...

  • Read online Lesson 1 here, and assess yourself honestly for significant psychological wounds;

  • Adopt a patient multi-decade outlook, and commit to personal wound-reduction (recovery) as appropriate;

  • Evaluate the nurturance level of your birth family an/or your present family (low to high). If it's low, consider confronting and educating the appropriate adults about psychological wounds and what they mean.

  • Study and apply this lesson-6 article on helping your kids manage excessive shame and guilts.

  • See adults neglecting their minor kids as wounded and unaware, not bad. Respectfully encourage them to read and apply these Lessons for their and their kids' sakes; and...

  • if you suspect or observe child abuse and/or significant neglect, alert the responsible adults that unless they correct these, you'll report them to local child-welfare officials and/or the police. Then follow up on this, for the sake of your integrity and their vulnerable children.


      This article focuses on parental and self neglect. Parents neglect dependent kids if they ignore their children's' mosaic of developmental needs as they grow.

      The article illustrates parental neglect, and proposes four reasons why many parents are unintentionally neglectful. It describes three toxic effects of early-childhood parental neglect, and includes brief focus on a widespread secondary effect: chronic self-neglect. The article closes with specific suggestions for converting self-neglect to self-care.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or 'someone else'?

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