Thursday October 27th 2016

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Disordered eating and neglect: Are neglect and abuse the same thing?


Neglect is a type of emotional abuse. More here on the relationship between neglect and comforting behaviors…and patterns of child development here. Then, we invite your questions or comments about neglect and addiction or eating disorder dangers at the end.

Emotional abuse in the form of neglect

There is a category of abuse that occurs without a word being spoken or a finger being lifted. In fact the abuse comes about because no word is said or no action is taken. It’s called neglect.

This is the emotional abuse that comes about through indifference or inaction. It’s times when a word should be said but isn’t, or an action should be taken, but is not forthcoming. As damaging as the other types of emotional abuse are, it is the absence of the expected, of the needed, that wounds.

With abuse through words or actions, what you expect from your abuser is substituted with something else: a kind word is replaced by a snide comment; a pat on the back is replaced by a slap across the face; a sense of belonging and security is replaced by a loss of safety and consistency.

The trouble with “The silent treatment”

Emotional abuse through indifference doesn’t substitute any action for what might be expected from a loving, healthy relationship.  Instead, there is only a gaping silence, a deaf ear, a turned back. When I was growing up, this was sometimes knows as “the silent treatment.” It was as total a withdrawal as possible of one person from another. For whatever reason, the abuser withholds relationship from the other person.

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A child who is ignored may engage in attention-getting activities that are destined to produce negative results. While this might seem self-defeating, the real desire is for attention. Even if the response is negative, the parent has been forced to notice the child.

No parental involvement = rejection

None of us like to be ignored, treated as if we simply aren’t important enough to notice. The person who has suffered this type of emotional abuse is saddled with the realization that his or her presence doesn’t even cause a ripple in the world of the abuser. What is so damaging is that usually the abuser is someone from whom the person desperately wants to receive love and attention.

Children know and understand that the things with which adults concern themselves are important. When parents are involved in the life of their child, they communicate to the child that he or she is important. When parents fail to become involved, they communicate to the child a sense of rejection.

Child development is based on response

On a fundamental level, emotional abuse by neglect produces long-range damage. Children (especially infants) are hardwired to mature and grow in response to their environment—to the people—around them. It is imperative that infants experience a bonding relationship with parents through touch, eye contact, physical closeness, and auditory stimulation.  These experiences cement positive brain development.

The tragedy of emotional abuse through neglect is that it can take place in homes where physical needs are met, even extravagantly met. Children need more than food on the table and a roof over their heads. They are designed to need a nurturing physical and emotional relationship with their parents.

What neglect does to a child

When emotional needs are not met, children have difficulty progressing developmentally. They are so hungry for emotional attachment that they may cling to strangers or other adults and display little natural caution around the people they know.

Disordered eating and neglect

In my work with eating disorders, I found a tie between disordered eating and childhood emotional neglect. Food or control of food becomes a substitute relationship for the one missing; it becomes a friend, comforter, lover.  This is often tied to unusual comforting behaviors, such as:

  • Biting
  • Cutting
  • Head banging
  • Scratching

So fundamental is an emotional bond for connection, comfort and stability that neglected children turn to inappropriate, damaging behaviors as a way to substitute and cope.

What you can do about disordered eating problems

No matter what kind of childhood past has been had by a person with disordered eating, they need to remember that parents and others are not the only cause of their struggle with food.  They must bear responsibility for the choices they have made and are making.

As responsibility is taken, they will be able to eliminate the blame and focus on future healing and getting the necessary help.  Don’t allow fear, anger, shame or guilt to prevent changing behaviors.  Drop words like dysfunctional and codependent, and replace them with words like recovery and growing.

The shame, distress, lack of self-control and self-worth felt by someone with disordered eating can gradually create isolation from friends and family.  As part of the journey to recovery, it is important to reach out to others for love and support.  Break the circle of loneliness and get the help that is truly needed to fulfill a life of happiness and joy.

If you, or a loved one, is experiencing disordered eating, know it is okay – and essential – to ask for help.  There is hope, and seek to give and receive love, patience, kindness and self-control.

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About Dr. Gregory Jantz, PhD

Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an author of 30 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others. To learn more about Dr. Jantz, go to:

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