All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
Even though every child is different, all children are also the same in one very important way. In order to thrive, children require emotional attention, validation, and responsiveness from their parents.
Knowing that you need to provide this to your child gives you a tremendous leg up on parenting. But knowing how to provide it is another thing altogether.
Think of parenting as a process of teaching your children how to manage their emotions. The better you handle your children’s emotions, the better they will be at managing them throughout their lives.
Although these skills sound simple, in combination they are a powerful tool for helping children learn about and manage their own nature, for creating a secure emotional bond that carries the children into adulthood, so that they may face the world with the emotional health to achieve happy adulthood.
In short, when parents are mindful of their children’s unique emotional nature, they raise emotionally strong adults. Some parents are able to do this intuitively, but others can learn the skills. Either way, the child will learn them.
Zach is a precocious and hyperactive third-grader, the youngest of three children in a laid-back and loving family. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from the teacher describing his infraction by stating, “Zach was disrespectful today.”
Zach’s mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that when he was in the recess line Mrs. Rollo told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Rollo by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Rollo confiscated his pencil, wrote his name on the board, and sent him home with a note.
Before describing how Zach’s mother actually responded, let’s figure out what Zach needs to get from the coming parent-child interaction: he is upset by the incident with his teacher, whom he generally likes, so he needs empathy; on the other hand, he also needs to learn what is expected of him by his teachers in order to succeed at school. Finally, it would help if his mother has noticed (emotional attentiveness) that lately, he is very sensitive to “being treated like a baby” because his older brother and sister leave him out a lot due to his age. Zach’s mother needs the three skills: feeling a connection, paying attention, and responding competently, in order to help Zach with his problem.
Here is how the conversation went between mother and son:
Mother: “Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to poke your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Zach: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Rollo doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Zach relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated, and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Rollo’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zach?”
Zach: “Yeah, Mom.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Rollo asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think something is unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
This mother’s intuitive responses in the above conversation provide us with a complex example of the healthy, emotionally attuned parenting that leads to the sane, happy adult whom Winnicott describes. What exactly did she do?
-First, she connected with her son emotionally by asking him to tell her what happened before she reacted. No shaming.
-Then she listened carefully to him. When she first spoke, she provided him with a simple rule that an eight-year-old can understand: “When a teacher asks you to do something, you do it right away.” Here Zach’s mother is instinctively attuned to his stage of cognitive development, providing him with a general rule to use at school.
-She immediately follows the rule with empathy and naming his feeling (“Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed…”). Hearing his mom name the feeling, Zach is able to express more of his emotion to his mother (“I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”).
-Again, his mother responds to Zach by naming or labeling the emotion that drove Zach’s rude behavior towards his teacher, the behavior of contradicting the teacher that was viewed as disrespectful (“Yes. I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk…”).
-Zach, feeling understood, responds by repeating this emotion word for himself, “Yeah, she got me so frustrated, and then she took my pencil.”
-But the mother isn’t finished yet. She has, in this conversation, demonstrated to Zach that she understands him and feels for him by demonstrating that she sees his behavior differently than his teacher does. However, she can’t stop there, because his tendency to debate (the likely result of having two highly verbal older siblings) will continue to be a problem for Zach at school unless he can correct it. So his mom says, “It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away.”
-Finally, she holds her son accountable for his behavior, setting the stage for future check-ins on his feisty nature by asking him, “Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zach?”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Zach’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Zach to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it. And, in the event that Zach repeats this behavior at school, she will adjust her message and her actions to adapt to the difficulty he is having in the classroom.
One of the biggest challenges for most parents in this area comes from their own lack of skills for managing their own emotions. It’s hard to give your children something that you don’t have yourself.
If this sounds like you, never fear. It’s not your fault. Most likely your parents didn’t teach you the skills because they didn’t have them. And the best part: you can learn the skills!
To find out how to learn the skills for yourself, see the bestselling books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
This blog is adapted from the book: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It was originally published on psychcentral.com as The 3 Essential Emotion Skills For Parenting. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.
Charisma: Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others
What makes a person charismatic? Is it a form of narcissism? No. Do you have to be born with it? Most people would say that you either have it or you don’t, but it’s not true.
I believe the truth is something far more complicated. Charisma is a special collection of personal traits that many people have. One quality that true charisma requires is being in touch with your feelings.
