Yes, it’s true. Emotional Neglect can feel like abandonment to a child.
Let’s start with a refresher on Childhood Emotional Neglect. What exactly is it?
Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than most people would think. That’s because it happens far more simply than most people would think and is far more powerful, as well.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when the parents fail to respond enough to the emotions of the child. That’s all it takes.
You may grow up with plenty of food, clothes, and a good school. You may have a fine education and even a stay-at-home parent. But none of this is related in any way to Childhood Emotional Neglect.
You may enjoy having all of these basic needs fully met throughout your childhood and, from the outside, you may even appear to be fortunate, indeed. In fact, even from the inside, you may believe that too.
But here is the hard reality. There is no more basic need than emotional validation, emotional connection and emotional support. All children require this. And they need to receive enough of it from their parents in order to become emotionally strong and thriving adults.
Why? Because emotions are far more important than most people think. They are wired into us before birth for a very good reason: to help us survive and thrive.
Our feelings tell us what to do and when to do it and why we’re doing it. They drive us, direct us and motivate us. They tell us with whom we should connect and why we should connect with them, and then they connect us.
In short, our feelings are the deepest, most personal expression of who we are. They are messages from our bodies and when we ignore or discredit them, we are actually ignoring and discrediting ourselves.
So how does Emotional Neglect feel like abandonment to the child?
The vast majority of parents respond to an infant’s cries. Parents understand that a crying infant is uncomfortable in some way and needs attention; and to help out, an infant’s cries can be difficult to ignore. In this way, biology provides a way for a non-verbal infant to communicate its needs to its parents.
As children grow they develop verbal skills. They learn to say, “I’m hungry,” for example; but far too few parents teach their child to say, “I’m sad.”
As parents, we teach our children to express their physical feelings but we do a far lesser job when it comes to emotions.
First, do not worry because it is never too late. You can un-abandon yourself!
To do this follow the steps of recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Begin to pay more attention to your feelings, the vital messages from your deepest self. You will find that what you always thought was useless or shameful is actually incredibly useful.
When you follow this process of healing you will find your passion, your preferences, your strengths and your weaknesses, your joy, your needs, and yes, also your pain.
But as you allow yourself to experience all of these mixtures and nuances from within you will be building a richer, more complex, more powerful inner life that will transfer to your outer life.
You will be finding that long-ago abandoned child, reclaiming and validating and nurturing them. And in recovering the deepest expression of who you are, you will finally be allowed to become the person you were born to be.
To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join a community of CEN people going through the steps together with my guidance see the Fuel Up For Life Program.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Labeling someone a sociopath can be a double-edged sword. It can help you protect yourself better, but it can also cause you to have very negative feelings (anger, disgust, etc.) toward the person which can interfere with your ability to manage your relationship with them.
As you read this article please try to walk this thin line as best you can: keep in mind that a label is not a solution and that this is a powerful label that can do great damage. However, recognize that refusing to acknowledge real sociopathic behaviors in a person puts you (and others who depend on you) at risk.
Last year I published some articles on sociopathic personality about how to identify a sociopath and how to protect yourself from one.
In response, I’ve received a cascade of ongoing questions and comments. Clearly many of my readers are concerned that someone in their lives is a sociopath and need to know how to protect themselves.
What if I suspect someone I love is a sociopath?
How do I protect my children from a sociopathic parent?
What makes a person vulnerable to sociopaths?
Here are my answers to a select few of the questions that you’ve posted so far:
And how do we help our children whose father is a full-blown psychopath? I have a 9-year-old and she has been in therapy ever since her Dad’s psychopathy became evident. The therapy has not helped her see or experience her Dad anything differently than the man he used to be. Her diagnosis has become severe anxiety.
In the article, you have recommendations for adults to protect themselves:
How can parents say any of this to the child without being sued for parental alienation???
The Best Solution: Tanya is right to be concerned about parental alienation (when one parent turns the child against the other parent). And no parent should say these things to their child. Parental alienation is one of the most harmful things that a parent can do and has been shown to cause children to develop personality disorders.
Keep in mind that having a sociopathic parent is one of the greatest risk factors for Childhood Emotional Neglect. Sociopathic parents are not able to see or respond to, much less validate, their child’s feelings. This sets the child up to struggle with emotions through their adult life.
With your child you must walk a fine line: being realistic enough to validate her feelings and her confusion, but without saying anything negative. One way to do that is to talk about her father with compassion (even if you don’t feel it yourself).
