3 Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents
Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had a unique window into how CEN plays out in people’s adult lives and relationships.
The sad reality is that growing up in an emotionally neglectful family, with your feelings ignored or discounted, has profound effects on how you feel in your adult life, the choices you make, and your perceptions of yourself.
The Emotional Neglect you experienced as a child stays with you throughout the decades of your entire life. It hangs over your relationships, holding them back from developing the depth and resilience that you deserve to have.
But there is one relationship that is uniquely influenced by CEN. It’s affected relentlessly, even if silently, from Day One of your life. It’s your relationship with your parents.
3 Common Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents
- You have spent your life feeling emotionally let down by your parents. This makes it hard for you to have full trust and love for them. You may have always blamed your lack of positive feelings on yourself and/or felt guilty about it.
- Your parents are the ones who birthed and raised you, so they should be the ones who know you best. But since they have overlooked your emotions all this time, they have overlooked the deepest, most personal expression of who you are. So sadly, they may not actually know you in any kind of deep or meaningful way. This is painful.
- Once you realize your parents emotionally neglected you, it can be hard to be around them. It’s like going to a well for water over and over again, only to find that it’s still dry. To cope with the letdown and disappointment, you may try to convince yourself that you don’t want or need their love or approval anymore.
Below is a section about emotionally neglectful parents from my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. In it, I explain how and why it’s so uncomfortable and painful to have your emotional needs thwarted by your parents.
A Passage From the Book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships
Built into our human brains from birth is an intense need for emotional attention, connection, approval, and understanding from our parents. Every baby born needs to feel emotionally connected to its parents. We do not choose to have this need, and we cannot choose to get rid of it. It is powerful and real, and it drives us throughout our lives.
I have noticed that many people with Childhood Emotional Neglect try to downplay this essential requirement by viewing it as a weakness, or by declaring themselves somehow free of it.
“I’ve given up on my parents. They mean nothing to me now.”
“My parents are incapable of giving me anything. I’m done.”
“I simply don’t care anymore.”
I fully understand why you may say these things, either out loud or just inside your own head, and believe them. After all, it’s very painful to have your deeply personal, human needs for emotional connection and emotional validation thwarted throughout your childhood. It’s a natural coping strategy to try to minimize your frustrated needs or eradicate them altogether.
But the reality is, no one, and I mean NO ONE escapes this need. You can push it down, you can deny it, and you can deceive yourself. Sometimes it may seem to be gone, but it does not go away. It will inevitably return.
That’s why growing up without being seen, known, understood, and approved by your parents leaves its mark upon you. But with all that said, growing up thwarted in this way is not a sentence to being damaged.
In fact, it is very possible if, instead of disavowing it, you accept that your need is natural and real, you can purposely manage it. In this way, you can heal the pain of growing up unseen or misunderstood.
Often, contradictory feelings plague CEN children in their relationships with their parents. Love alternates with anger, appreciation with deprivation, and tenderness with guilt. And none of it makes sense to you.
If you identify with some of these struggles and feelings with your own parents, it’s okay. You are in the company of legions of other emotionally neglected folks who are struggling in the exact same way.
And there are answers. There are some key things you can do to make this easier for you.
3 Key Steps to Start Protecting Yourself in Your Relationship With Your CEN Parents
- Stop viewing your emotional needs as a sign of weakness. Your need for emotional connection and approval from your parents is a sign of only one thing: your humanity. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s built into your nervous system. It just is what it is.
- Accept that, no matter how you feel toward your parents, it’s okay. Since you can’t choose your feelings, you are not allowed to judge yourself for any feeling you have, no matter what it is. So, acknowledge and accept your feelings as they are, because managing any feeling starts with accepting that feeling.
- Shift into self-protection mode. I know this may seem uncomfortable. No one wants to think that they need to protect themselves from their parents, but, in this case, it is necessary. Consider the type of parents you have. Do they seem to hurt you on purpose? Are they too absorbed in their own needs and pursuits to notice yours? Or are they simply unaware of feelings in general and so aren’t capable of noticing or responding to yours? Then, taking into account the type of parents you have, start forming a plan to protect yourself. I am talking about boundaries.
How to Set Up Protective Boundaries
- Take control of the time you spend with your parents. You may need to alter your patterns of phone calls and visits, keeping them shorter or more structured. You may need to say, “No,” to some of their invitations, see them only on your own home turf, or meet in neutral territory. Start taking charge of the plans, and do so without guilt, since your first responsibility is to protect yourself.
- Create an internal boundary. Become much more mindful of what you expect from them or ask of them. Share less personal information with them as needed in order to make yourself less vulnerable. Lower your expectations for understanding and emotional support so that you will not set yourself up to be disappointed by what they are unable to give you.
- Consider talking with your parents about CEN. Some parents, especially ones who mean well but simply don’t understand the psychology of emotions well enough to respond to you emotionally, (I call these parents the Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves or WMBNT) will at least try to understand. For extensive guidance on whether and how to have such a conversation with your parents, consult the book quoted above, Running On Empty No More.
By accepting your own needs and feelings, you have made a good start. Your first responsibility is to yourself. You must protect yourself, even if it’s from your own parents.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Thanks for giving me permission to feel weird around my parents Dr. Webb.
And thanks for your books and other posts. I feel they have helped give me understanding of myself and healthy strategies for coping with CEN.