I see many people who grew up with their emotions ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) have many of the right qualities. But CEN people have learned how to hide their feelings. More comfortable outside the limelight, they have learned to tamp down their own light and hide.
If you grew up with CEN, with your emotions ignored or discouraged, you may have a charisma that you have not yet claimed. This is very important since an essential part of charisma is that you have to own it.
As you read the list below, think about yourself and which of these qualities you may already have, which you are hiding, and which you can nurture in yourself.
The world is full of wonderful people who listen, care, and give. People who smile, own their mistakes and quietly inspire others. People with bright lights shining within them, but who lack the confidence to allow others to see it.
If some little voice within you is saying, “This might be me,” I ask you to listen to the voice and believe in yourself.
Claim your qualities and build them, trust yourself, and stop hiding your light.
Because the world needs more people like you. We need your light.
To learn how to understand and work with emotions, and get to know the real you, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This post was initially published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and reproduced here with the permission of Psych Central and the author.
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 ever wonder how emotionally healthy you are?
We all have a general idea of what we think an emotionally healthy person looks like. Maybe it’s not being depressed or anxious, not suffering, or not having a diagnosis. Maybe it’s being happy, or being able to live a good life.
All of these things are important and have great merit, of course. But what are the specific factors that make a person emotionally healthy? Here are the five hallmarks that hardly anyone thinks about.
1. You’re able to hold two opposites in your mind at the same time.
“Is she a good person or a bad person? Did you like the movie or not? Are you talented, yes or no? Who’s right, you or me?” This tendency for our minds to polarize things into opposites in order to settle on a clear solution applies to all areas of our lives. But it shows up especially starkly in very personal questions, such as how we view ourselves, how we think about our childhoods, and how we judge others.
The ability to see the gray areas is a skill that not everyone has, for sure. But here we’re talking about a step beyond that. The ability to say during a conflict with another person, “We are both right, and we are also both wrong.” To be able to conclude, in any situation, “This is both extremely good and extremely bad,” “This person is both well-intentioned and potentially harmful,” “I love you and hate you at the same time.” “My parents gave me a lot, but they also failed me terribly.” All are true.
Opposites go together far better than most people realize. And if you can hold the opposing sides in your mind together at the same time, it gives you a birds-eye view of yourself, a person, or a situation that is far more accurate and real than grasping for a one-dimensional answer.
2. You can manage your feelings while communicating.
Managing your emotions is one thing and communicating is another. Each is a difficult skill to master. Put them together and you have a great challenge. Being able to manage the hurt you are feeling so that you can explain to someone how you feel; being able to manage your anger in order to express the problem in a way that the other person can hear. These are two examples of strong psychological mental health.
3. You’re self-aware.
Everyone knows themselves. But the question is, how well? Do you understand your typical responses to things? Are you aware of what you feel, and why you’re feeling it? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Talents? Likes and dislikes? What do you need, and what do you enjoy?
The better you understand yourself, the more resilient you are in challenging situations, the better you can forgive yourself for mistakes, and the better life choices you can make for yourself.
4. You’re comfortable in your own skin.
This involves being happy to simply be you. Think of it as spending time with yourself, happily and comfortably. Can you sit alone with no entertainment and be comfortable? Can you be in the moment right now and not thinking ahead, thinking about the past, or thinking about something or someone else? Are you able to sit with a feeling, accept that feeling, and try to understand it?
These are all examples of being comfortable in your own skin.
5. You’re willing to take risks.
Being able to stretch yourself, not only within your comfort zone but beyond it, takes a great deal of strength and resilience. Are you willing to put yourself out there? Can you rely on yourself to manage failure, if it happens? Do you know yourself well enough to know what’s worth going out on a limb for? Can you forgive yourself if you don’t succeed?
The strength required to take the risk of failure, and to survive failure, is a great strength indeed.
If reading all of these qualities is somewhat intimidating, don’t worry. Few people possess all five. In fact, most of us would do well to simply be striving toward having each one.
1. Become less invested in being right.
When you give up some of your connection to being right, you open up a whole new world; the birds-eye world that is an important part of being wise. You rise above the right/wrong mentality, and you start to see yourself and others differently.
Being able to see the polar opposites — the greater truths — makes it easier to understand your own feelings (which often oppose each other) and to understand others. It aids your ability to see and understand yourself.