Ask your child how she feels about things her sociopathic parent does, and then listen. Try using these explanations and questions with your child:
Be cautious about who you meet and don’t overlook the red flags in people. They are there for a reason!!! I do believe a big part of my problem was having low self-esteem. Sociopaths prey on the weak. They look for someone they can use, abuse, control, manipulate…so if you are like me, build yourself up, raise your standards and listen to your gut instincts before becoming too involved with people!!
The Best Solution: Early in a relationship you are seeing the other person’s best foot forward. Don’t ignore frightening, dangerous, or harmful behaviors directed toward you or others. Even small examples of those behaviors mean something. Make sure you know that you deserve to be treated well. If you’re in doubt of this at times, please see a therapist and build your self-confidence. Strong people repel sociopaths.
I think one of my siblings could be a sociopath and the way he treats people matches every one of the hallmarks. I wondered in the past sometimes. The bit about denial is very interesting because I think deep down that he really could be yet I have every justification and don’t think that I could ever accept it…. I believe he loves and ultimately doesn’t want to hurt people. It is very confusing actually.
The Best Solution: One of the most difficult things about dealing with a sociopath is accepting that you’re dealing with a sociopath. Especially when that sociopath is someone you love or want to love. If you see someone you care about behaving like a sociopath, don’t feel pressured to label them. Instead, quietly start taking steps to protect yourself, and watch and wait. Remember that the label is not as important as guarding and protecting yourself from being used, manipulated or hurt.
I believe both my father and older brother are sociopaths. They are both consumed with their own well being and viciously attack people for sport. Both have left a wake of broken lives behind them. I like to tell myself they are not evil, just sociopathic.
The Best Solution: Viciously attacking people “for sport” is, I believe, the one trait that sets sociopaths apart from borderline and narcissistic personalities. A person who enjoys hurting and manipulating others is not just emotionally dysregulated (borderline) or overly self-involved (narcissistic).
If your father is indeed sociopathic please be aware that you may have Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
That said, I like your approach of thinking of your father and brother as “not evil, just sociopathic.” Demonizing another person may feel good, but it does not help anything. Understanding that someone has a personality disorder is more realistic and does not interfere with your ability to protect yourself from them.
What do you do as a parent if you believe your teenage daughter is a sociopath or has a borderline personality disorder? I need advice, I’m trying to save my baby’s life and have no idea what I’m doing.
The Best Solution: You are not alone. Many parents find themselves in the same predicament. Of course, there are no easy answers, but there are two things you can do. First, try to get your child to a professional for evaluation and therapy. Second, talk to a professional yourself. The way you respond to your teen’s behaviors is crucial, and every day matters. Do not hesitate to engage a licensed mental health professional to help.
The world is filled with people who are struggling with difficult relationships. Labeling someone you’re struggling with as a sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder) can either cause great damage or help you understand what’s happening. This is not a label to apply lightly, so always take great care with it.
To learn more about how to cope with, and recover from, the effects of growing up with a sociopathic (or other emotionally absent) parent, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To get support, information, and help regarding personality disorders, visit the Personality Disorders Awareness Network.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Most psychotherapists’ first question to their clients: “What do you want to accomplish in therapy?”
Most Clients’ first answer: “I just want to be happy.”
Direct, succinct and clear, this answer cuts to the chase. It makes perfect sense, and we therapists fully concur. We want you to be happy too.
But this understandable request raises a far more complex question with which the greatest minds of all time have grappled:
What is the secret formula for making people happy?
Here are the short versions of a few great thinkers’ answers from the distant past.
Aristotle: Happiness depends on ourselves.
Buddha: Happiness results from mindful thought and action.
Socrates: Happiness comes from gaining rational control over your desires, and harmonizing the different parts of your soul.
Epicurus: To gain happiness, abstain from unnecessary desires to achieve inner tranquility; be content with simple things.
These are all powerful observations, of course. But now, lets fast forward to today’s world and talk about who struggles with happiness and why.
I have found that the people who struggle with the pursuit of happiness in a most unique way are those with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). It’s because their questions about their own happiness are tainted and complicated by self-blame.
Yes, it’s true. People with CEN actually blame themselves for not being happier.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than you may think. It happens when your parents ignore or discourage your feelings too much as they are raising you. Even if you have a fine childhood in every other way, you grow up feeling ignored or discouraged on some deep and harmful level. This has a profound effect on your life.
