10 Question Quiz: Do You Need Better Boundaries With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

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It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to their children.

As much empathy as I have for parents, being one myself, today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is a problem in your life.

There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.

Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.

6 Different Ways You May Feel About Your Parents 

  • You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  • You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  • You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  • You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  • You may get physically ill when you see them
  • You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally? 

Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.

Individuation: The natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.

Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”

Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent starting from an early age.
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.

So now the big question. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?

10 Questions About Your Boundaries With Your Parents

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.

Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen fully through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.

So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you.

Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong. 

To learn more about the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Kathy - February 2, 2020 Reply

My parents were and still are emotionally neglectful, but they aren’t narcissists or sociopaths. I think it might be helpful to write about the difference if you haven’t already. It’s taken me a long time to piece it all together but I’ve discovered that my parents both genuinely love me but because of their own pasts with neglectful and even abusive parents, they never learned how to parent in a loving and affirming way. This is not their fault. They are doing the best they can. I do keep my distance to a degree but I also spend time with them.
But there IS healing and hope available, and it’s not only found through cutting negative people out of your life. That just leaves a hole and you’re bound to fill it with something negative.
I appreciate this page and all that you’re doing to help people.
Blessings ❤️

Joseph - January 31, 2020 Reply

Unfortunately my parents died 25-33 years ago. As I look back, my parents Sociopathic. As child I was needy, and as parents they were needy particularly when it came to money or other family members. When I was in it, it was difficult to see. Now that they are gone, while there are regrets, therapy has so far been helpful in dealing with my parents.
I need to get and read your book.

    Jonice - February 1, 2020 Reply

    Dear Joseph, I’m glad you are in therapy. You can still change your relationship with your parents, even long after they are gone. Good work!

MA - January 31, 2020 Reply

Thank you for writing such insightful articles. I never had a term for how I was raised until I started learning about CEN.
Almost five years ago I decided to stop communication with my mom. I told her I would always love her and that I am not angry at her but I just cannot deal with the her drama anymore. She has tried to reconnect several times but I’m just not interested in being sucked back into her web. She has all the signs of a narcissistic, sociopath.
I do feel guilty sometimes that I no longer have a relationship with her. But then I remind myself my mental and emotional well being are more important. I’m a happy, healthier person this way.

    Jonice - February 1, 2020 Reply

    Dear MA, it sounds like you have done the best possible thing for yourself. Thanks for sharing your experience as I’m sure it will help others.

Janae - January 30, 2020 Reply

I have chronic health issues, and have never been able to work full-time, which has kept me living with my parents my entire life. I’m in my early 40’s, now, and struggle with all of the things mentioned in this article. There doesn’t seem to be any hope for someone like me. I can’t afford counseling, and fear that I will be stuck in this unhealthy environment forever.

    Jonice - February 1, 2020 Reply

    Dear Janae, there may be a community health center near you where you can get therapy on a sliding scale. Please do everything you can to get help.

Vickie - January 30, 2020 Reply

The only way to truly heal from a narcissistic mother is to cut all ties so you can begin a process of becoming the person you were meant to be. It takes time to undo the damage.

    Jonice - February 1, 2020 Reply

    Hi Vickie, I’m sure this must be your own experience and what you say is often true. But there are other ways to create and hold boundaries with a narcissistic mother as well. It depends on the type of mother you have and how much harm she does to you and your life. Thanks for sharing!

Anne - January 28, 2020 Reply

I have been working through the disconnection with my mom all year. At first I was blaming her, then I blamed myself for being the same with my kids. Now I am in a better place of acceptance of what is. Allowing everyone to be and letting my children know that I had something fundamental missing inside myself raising them. It is my greatest hope that perhaps the cycle stops with me and my children’s children (if they have any) get the care and emotional attention from my daughters, that I could not fully provide then, but am getting more attuned to now. Changing the way I think and feel is all I have power over really, in communing with my mom and my daughters becomes then about my present intentions and ability to connect. I have let go of the mom I never had and strive to see her value and in turn see mine more clearly. My daughters have their whole lives ahead of them, and my mom and I still have plenty of breaths yet to take.

    Jonice - January 28, 2020 Reply

    Dear Anne, thank you so much for sharing your heard-earned insights. I celebrate you for working to stop the CEN at your generation. It’s your efforts that really matter and will make the difference.

Infran - January 27, 2020 Reply

A fifth possibility for delayed individualidation: one or both parents described any opinions different from their own as “evil.” -.-;

If any advice could be included for if one of your parents is a narcissist and/or you haven’t been able to move out, it’d be much appreciated.