2. Learn and practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or the ability to be in the moment, with your attention turned inward at yourself, what you’re doing and what you’re feeling, is a key part of both self-awareness and being comfortable in your own skin. It has also been shown by scientific research to have multiple other psychological and health benefits.
3. Work on viewing failure differently.
Failure is a sign of courage. Failure means that you pushed yourself outside your comfort zone and took a risk. Failure, done well, is a growth experience. We can learn more from our failures than we can from our successes.
As you become more self-aware, more mindful, more emotionally communicative, and more comfortable in your own skin, you will be freer to take risks and learn from them. Your relationships will become deeper and more satisfying. This will ultimately support you to experiences and successes far beyond what you ever thought you could achieve.
Growing up in a family that avoids, ignores, or disparages your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) disconnects you from your feelings in your adult life. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
A version of this article was originally published on yourtango.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and Yourtango.
In the United States of America, it is a time of reckoning. As a nation, as a people, who do we want to be?
Divided? Filled with hate and judgment of each other? We must decide.
In 2016, a reader commented on my blog, and it made me think deeply about anger, hate, and the harsh way that humanity judges and treats those who are different from ourselves. That reader’s comment inspired me to write this blog post on Psychcentral. Today, in 2020, it is still highly relevant. I have updated it and republished it here.
I’m a white working-class man. I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by people I trusted as a child.
The unquenchable anger from the white working class is not caused by a government or system or any other institution. It is caused by neglectful and abusive parenting. You simply can’t stay that angry, resentful, and cruel all your life if you grew up with loving people, no matter what government you have.
When people call others, like millennials, “pampered” what they are really saying is that they wish they had received that kind of care when they were young. When they brag how their toys and playgrounds were unsafe and they turned out OK, what they are really saying is that they wish someone had cared enough to put rubber matting under their own swings when they were growing up.
These people’s parents, guardians, and leaders deflected their own anger from the true target, their own parents, to “others” who did not look like them.
As a child, your parents really scare you when they spit out whatever nasty words they may have used to describe people who are of different races or creeds. You get afraid of these people, and because they don’t look nor talk like you they are very easy to spot. The working-class white people’s current anger is the flip side of genuine fear. A fear you were taught before you could form words.
A man stood on my street corner the day after the election and shouted to all of us, “Those ****” are going to get what’s coming to them now.” He looked like a 60-year-old teenage boy who can’t stop being afraid.
Neglect and abuse are passed down like a family heirloom and often go side by side. Parents will often go from one to the other as the day goes on.
As a trained therapist I believe you could provide much value by teaching people with this much hate how to break the chain of hate by raising their children with attention and love.
Truth be told, I felt somewhat stunned as I read this comment. It expressed in perfect prose some things that I know, with every fiber of my being, are fundamental truths.
Yes, anger is the flip-side of fear.
Yes. The way we treat our children shapes our world.
Yes. Of course. Childhood neglect and abuse are the root causes of anger, racism, and hate.
Anger is a fascinating emotion in many ways. It flows like water, touching and affecting all who are near it. One important way that anger differs from other emotions is that it always seeks a target.
Anger is not satisfied floating freely, like sadness or other forms of pain. Anger is built into us as a self-protective measure, so it naturally needs to be directed at someone or something.
So what if that “someone” who’s the true target is our parent? Our parent who is angry or scary, or inattentive. Our parent who has hurt or neglected us, but upon whom we are completely dependent for food, clothing, shelter, and all forms of care.
A child’s own anger seeks another, safer target; one removed as far as possible from our childhood home. The farther removed the target, the safer it feels for us. It’s a natural human process that is virtually wired in.
Here’s what I believe. Racism will never go away until we all face the true source of our own fear and anger. I hope that we can stop misdirecting our feelings, and have the courage to parent our own children differently than we were parented ourselves.
Let’s face our own pain, and work through it in a healthy way. It’s for the children. It’s for our country. It’s for our world.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. To learn more about how CEN affects relationships see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Warm thanks to Tyler, who authored the candid, thoughtful comment that inspired this article.
This article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.
Julie loves her husband Dom very much, but lately, all they seem to do is fight. Julie wonders how Dom can possibly complain that she’s not home enough lately when he can see how many demands she is juggling.
Bill struggles to do everything right in life. He has a good job and a family that loves him. Yet he walks through his days feeling numb. As he provides for his family and responds to his boss’s every request, he sometimes wonders what it’s all for. Recently he’s been drinking more than he should.