People with Childhood Emotional Neglect, having been raised to ignore their emotions and themselves, are highly prone to self-blame. CEN folks have a tendency to feel at fault for most everything that does not go right. Their own happiness is no exception.
And what do you think happens when you blame your lack of happiness on yourself? It erects a giant barrier between you and happiness. It makes you even less able to feel happy.
Current research on happiness tells us that material wealth has a surprisingly limited effect on human happiness. Three other factors have a much more powerful impact and they are factors that you can cultivate in your life.
If the four factors above seem overwhelming there is something important I want you to know. While none of them can be achieved suddenly they all can be achieved gradually. If you keep your mind on these 4 goals you can gradually make yourself happier in a deep, meaningful, and lasting way.
To learn more about achieving happiness by facing your self-blame, increasing your emotional intelligence, and using your emotions to enrich your relationships, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been rewritten and reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Have you ever wondered why we have emotions? In reality, our feelings are a more basic part of us than are our thoughts. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight said:
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
–Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight
Sure, scientists know. But most people do not! In fact, we have all kinds of ways of demeaning and belittling our own feelings and those of others. We call them sappy or sloppy or label them drama; we consider them insipid, tiresome, wimpy, sappy, or lame. These are some of the ways we convince ourselves and others that feelings are useless and in the way.
As a psychologist, I see a widespread lack of tolerance for feelings, which are a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative relationship with feelings of all kinds.
You may view feelings as a sign of weakness. You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.
Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.
Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger, when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and telling us to do things. Below are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions.
|Fear||Tells us to escape/self-preservation|
|Anger||Pushes us to fight back/self-protection|
|Love||Drives us to care for spouse, children, others|
|Passion||Motivates us to create and invent|
|Hurt||Pushes us to correct a situation|
|Sadness||Tells us we are losing something important|
|Compassion||Pushes us to help others|
|Disgust||Tells us to avoid something|
|Curiosity||Motivates us to explore and learn|
You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.
Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that make it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.
If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.
To learn more about the value of your emotions, how to identify them, manage them, express them, and use them as they were meant to be, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take the Free Emotional Neglect Test.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
Anything much. I don’t remember being talked to at all.
You have a right to your feelings, & the right to be heard & have them considered.
We believe in you.
How do you feel? What do you want? I will help you figure life out.
I love you. You are enough. I am proud of you.
There is nothing wrong with who you are.
Are you okay?
Do you want to talk about it? You look upset.
My love for you is unconditional.
There’s nothing in this world you cannot do. So stand up, shoulders back and go out there.
I wish they meant what they said.
That I was beautiful.
You can make mistakes and I will not think any less of you. You don’t have to be perfect.
Don’t be scared. It will be alright. Things will go wrong but it doesn’t matter. We’re all the same.
It’s OK to get angry/sad/mad.
Anything that wasn’t emotional abuse ……anything that didn’t leave me feeling worthless or that I had to please them for their attention.
Recently I posted this blog’s title question on my Facebook Page. I got many thoughtful and heartfelt responses. The quotes above are a direct sampling of them.
Why did I ask this particular question? Because in my experience as a psychologist, I have found that people are naturally far more able to think about and describe what they wish their parents had not done or said to them than what they wish their parents had done or said to them.
This distinction is also a fair description of the difference between abuse and neglect. Abuse is an action, whereas neglect is a lack of action. Our brains record and remember things that happened (like abuse), whereas our brains do not notice things that don’t happen (neglect).
Which seems worse: a parent who screams and yells at a child and calls him names? Or a parent who simply does not talk to or engage the child at all?
I have seen that failure to engage, notice and affirm a child does just as much damage to him or her as abuse, but the effects are different. An abused child will feel “hit,” verbally, physically or emotionally; whereas a neglected child will feel simply “at sea,” invalid and alone.
I see Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) as one of the greatest potential threats to future generations. It is difficult to stop something that is invisible, intangible, unnoticeable and unmemorable.
The subtlety of CEN gives it extra power. Many adults who grew up with an absence of emotionally attentive observations and questions like those listed above do not recognize the damage that this absence has done them. And even when they recognize it, they can’t quite believe or grasp it.
People with CEN vastly underestimate its effects on them. CEN is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
A few reviewers of my book, Running on Empty, have said that the recovery chapters are unrealistic because they are about helping readers give themselves the attention, validation, and structure that they did not get in childhood. But I know that people with CEN can make tremendous progress toward this. It requires effort and motivation, but it is very much possible. I know this because I have watched it happen many times.
