5 Ways to Improve Father’s Day With Your Emotionally Neglectful Dad

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Father’s Day is easy for all of the people who feel loved by, loving, and close with their dads. If your relationship with your father is strong and uncomplicated, I hope you will give him the wonderful Father’s Day that he so deserves.

But the world is full of people who have more complex relationships with their dads. If you feel either confused or disappointed about your father, there’s a fairly good chance that it’s because of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

  • Do you get irritated or snap at your father for apparent no reason?
  • Do you cringe a little inside when you have to talk to your dad?
  • Does being alone with your father make you feel awkward or uncomfortable?
  • Are you uncertain whether your father loves you and/or is proud of you?
  • Do you sometimes feel that your dad doesn’t actually know you very well?
  • Do you look forward to seeing your father, and then often feel vaguely let down or perplexed afterward?

All of these questions are designed to highlight something that is missing from your relationship with your father; something that’s invisible and typically hard to pinpoint, but which is absolutely vital for a healthy father/child relationship.

It’s emotional connection.

When you grow up emotionally disconnected from your father, you don’t necessarily realize it. Yet there are many fathers who don’t directly damage their children by actively abusing them. They may provide well materially, and they may even love the child. But they don’t know how to emotionally connect, often because their own fathers didn’t emotionally connect either.

Men are subject to emotional discrimination in today’s world, but that discrimination was far worse in previous generations. Our fathers and our fathers’ fathers were trained to hide their feelings from the world. Emotion is a weakness, they were told. Legions of men raised their children caught between two opposing forces: Be tough and be a good father. Unfortunately tough, emotionless men do not make very good fathers.

If your dad was abusive, toxic, or mean during your childhood, has never taken responsibility for how he hurt you, and continues to harm you to this day, then you owe him nothing. Focus on yourself and what you need. Father’s Day is your day to focus on yourself. No guilt allowed.

But if your dad wasn’t/isn’t abusive and seems to care, but simply doesn’t know how to emotionally connect, follow these:

5 Tips to Improve Father’s Day With Your Emotionally Neglectful Dad

  1. Acknowledge that your father, however well-meaning, failed you in one very important way. A way that matters and has impacted you greatly.
  2. Acknowledging this basic truth does not make your father bad. You are not trying to blame him; only to understand him, and yourself.
  3. Put a special focus on yourself this day. Recognize that it may be a more complex day for you and your father than it is meant to be, and that’s okay. Make sure to take care of yourself today.
  4. Make a promise to yourself that you will deal with your own empty spaces and blind spots; the areas left vacant by your emotionally neglectful dad.
  5. Today, decide that you will not pass insidious, invisible Emotional Neglect down to your children. You will give yourself what you never got so that you can also give it to your children.

Your father gave you a lot, but he also failed you. Both are true. Today, try to focus on what he did right.

That will be your Father’s Day gift to him.

To learn how to fill the empty spaces and emotional blind spots left by Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to make sure you do not pass it on to your children, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.

Happy Father’s Day.

This post was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been updated and presented here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.


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Angel - June 26, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this. I’ll keep this in mind for next Father’s Day, as last one made me so incredibly sad. My father no doubt loves me but I can’t help but to feel so upset to know he just wasn’t around when I was younger. He was in the house, yes, but he never emotionally or anything that could stick to my memory.

Jonice, an unrelated question, do you have any articles on dealing with neglectful parents when you’ve come out? I came out as bisexual to my parents two years ago and their emotional response was crushing. There wasn’t any – only confusion, and somehow it feels worse than if they were upset. I’d have been over the moon if they had been happy for me, but I was only met with “oh”, and then they moved on. It’s never been brought up again since. There are days I need support for this from my parents, but they don’t understand it and haven’t tried to understand it. Even my mother who I am closest to. I need to know how I can know I’m safe with my family knowing we have homophobic people around us, but I’m not sure how I could do it… I feel so alone and unsupported.

