When Depression Comes from What Didn’t Happen

Parents talk while teen watches in backgroundSurprisingly, studies show that some of the seemingly less dramatic kinds of experiences, such as neglect, in childhood actually do more harm than overt abuse such as physical violence. Neglect isn’t talked about as much as physical, sexual, or even verbal abuse, and depressed adults who experienced neglect in their childhoods often wonder why they’re depressed.

Even when people think about neglect, they picture parents who are too drunk or high to take care of their children, who prioritize adult sexual relationships over their children, or who don’t care about their children and thus don’t bother to feed them or provide clothes and other necessities. They may imagine parents who are irresponsible and who forget or don’t know how to take care of their children’s needs. All of this happens, but it can happen without such extreme dysfunction.

Sometimes neglect can happen even when parents are trying to be responsible, when they simply don’t have the resources to parent fully. For example, when one parent leaves and the other has to work two jobs to provide food and shelter, they may have to leave the kids to fend for themselves or let the older ones to do the best they can to parent the younger ones. I’ve had clients from families in which this happened when the older one was as young as 3, taking care of a baby or two.

But neglect can also happen in families in which one or both parents are depressed, have demanding jobs, or have so many children that there isn’t time to meet all of their needs. It can happen when one of the parents, siblings, or grandparents is chronically or gravely ill or dealing with mental issues. Often this requires the rest of the family to put most of their time, energy, and attention into that person. It can even happen in families that value individuality and independence. Thinking they are teaching these values to their capable children, parents may overlook concrete and emotional needs even capable children have.

Neglect can cause children to miss learning the skills they need to be fully functional adults. When kids have to teach themselves how to handle life, they often don’t learn the best ways. Neglect can cause children to feel profoundly lonely and empty. It can make it more difficult for them to form friendships, causing them to feel even lonelier and preventing opportunities to develop social skills. They may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, and learn to cope alone. Perhaps most insidiously, neglected children often conclude they aren’t worth parental attention and care, or that their needs aren’t important or just aren’t ever going to get met. These beliefs, carried into adulthood, undermine the ability to develop loving, respectful, equally powerful relationships.

Not through parents’ intention or direct action or message, but through lack of action, children can turn in on themselves—blaming themselves for how bad they feel. They can grow up with these invisible wounds, not even associating them with their parents, who may be loving, well-intentioned people.

Clearly, there is a huge range of severity of neglect, depending on factors such as how young the child is when it begins, how extensive it is, whether there’s a basic foundation of love and respect from parents, whether there are other adults who provide at least some of what the child needs when parents don’t, what other abuse is involved, and whether other resources are available.

How people cope with neglect also varies, just as it does with abuse and trauma. Neglected children may cope by clinging and being dependent; by giving up and lacking motivation or hope; by withdrawing and resisting human contact; or by acting out with crime, dangerous sex, etc. They may experience depression, anxiety, self-attacks, eating issues, or addictions. Any or all of these results of the neglect can follow the child into adulthood.

If you don’t understand why you’re depressed and think you had good parents and no trauma, consider what you might not have had. Did you struggle with anything your parents didn’t protect you from or help you with—even things like unrealistic standards for yourself? Did you have to take care of yourself more than your friends had to take care of themselves, or that you would expect of your children, nieces, nephews, or godchildren? Did your parents show no interest in things that were important to you? Did you have to work at getting your parents’ attention? Did you get physically or emotionally hurt because your parents weren’t paying attention? Do you feel like your needs aren’t important? Do you not expect to have them met? Check in with yourself, your journal, your therapist, and maybe your siblings to see if you can find ways your parents weren’t there for you that others are for their kids … and look at how it affected you.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • JJ

    April 24th, 2013 at 5:36 PM

    This is such a great post, thanks. It is hard to acknowledge how beneath that surface there was some of the more subtle forms of neglect in my family that you talk about, especially because my mother IS well-intentioned. Though the wounds have affected me deeply, the experiences don’t seem “bad enough.” In some ways it would be easier to know part of my mental health struggles stem from an abuse history rather than an identity-crushing, passive-aggressive childhood filled with fear and the vague knowledge that I was not okay. Examples in my life would be not being allowed to choose my own favorite color because people in my family couldn’t like the color I had chosen. Or accidentally slamming my hand in a bureau as a three year-old and just staying with it there instead of yelling for help because I knew it was my fault and thus I couldn’t ask for help. These are not big things… but it is amazing how skewed the messages you can absorb about yourself are, even from little things.

  • Susanna D

    April 25th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    We all want and need more from our parents than neglect.

    This is a kind of abuse that no one sees or often can’t even put a name to but for those who have lived with it they know that this is a real thing.

    All of the bruises and scars from being neglected as a child are all on the inside, so no one sees them and many times adults who are around them have no idea that this could be happening.

    Sadly, many children grow up thinking that this is just the way that everyone lives, so they have no idea until they get much older that someone like a parent has really very much let them down.

  • Tobey

    April 25th, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    Things missing is fine but love and care missing can have a major effect.Unfortunately more and more people are being ignored in their growing up years. Either due to the parents being too busy or because they do not even know how to seek attention when required.

