Developmental Trauma, Emotional Neglect, and Body Dysmorphia (BDD)

Woman looking into ornate, hand-help mirrorVery few people are one hundred percent happy with their physical appearance. Most of us have something about ourselves that we would like to change in some small way.

But for most of us, our perceived flaws do not interfere with our happiness or daily functioning. For those who have body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), however, a small flaw—either real or imagined—can substantially reduce their quality of life. They may obsess and worry about the flaw for hours every day (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d.). BDD is a serious mental health issue that can lead to suicidality and significant social and occupational dysfunction. Both men and women can experience BDD (Phillips & Castle, 2001).

People with BDD are often extremely preoccupied with their physical appearance and can become deeply upset over minor flaws that wouldn’t even be noticed by others. The person’s perception of the flaw, however unrealistic, often causes intense emotional distress and can trigger avoidance of social situations.

The preoccupation and obsession with flaws that comes with body dysmorphia can take away the ability to experience joy and healthy relationships. Some people with BDD undertake multiple cosmetic procedures to correct the flaw. Unfortunately, relief is likely to be short-lived at best. The root issue is not the flaw, which may be minor or even imagined. After the cosmetic procedures, the individual with BDD may simply focus on a different or “new” flaw.

The preoccupation and obsession with flaws that comes with body dysmorphia can take away the ability to experience joy and healthy relationships.

Emotional Neglect and Body Dysmorphia

Emotional neglect can be understood as a pattern in a parent-child relationship where the child’s needs are consistently ignored, disregarded, or devalued by the parent. Emotionally neglected parents often feel ambivalent towards their children’s emotional needs, particularly when they are distressed and crying (Didie et al., 2006). The parent may feel the child is impossible to please and—out of frustration—simply ignore and reject the child when they are upset. In this cycle, adults who were emotionally neglected as children tend to become emotionally neglectful as parents.

Emotional neglect is commonly found in both males and females diagnosed with BDD (Carey, Crocker, Elias, Feldman, & Coleman, 2009).

Emotional Neglect as Trauma

The body and the nervous system experience neglect in a way that is similar to abuse. The child who is not nurtured and cared for emotionally may experience continuous high levels of stress and sadness with no one to turn to for comfort. Over time, this can take a serious toll on the ability to develop resilience as the child matures into adolescence and adulthood.

Adults with histories of neglect often develop a range of emotional and mental health issues, including depression, low self-esteem, hyperactivity, and aggression. Neglect often leads to the child feeling unwanted and unloved, and it can lead to a distorted perception of the self.

In the case of BDD, emotional neglect may foster a distorted self-perception in terms of physical appearance. The individual with BDD may believe they are deeply flawed and unacceptable to others as a result of their physical appearance.

Developmental Timing and Neglect

The impact of physical and emotional neglect may be influenced by when it occurs during the child’s development. A child who is neglected during the early years of development can miss out on crucial opportunities for social, emotional, and cognitive development. An important factor that underlies each of these aspects of childhood development is the ability to develop resilience and cope with stress (Cicchetti & Toth, 1995).

Very young children and infants are not biologically capable of reducing the autonomic stress response once it is activated. During times of heightened emotional upset or fear, increased levels of stress hormones begin to circulate in the brain and nervous system. A child without comfort and guidance from an adult is forced to expend all of their energy in bringing the body and mind back to a balanced state. When the child is put in the position of having no help or comfort, all resources are expended and the child has little left for anything else. In this way, opportunities for development in other areas such as social and cognitive learning are lost.

As the child gets older, it is understandable why neglect can lead to intense feelings of shame and a distortion of body image. Body image is connected to self-esteem. When children grow and develop in circumstances that teach them they are unworthy of love and even send messages that there is something wrong with them, the child is likely to internalize these perceptions as they grow.

Therapy for Trauma and Body Dysmorphia

Exposure therapy (Neziroglu & Yaryura-Tobias, 1993; Linde et al., 2015) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help some people process and heal the effects of past trauma and neglect. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful for BDD because it helps the person discover the source of distorted and unrealistic perceptions. Once it’s understood where the negative thought patterns are coming from, CBT teaches us how to correct these patterns and then move into a more realistic and healthy way of thinking (Neziroglu & Khemlani-Patel, 2002). In this way, CBT can be effective in treating distorted perceptions of the body. At the same time, CBT can help in developing healthier thinking patterns that address depression and anxiety, which often co-occur with trauma and BDD.

If you think childhood emotional neglect or body dysmorphia are issues that could be impacting you, support is available. Reach out to a licensed and compassionate therapist.


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