Sorry for the unrelated question. Amazing article, thank you for writing it.

    Jonice - June 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Angel, I encourage you to look for support outside of your family, preferably from a therapist who is trained in LGBTQ issues. I can hear your longing for acceptance and validation from your parents, but they may not be able to give it. Perhaps a therapist can help you talk to them in a different way or at least keep moving forward and growing.

    Stephen - July 17, 2021 Reply

    Angel, my sister realized she might be gay in her mid 20s. She came out to my mom and then she completely forgot and she had to come out AGAIN a few months later when she told our parents she was dating a girl…

Audrey - June 23, 2020 Reply

Thanks for this, Jonice!

Also, this article has led me to think about how daughters are supposed to look up to their fathers and see them as the model man in their lives – at least one sees this quite often in idyllic fictional narratives and in healthy father-daughter relationships in real life. I feel guilty because that is not the case for me: my father has many virtues and has done many things well in life, but he is also very authoritarian, harsh, prone to not showing emotions, and he unconsciously defends himself by attacking (in subtle but perceptible ways, like through looks and the tone of his voice). All this hurts me very much, it demolishes my self-esteem, and it has been intensified lately during lockdown (I still live with my parents).

Is there any particular advice you would give in such a case? I feel bad by rejecting my father’s figure (I want to marry someone very different to him), and at the same time I need to rebel (inwardly) against him.

Thank you!

    Jonice - June 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Audrey, it helps to try to stop thinking of your dad as all good or all bad. He’s a mixture. So instead, think about the traits he has that you want and like, and what you want to make sure to avoid in other relationships. And be sure to protect yourself. Seek a CEN therapist if you can.

Li - June 22, 2020 Reply

This article is brilliant! Thank you for explaining complex matters in such simple terms. People who understand and acknowledge how confusing and hurtful the neglect was, are so important for us to help ourselves heal. Thank you for helping me feel understood, and make sense of the pain. Your suggestions about how to address difficult days as an adult, help me feel good about today, and ok with what happened in my childhood.

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Li, I am so glad to hear this. Keep up the good work you’re doing!

James - June 21, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr. Webb,

I appreciate your work on this topic. Providing two white/black reactions- a) father was bad, so ignore him or b) father didn’t mean to be bad, so work on the relationship – just doesn’t address the full spectrum of complexity with having a father who emotionally abused you. It doesn’t matter in the end if he MEANT to or not – because the fact is, his lack of care towards his child’s needs ended up impacting the child for years and years. When you have a father who knowingly said as a child “I”m not a good dad,” but then wonders why his child doesn’t speak to him, it makes for a more complex understanding than A or B.

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear James, you are expressing how complex relationships can be, especially when a parent is a complex personality. The answers are indeed not clear-cut, and in many cases there are no “right” answers. It all boils down to how their actions and lack of actions affected us. We are left holding the bag, and we must deal with the bag ourselves, unfortunately. thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Gunther - June 21, 2020 Reply

When parents don’t really care and/or listen to their kids, then it does make them bad and they deserve to get the blame.

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gunther, it is true, there are plenty of emotionally neglectful parents who do deserve to be blamed! There is no one type, and the important thing is to understand how your own parents failed you and, to the extent possible, why they failed you. And also, to allow yourself to feel your feelings.

Andrea - June 21, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb, Jonice. Your care and intelligent writing has helped me make sense of my life, and I’m sure the same for countless others. Thank you for giving us the resources to help end our collective suffering and make sure we are connecting with our own children so as to not pass on this debilitating legacy. I’m forever grateful for your work and care.

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Andrea, I am forever grateful back! It’s folks like you who will improve the world for our children. Keep it up!

Carl - June 21, 2020 Reply

Thank you. This stuff persists even when dad is this gone.

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    It’s so true, Carl. You can still change your relationship with your dad even though he’s gone. I address this in my second book, Running On Empty No More. Also, watch for a future post on this.

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