House, job, family. Parenting, grocery-shopping, errands, and social media; we are all people of the world. And in today’s world, our lives are overly full in so many ways. So it’s ironic that so many of us feel so very UN-full.
The feeling of emptiness is elusive. It’s experienced differently by different people. Hardly anyone knows how to put it into words. So you may at times say you’re stressed or down because it’s the best word you can come up with, even though it doesn’t seem to quite capture what you feel.
Even more likely, you say nothing. After all, you can see that your life is actually very full. You have no idea that so many people around you feel a sense of emptiness as well.
Whatever your personal experience of emptiness, the roots of this feeling almost always can be found in your childhood.
We grow up in households that are busy or struggling, and somehow not quite nurturing enough. From this we learn everything about how to stay busy and struggle, but little about how to nurture ourselves.
So we grow up looking in all the wrong places for support and fulfillment. We live our adult lives with a sense that something is missing, and no idea how to find it.
Julie can’t see what Dom sees: that she is hugely over-committed. In addition to her job and her two daughters, she volunteers on two committees at the school. She’s involved in a town fundraiser, and now she’s talking about starting up a small business on the side. Dom watches helplessly as Julie becomes increasingly depleted and worn.
Over-committed and joyless, Julie has lost her way. She seeks to fill herself up with activity, projects, and maybe some recognition, with perhaps a little money thrown in. On this path, Julie will never stop having those pangs of emptiness that come and go.
Bill walks through life feeling numb and knowing that something is not right. He knows he should be happier and more fulfilled. After all, he’s the man with everything. Bill has no idea that throughout his struggle to do everything right in life, he has missed the boat on what truly matters to him.
Bill knows how to walk the walk, but he doesn’t know how to feel. He’s caught up in the externals of life, and he cannot see himself. Bill is missing out on what could give his life meaning: his feelings.
No matter what type of emptiness you feel and how you’ve tried to fill it, it’s never too late or too tall a task to change your course.
Focusing inward instead of outward; noticing your own feelings and needs and trying to meet them; finding what makes you happy, and making memories with people you care about. This is the path to filling yourself.
Surprisingly, once you’re on it you may find that your new path is actually far easier than the old one.
To learn more about how to become more self-aware and fill yourself up, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.
How do you help an emotionally neglected (CEN) client, who grew up with their feelings ignored or suppressed, learn about emotions and how they work?
In the process of talking, writing, and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had many wonderful opportunities to talk with hundreds of therapists about their experiences and challenges treating CEN clients.
If you are a CEN therapist, I want to start by thanking you from the bottom of my heart. You are helping me reach my longstanding goal of providing CEN therapy to everyone throughout the world who needs it.
If you are not yet a CEN therapist, I hope that you might consider it. I am trying to make CEN therapy available to everyone who needs one.
As it stands right now, there are hundreds of therapists from all over the world listed on the Find A CEN Therapist List.
Despite the healthy numbers, more CEN therapists are clearly needed. Every day, I receive emails from people with CEN who are upset because they cannot find a CEN specialist to help them.
Throughout these few years of training therapists in the treatment of CEN, one major challenge stands out. How do you help a CEN client learn about emotions and how they work?
Believe me, I understand this problem all too well. Since clients who grew up with their feelings ignored have their emotions walled off as a defense mechanism, they not only view their emotions as useless, harmful, or weak, they also have likely not learned some of the most basic aspects of how feelings work.
Getting a CEN client to talk about feelings in session can seem almost impossible. So how can we teach them about something they are so repelled by and try to avoid at all costs?
Over the last couple of years, one tool has begun to stand out to me as I struggle with this problem in my own work. It’s the Emotions List from the back of my first book, Running On Empty. I use it in multiple different ways that tailor to what a particular client needs. It allows us to start right where they are and get on the healing path that I know has the potential to help them enormously.
1. The Homework/Process — Tailor it To Your Client
2. What Was Your Client’s Experience of Doing the Homework?
3. Look for Patterns in Your Client’s Highlighted Words
4. Identify Your Client’s Core Feeling
Reuniting our CEN clients with their feelings is one of our greatest challenges. I find that there is something about the Feelings List that, even though it’s very long, feels manageable, and maybe even comforting to these clients.
Perhaps the notion that feelings can be labeled offers assurance that feelings are real and identifiable and understandable.
Each of the ways to use the list described above is a jumping-off point for you and your client to talk about emotions.
