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How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:

  1. Self-centered, Abusive or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. This might be financially, emotionally, or with caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT – Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their child and give him everything they can. But they are not able to give him enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. 

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when you parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first, or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame, and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty so that they can read about it for themselves. 

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents 

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Assertiveness Don’t Mix

“What do you think?”

“How do you feel?”

“What do you need?”

“What do you have to say?”

Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.

The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.

Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.

In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:

  1. Know what you feel and need
  2. Believe that what you feel and need matters
  3. Know how to express your feelings and needs in a way that the other person can hear

Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.

If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Emotional Neglect and Self-Discipline

Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”

I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.

Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:

“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.

I have been quietly treating these people for years.  I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect.   Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite.  We learn this skill from our parents.  As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline:  how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.

Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.

Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.

I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.


Oh, yes, thanks Rich!