    Jonice - January 28, 2020 Reply

    Hi Infran, there is lots of info on this site and in both Running On Empty books to help with narcissistic parents. I’ll write a blog about being unable to move out. Thank you for sharing!

Marianne - January 27, 2020 Reply

My father died in August. He tricked us into moving–all of us to Hawaii. The house was full of hoarded junk. The roof was destroyed in one part of the house. Once we got there, we were obligated to provide 24/7 care. We all have PTSD from domestic violence and two of my kids have Autism. He was completely impersonal–we were his caregivers that he owned. Brought back a bunch of childhood memories that I had put distance from by moving to the mainland. I was kept isolated from others–just like in your article. So painful. I lost it–he had so many flying monkeys who wanted us to get with the program. He had cancer and it seemed he didn’t care about knowing us before he died–he wanted to figuratively stand on our shoulders to keep from drowning. He had diabetes and was drinking 1.5 liters of Merlot in a night and nurses, doctors, and flying monkeys (who wanted him to have his wine) were blaming me! I made him sign a waiver and greatly limited the wine . I would be held liable in the case of an unattended death, one nurse said. I drove him to all his appointments–3 a day–he wanted to live forever. He fawned over my Autistic daughter who ran from him-and he ignored my boys–the middle son did everything he could to help me through the mess. The youngest didn’t even exist to the man–and then he scapedgoated him to ear brownie points with my daughter who fights with her brother sometime.
You mess with my kid , you treat me like a wife you want to sleep on the floor of his room {by his giant bucket of urinals}
He sat in his special poop smeared chair for meals on wheels delivered at 12 noon. I was expected to cook his meal at 3 so he could be finished at 4 so he could watch his news at five.
We had been going to community college; taking A+ CERTIFICATION courses. He did not really care. Nurses came when I said that what he wanted–said he wanted the death pill that came available but no doctor wanted to sponser and I refused to what i would have to do. We told them we couldn’t change the diapers of a man who molested me as a child; Next thing my mother sleeps on the couch permanently. He tells me he only stays with her because of the kid (me). But the oddest aggravating thing that happened when I was my only child self with them they usually met one of my “little friends” and he’s imprint on them. And fixate upon them. Even the cat was better than me. My mother was sadistic but my father was in total control of her and he quite literally felt entitled now for all the caregiving he needed and couldn’t afford. I left my job to take care of us, my job ended.He wanted me to go down to the store, pic out only his food and then give him the receipts. Ours was separate. Financial abuse–he did it to my sociopath mother. Finally he gave us the money card to buy food. He was in a hospice home six months. We are glad he’s dead. We are glad it’s over. I wish it would have been better–here’s a place at the table, Dad. Meet your grandchildren you never knew–except my girl who was one he fetishized–and you beautiful sons.
He had the nerve to complain that my kids were helping him to help me–not because of himself–told the flying monkeys.
The nursing home said we didn’t have to visit him–his flying monkeys did for sure. We did not wish to participate in our own gaslighting. Some of his friends stalked us because they lived near. He got his friends to buy himself a bunch of thing–6 of everything: shavers, electric toothbrushes, a dozen blankets and more.

    Jonice - January 28, 2020 Reply

    Dear Marianne, I am so sorry for the abuse you have suffered. (For readers who don’t know, flying monkeys is a term used for the acolytes of sociopaths who do their dirty work for them). I hope that you will take good care of yourself and focus on your healing.

TM - January 26, 2020 Reply

Thank you so very much for your insightful emails. I have always had conflicting thoughts and didn’t understand why or what they were. I bought both of your books and they have been the key to some major breakthroughs in my relationships!

    Jonice - January 26, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to hear that TM. Keep up the good work!

jan - January 26, 2020 Reply

There’s one other scenario that happens to be mine: My mother blamed me for being a breech birth and never forgave me for “nearly killing” (hers and Dad’s words) her during labor. If I was encouraged for anything, it was to not do what I really wanted and needed to do for myself. This is a ridiculously confusing scenario to figure one’s way out of.

    Jonice - January 26, 2020 Reply

    It is confusing, yes. But all roads lead on direction: toward yourself and your feelings. That’s where the answers lie!

Debra - January 26, 2020 Reply

You hit it right on the head!!!!!!! Lights are going off. Wow!!!!

    Jonice - January 26, 2020 Reply

    I’m glad, Debra. Keep reading.

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