Special Point: Identifying a client’s core feeling — the feeling they felt most in their childhood — can be almost like a pipeline to their other feelings. I will write another blog about this process and how to use it in CEN therapy so watch for that.
I’m sure there are many other ways to use the Feelings List in CEN treatment that we have yet to discover. If you have some thoughts about this, I would love for you to share it! Just post it in the Comments section of this blog.
I would love for you to take my 2-CE therapist training, Identifying & Treating Childhood Emotional Neglect: An Overview. Learn about it here: https://drjonicewebb.com/treating-cen/.
Maryann was raised by a mother who was both emotionally intense and needy. All through her childhood, Maryann had to be very caring and supportive toward her mother to try to prevent explosions.
Because of this, Maryann grew up with strong tendencies to care for and placate others deeply entrenched in her character. But these character traits, essential survival mechanisms growing up, became a serious problem for her in her adult life. Maryann was such a placater that she wasn’t taken seriously at work. Others often took advantage of her. Maryann was not happy.
Finally, Maryann decided that she needed to change. She decided to stop placating, stop agreeing with everyone and everything, and begin to show more backbone. But it wasn’t easy. Each time Maryann tried to speak up for herself to express disagreement or assert her own needs, she felt intense anxiety come over her.
Essentially everyone knows first-hand what it means to be anxious. Few among us are spared this intense feeling of discomfort.
William James, who is considered The Father of American Psychology, described his own anxiety this way: “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.”
Since anxiety is so common and troublesome, I’ve seen plenty of it in my work as a psychologist. One thing I’ve noticed is that all anxiety is not the same. The particular type of anxiety you have determines not only how it feels, but also how it should be treated and managed.
1. Biology: Research has shown that some babies are born with an anxious temperament. Babies who are observed as edgy and reactive have been seen to grow up to be edgy and reactive adults; in other words, anxious babies grow into anxious adults. This type of anxiety is genetic, and it tends to run in families.
Biology, however, is not a sentence to a lifetime of anxiety. First, because biological anxiety waxes and wanes throughout your lifetime, it may become problematic really only during times of transition or stress. And second, because you can learn to manage your biological anxiety.
Best Solution: Anxiety management techniques are plentiful and effective. The best way to learn them is to see a cognitive/behavioral therapist. Some common anti-depressant medications are also effective in treating biological anxiety.
2. Childhood Emotional Neglect: This essentially boils down to how you handle your feelings. When you push your emotions down or suppress them, they don’t simply disappear. Instead, they remain there, buried. Repressed and suppressed feelings pool together under the surface and become a diffuse form of anxiety. This type of anxiety seems to come and go at will. It becomes your main feeling. In general, you may find yourself existing in two states: you either feel anxious, or you feel nothing at all.
Best Solution: The best solution for this type of anxiety is to break through the wall between yourself and your pool of blocked-off emotions. Pay attention to your feelings, allow yourself to feel them, learn to put them into words, and how to manage and express them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will gradually reduce your anxiety and will have multiple other positive effects upon your life satisfaction as well.
3. Personal Growth: This is one of the most powerful, and yet least talked about, forms of anxiety. It’s the anxiety that’s naturally built into virtually every step of emotional or psychological growth that you take in your lifetime. It’s especially intense when you’re trying to give up a coping mechanism that you needed in childhood (like Maryann). This anxiety arises when you’re about to make a healthy change in yourself, and it tries to pull you backward.
Each time Maryann tries to abandon the habit that saved her life in childhood, her body screams, “No-o-o-o-o!” It does this by sending her feelings of fear, to alert her that what she’s about to do is dangerous.
Best Solution: The most helpful strategy in managing this type of anxiety is simply recognizing what it is. When you can accept that it’s only your body warning you against something that’s not dangerous, you can accept the feeling, and then override it. In Maryann’s situation, a vital step in her growth process involves not giving in to the wave of anxiety she feels, but instead letting it wash over her like a wave; and then overriding it. This means speaking up in spite of it.
Each time Maryann manages her anxiety this way, ending with healthy action, she is reducing her anxiety’s power. She’s essentially re-programming her brain to recognize that the new behavior (speaking up) is not dangerous, but adaptive and healthy.
Every single human being, every single day receives messages from their body.
“Don’t try that,” insist the voices of your anxiety.
So now, you must begin to insist back: “I will not run away from this. I will not stop. I will not stay quiet, I will speak up. I will try that.”