  • ben

    April 25th, 2013 at 11:48 PM

    my father was never around whole I grew up.mom and him didnt separate but were hardly together.I probably saw him less than 20 times in the first 24 years of my life.thats when he passed away.

    while it does make me sad to not have had his presence in my life I’m determined not to repeat the same mistake,and will do all I can to be there when my children need me.

  • laken

    April 26th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    I don’t think that most adults realize just how much harm they are doing to their children when they don’t give them their undivided love and attention. I think that when you become a parent in some ways you have to put your own life on hold for a little while, that this has to be a choice that you make when you bring a child into this world. And I think that there are a lot of selfish people out there who don’t want to make those sacrifices that have to be made to be a good parent to your children.

  • Grayson

    April 27th, 2013 at 5:58 AM

    When I read something like this, my mind always goes back to wondering why on earth someone would have a child if they didn’t really want one. There are so many methods of prevention, and if that doesn’t work, then why not give up the child to be adopted by another family who will love them? I would much rather see someone admit that they have made a mistake but who are willing to do the right thing and find the child a good home instead of trying to do it themselves and end up screwing up the kid for life.

  • Mary S

    January 1st, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    In reply to Grayson (April 27th, 2013 at 5:58 AM): You seem to be getting off the topic here. Neglect is not a matter of the parent not wanting the child, but of not being able to give them the care they need. The lack of care is not intentional; the parent simply does not realize the difficulties they may encounter and/or is not able to handle them when they do arise.
    One way neglect can occur (that was not mentioned in the article) is that the parent may be in denial. They may believe, for example, that the problem is not real. Or they may believe that a hug can cure everything, when something more is needed. The parent themself may have suffered from neglect (e.g., as a result of the death of one of their parents), and as a result might want to be the parent they missed, not realizing that their child has different needs than they had.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    May 29th, 2013 at 10:44 PM

    I’m glad my post helped some people realize that what happened, or didn’t happen in their childhood may explain why they’re suffering as adults, even if their parents were well-intentioned and not overtly abusive. When we know where our suffering comes from, it’s much easier to heal it.

  • Melinda

    June 18th, 2013 at 2:02 AM

    I’m struggling with some issues from when I was a child. For the rest of my siblings, my mother was/is amazing.. For me, the child who suffered from depression early on due to a brain trauma, I felt a little neglected. She did not like me getting emotional, called me names when I would be upset, then she would get angry and try to ignore me. She was not emotionally available for me, and I did not feel like I mattered as a person. Maybe I’m just being too sensitive about it all. She also makes fun of my sensitivity. When I started harming myself, instead of trying to get help for me, she volunteered with a crisis helpline to help other people, and called me stupid. I have a bit of resentment towards my family, I don’t know how to get past it, I hope I will be able to heal one day.

    Now that I am a parent, and still struggling with depression, my Mother belittles me for being too protective of my son. I want to be there for him as much as possible, I want to show him that emotions are OK; that they don’t make us weak.

    I have taught my son to be empathetic, I have taught him to be compassionate, and to consider other peoples feelings, as well as being open about what he needs.

    I hope that when he is older he doesn’t feel like he has been neglected. I guess we all just do the best with what we have, I just hope my best is good enough.

  • susan

    June 18th, 2013 at 6:09 AM

    great article and i appreciate everyone’s comments. feels like i was the only one who went through this and i suffer as an adult alone. so sorry that anyone else has experiences like this, but i am also glad that i am not alone! be gentle and loving with yourself.

  • Robyn

    February 16th, 2014 at 6:43 PM

    thank you for this article. it was my life and, i fear, my childs. :-(

  • Ts

    January 8th, 2016 at 12:01 PM

    I’ve got good parents but I never thought I should talk about negative things in my life such as being bullied at school when I was 9-15 years old. I rather found an imaginary world and lived my life there. Now I’ve got difficulties to live in the reality and can’t find a job where I manage to work like every normal person does. There is always something wrong but all I have understood is that Im just not capable somehow. I also feel quite depressed but don’t have any diagnosis.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 8th, 2016 at 4:01 PM

    Dear Ts,

    Thank you for your comment. If you feel depressed, we encourage you to reach out. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but you can locate a therapist or counselor in your area through our website.

    To see a list of qualified professionals in your area, enter your ZIP code here:

    Please know you are not alone. Help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Rachel

    July 19th, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    I am the 4th of eight children. Even though my mom didn’t work, there was never inenough time or attention for all of us. Growing up I dealt with the lack of attention by becoming very independent. I convinced myself that if I didn’t need their help, it wouldn’t hurt when it wasn’t available. However, I still desperately craved my parent’s approval and validation. So much so that I even went so far as to spend 6 years trying to convince myself I was straight so they wouldn’t hate me.

    Now, years later, I have terrible self esteem and my relationship is on the rocks because I don’t know how to accept love from anyone, or even love myself.

  • Carina

    December 26th, 2016 at 12:12 PM

    I’m glad to read about what happens to me and know that there are more people like me. I am 28 years old,i don’t have brothers or sisters, my entear life was condicional for the parent with i “grow up”,whit an alcholic father and a mother ausent, and a lot of repercution for that in my entear life. I live with emptiness feelings and very low self esteem. I feel very alone. In my country don’t speack about these theme,my english is very bad excuse for that

  • Shokova

    March 23rd, 2024 at 10:25 AM

    Hi everyone, I had a terrible childhood just like many of you’ll have experienced.

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