We all carry wounds from our childhood. Part of becoming a healthy adult is exploring the roots of our current behaviors, motivations, triggers, and perspectives. One of the most important things that parents give children is affection. An infant who is not touched will grow ill, even if that baby receives adequate food and other physical needs. Verbal and physical affection are essential for the normal and healthy development of children.
While nearly all parents do love their children, many are unable to express it in ways their children need and recognize. Many parents are too broken themselves to share love, or they do not understand how important it is to tell and show their children how much they love them. This lack of evident affection is very detrimental to the physical and emotional health of children.
The Importance of Parental Affection
Children are wholly dependent on their parents for survival. To a developing child, parents are the entire world. Children learn what is normal human interaction from the ways that their parents treat them. Children also develop their self-awareness and sense of self worth from the ways their parents behave and speak towards and about them. By their behavior towards their children, parents either teach their children that they are inherently lovable and worthy, or that they are not deserving of love and attention.
When children feel accepted, they develop a sense of ease in their beings. They are more likely to think that they have a place in the world. They come to believe that life is inherently trustworthy, because they experienced the safety that affectionate love provides. Because their basic needs for affection were met, they feel that life can provide what they need to live.
But when the basic need for affectionate love is not met, children are programmed to believe that they are not worthy of love. The lack of affection translates to a lack of safety, because at the most vulnerable time in their lives they did not receive a fundamental human need. This makes them believe that life is not capable of providing what they need, and that they are not deserving of having their basic needs met. One of the most frightening moments a child can experience is not having is parents be available when they are needed, be that physically or emotionally.
This imprinted fear manifests in many ways in adults. People who did not receive sufficient affection as children tend to have low self-worth or a sense of disassociation, where they do not pay attention to their true needs and desires. And one of the most common consequences of insufficient affection is anxiety.
The Affection – Anxiety Connection
Physiologically, a lack of affection from parents makes children believe that they are unsafe. Since a basic need that requires an external force is not being met, children experience primal fear. This puts the children’s nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, because on the most fundamental level they believe that they are in mortal danger.
In studies on anxiety, it has been documented that children who do not feel loved by their parents because of a lack of verbal or physical affection are at much greater risk for developing anxiety disorders than children who were often told and shown how much they were loved.
This cellular-level depravation and fear creates a hypersensitive nervous system that is wired to be triggered by even the slightest threat. Feeling unsafe because of a lack of love triggers people to distrust everyone, believing that they could not possibly experience love and safety in the world.
These people tend to exhibit a few different symptoms of anxiety. They may become very introverted, hiding themselves from the world. They may attempt to purchase affection from others with their actions and words, but people can usually sense this emotional manipulation and will be put off by it. They may have extremely low self-esteem and high reactivity, causing them to be hostile and frustrated about every challenge. Or people recovering from affection deprivation may beat themselves up and underachieve, even if they are active in “normal” activities.
If you did not feel loved in your formative years, it can be challenging to feel love for yourself. But that is the first step to healing the damage a lack of parental affection causes. We cannot go back in time and change how our parents treated us. Nor do we want to spend our whole lives as gaping wounds, unable to form healthy relationships because we continue to see ourselves as damaged. We must learn to love ourselves, and to share our love with others in healthy mutuality.
As with many other aspects of growth, forgiveness is key. Practice forgiving your parents and accepting that they did the best they could. Then heal yourself with as many self-love practices as you can, including finding work and hobbies that you love, cultivating authentic friendships, and expressing yourself through art. While it is possible to be damaged by our parent’s inability to tell us they loved us, we can be healed by our own willingness to express that love ourselves.