Accept the feeling, understand its cause, and you can take control of what’s been controlling you.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. To learn more about how to understand, manage, and override your emotions, see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.
Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away. “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.
While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.
It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.
But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.
Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.
To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.
At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.
At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.
Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.
At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.
People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time.
Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect. Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.
What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.
And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.
And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.
A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
What happens when two people, each of whom grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, meet and marry? They create the doubly emotionally neglected couple.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a subtle, often invisible childhood experience that many adults experienced in their families. As children, they didn’t know it was happening. And as adults, they typically have no memory of it.
Yet its effects continue to hang over them like a gray cloud, coloring their entire adult lives. The cloud inserts itself into their marriages, causing emotional distance, miscommunication, and lack of intimacy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
When you grow up with parents who do not validate or respond to your feelings, your child brain knows just what to do. It builds a wall to block off the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions. Safely tucked behind the wall, your parents (and you) can pretend that your feelings aren’t even there, or don’t matter.
Decades later, when you are in a serious relationship, a series of very predictable problems ensue. That wall that helped you as a child interferes. It blocks off the invaluable internal resource you need to bind and connect you to your partner: your emotions.
Interestingly, those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect tend to be attracted to one another. When your own emotions are blocked off, you are bound to feel most comfortable with a partner whose emotions are also tucked safely away.
So what happens when two people who grew up emotionally neglected marry? How does the couple deal with two walls between them, over the years of being together?
Meet Jason and Betsy, the double-CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple. They’ve been married for 10 years, and neither is aware of their CEN. It’s Saturday morning, and they are having a mundane conversation.
Betsy: I’ll drop off Curt at basketball practice at 9:30. Can you pick up Emma from gymnastics at 9:45?
As she makes this request, Betsy is secretly worried that Jason will be irritated that she’s asking him to do something. So as she asks, she watches his reaction carefully.
Jason sees Betsy giving him a look he can’t interpret, and assumes she’s trying to manipulate him somehow. He decides to call her bluff by martyring himself to make her feel bad.
Jason: What’s the big deal? Why does this require us both? I’ll do both drop-off and pick-up.
Betsy notices the edge in Jason’s tone and assumes it’s because she asked him to do a task for her. “Would it kill him to chip in on the weekend?” she thinks to herself with aggravation.
Betsy: Just forget it. I’ll do both.
As Betsy does the drop-off and pick-up that morning, she seethes inside at how unwilling Jason is to help out with the kids.
Meanwhile, Jason sits at home feeling three competing things: frustrated at his “manipulative” wife, perplexed about what really happened between them that morning, and vaguely guilty that he is sitting at home while Betsy does all the work.
Eventually, the guilt wins out. Feeling bad, he starts making a big pot of chili, which he knows Betsy likes.
No matter how connected you are by love, companionship, children, or history, you are not able to connect enough in the most important way: emotionally. It’s not that you don’t feel emotion (both Betsy and Jason have plenty of emotions in the description above), it’s just that neither of you is well enough in touch with what you are feeling so that you can share them and use them as you are meant to as a couple.
While your parents were busy ignoring your feelings, you were missing an important childhood experience. You were not learning how emotions work. You didn’t have the chance to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, identify that feeling, put it into words, or share it with another. These are the skills required to build emotional intimacy with your partner, and you may not even realize that you don’t have them.
You probably noticed how very out of touch Betsy and Jason are with each other. Betsy views Jason as unwilling to help, which isn’t true, and Jason views Betsy as trying to pull something over on him, which she isn’t. Both end up feeling upset with each other for false reasons. And neither has the communication skills to discover that his/her assumptions and readings of the other are wrong.
In addition to the normal conflicts that all couples encounter, incorrect readings also contribute to the wedges that drive you farther and farther apart every day. The longer you are together, the more distant you feel.
I see many double CEN couples in my office, and one thing I often notice is that they usually have a genuine bond of love for each other. But despite the love, one or both members of the couple senses that something very important is missing. One or both of the members feel, despite the love, uncomfortably lonely in the marriage.
If you recognize yourself and your partner as you read this, do not despair. There are answers!
You can use this newfound understanding to reach out to your partner. Now that you know what divides you, you can break down your walls, and power forward to a brighter, more connected future.
Because the great thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that it can be healed.
To learn how to take the steps to reach out to your partner and break through the walls that block you, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.