All of the emotionally neglected people who offered those many requests in response to my question hold a secret key. A key to fulfilling their own needs; a key that offers healing, solace, and fuel.
And so on and so on, the answer lies within you. The beginning is self-awareness.
Because once you realize what you didn’t get, this tells you what you need. And once you know what you need, I hope you will also realize that you can get it. I hope that you will fight for what you didn’t get. Ask for help and accept support because you deserve it. And then you will have it to give to your own children.
To learn more about how to give yourself and your children what you never got yourself, see the books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
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.
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.
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?
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.
How do you know when you are having a feeling?
As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.
Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.
Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.
How do you know when you are having a feeling?
My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.
Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.
The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.
The Identifying and Naming Exercise
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question: “What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on: “What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.
Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?
Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.
We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.
Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.
Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.
Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn, and choose to feel.
You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.
And how it affects your day-to-day life now.
Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.
To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.
First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened.
Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:
Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.
This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.
In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
And now back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.
As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.
When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.
I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another. I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see the 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. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reprinted here with the permission of YourTango.
Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven. From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.
When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.
There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.
Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.
Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.
Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.
However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.
Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.
Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.
If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.
To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
Here are ten everyday habits that have been proven, in study after study, to make people happier. As you read the list, think about how often you practice each one:
A charity called Action for Happiness, in collaboration with another organization, Do Something Different, surveyed 5,000 people to determine how many people practice each of these habits on a regular basis.
Interestingly, in the sample of people surveyed, they found that one of the habits that makes the most powerful contribution to happiness was practiced the least:
Self-acceptance can be described as simply liking yourself. It requires forgiving yourself for your own mistakes and having compassion for yourself. Knowing who you are, your own strengths and weakness, and feeling deeply that, after it’s all added up, you are good enough.
In my 20 years of practicing psychology, two things have always been very clear to me. First, self-acceptance, or self-love, is not only a primary building block for happiness, but it’s also a requirement. And second, the huge majority of people who don’t have self-acceptance lack it for exactly one reason: they don’t know themselves.
And you can’t like and fully accept someone who you do not know.
In my experience, I’ve seen that the majority of people actually would like themselves, if they could actually see the full picture of who they are. But if your self-view is distorted, shallow or missing big pieces, then you are missing not only self-knowledge but also the opportunity for self-acceptance, the foundation for happiness.
Self-knowledge starts in childhood. Lucky children who are raised by parents who truly see them, notice their personalities, their preferences, their emotions, their needs, strengths, and weaknesses, learn who they are through their parents’ reactions to them. When this lucky child looks into his parents’ eyes, he sees his true self reflected there. Because his parent sees him and understands him realistically, he gets a realistic view of himself, and a true understanding of who he is.
Unfortunately, though, the world is full of parents who are too busy, too depressed, too addicted, too self-absorbed, too overwhelmed or too achievement-focused to actually see their children in this very real, truly meaningful way. Many of these parents are none of the above, but they simply are unaware of the emotions of themselves and their children, and end up emotionally neglecting them for that reason. Whatever the cause, these are families of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Many emotionally neglectful parents love their children and are good parents in many ways. But because they miss the “feeling” part of parenting, they simply lack the ability to fully see and know their child. Often, they are not able to do so because their own parents did not see or know them either. Typically, it’s no one’s fault, it just is.
Unfortunately, however, no matter the impediment on the part of the parent, the effect upon the child is the same. He grows up not seeing himself, not knowing himself. So how can he truly like himself? And how can he find true happiness?
If you’re not sure, or if you answered “No” to any of those three questions, it’s okay. Because this is one impediment to your happiness on which you can make great progress yourself.
And the answer is far simpler than you might think.
1. Pay attention to yourself.
2. Identify the things you don’t like about yourself. Are there areas in which you can self-improve? If you can change it to become a better person, set a goal to improve in that area. Self-improvement is likable. And trying is likable, even when you sometimes fail.
3. Have compassion for yourself. You are human, and you have faults and weaknesses, just like every other human being. Learn from every mistake you make, and give yourself credit for trying. Accept that you cannot be perfect.
4. Pay attention to what you feel, and why. Your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are. Take responsibility for your feelings. Judge yourself in the big picture, not for one small mistake, weakness or lapse.
Going through life without knowing yourself does plenty of harm to your ability to enjoy life. But since that lack of self-knowledge will chronically hold you back from self-acceptance, and therefore, happiness, it’s triply important to work on the Four Goals above.
After all, you have nothing to lose. And you have self-knowledge, self-love, and happiness to gain.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.