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How to Give Your Children What They Need Emotionally

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.

The 3 Essential Emotion Skills for Parenting:

  1. The parent feels an emotional connection to the child
  2. The parent pays attention to the child and sees the child as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of the parent, a possession, or a burden.
  3. Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional needs.

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

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.

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

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?

Continue reading

How Child Abuse and Neglect Plant the Seeds of Racism in Our Children

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.

The Comment (Slightly Edited)

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.

Anger

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.

How You Can Help Break the Cycle

  1. Be aware of your own childhood-based anger. If you grew up ignored or in any way abused, you do have anger about it. And it’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy.
  2. Listen to the messages of your own anger. What’s it trying to protect you from now? Is it really people who are different from you? Or is your anger actually trying to protect you from the people who, for whatever reason, failed to protect you or nurture you, or even actually harmed you, as a child?
  3. Work toward the courageous act of directing your anger where it truly belongs. When your anger goes toward its true target, it will at first feel painful and scary. But this is a huge step toward your own psychological and emotional health. Your tremendous courage will pay off for yourself and for your children.

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.

4 Ways You May Be Keeping Yourself Running On Empty

Julie

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

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.

4 Ways to Feel Empty

  • Numbness: This involves walking through your life with little emotion. You know you should feel more joy, more excitement, more love; and also more sadness, and perhaps more grief. You’re not sure why, but those feelings are just not quite there.
  • A physical ache: Almost no one feels this all the time. But you may at times feel an emptiness somewhere in your body. In your belly, throat, or head for example. A deep, painful ache that’s difficult to name, and seems to come from nowhere.
  • A feeling of being lost and alone: Surrounded by people, and yet lonely. Lots of places to be, and yet lost. Having people around doesn’t mean you feel that you belong with them. Knowing that you love them doesn’t mean that you can feel it.
  • Over-taxed and joyless: So many commitments and not enough of them are to yourself. You’re there for everyone else’s needs, but what about your own?

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.

4 Ways You May Be Keeping Yourself Running On Empty

  1. By Being Too Externally Focused: It’s natural in today’s world to be caught up with what’s outside of you: your house, your job, your car, successes, failures, sports, and the weather. Truly, those are all good things. They will provide for you, entertain you, and give you topics at dinner. But they will not fill you up.
  2. By Ignoring What Emotionally Fills You: Part of being too externally focused is that you may end up not seeing what’s closest to you: You and the people who love you. You may, for example, be so busy with your many commitments that you have little time to enjoy yourself with your family or children. In fact, you may not find yourself enjoying much of anything. Yet you may seldom notice that your joy is missing.
  3. By Poor Self-Care: Self-care is a way of nurturing yourself. Do you deserve to be healthy? Are you worth the time it takes to buy and prepare healthy food? To plan a family vacation so that you can enjoy your family’s company and make happy memories? Is it more important that you start another project or that you be aware of your own needs, and try to fill them?
  4. By Seeking Fulfillment in All the Wrong Places: There are many tempting ways to fill yourself, none of which will work: activity, alcohol, recognition, admiration, food, shopping, gambling, social media, money, drugs, and success are just a few.

Julie

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

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 to Know if You Experienced Emotional Abuse or Neglect as a Child

What is Childhood Emotional Abuse?

Jack

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.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Sadie

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.

Jack

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.

Sadie

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.

5 Tips For Healing the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or Abuse

  1. Accept that your childhood lives within you. There’s a legitimate reason why you’re not happier. It’s your childhood.
  2. The effects of the neglect are subtle and hide beneath the abuse. So it’s hard to see the neglect until you’ve addressed the abuse, which is far more obvious, visible, and memorable. It helps to work on the effects of the abuse first.
  3. If you grew up with emotional abuse, it’s important to work with a trained therapist. Almost everyone who experienced childhood abuse of any kind, in any amount, needs therapy to heal.
  4. If your childhood experience was pure Emotional Neglect, you may also benefit from therapy. But you may also be able to address many aspects of the effects on your own.
  5. Emotionally abused, neglected, or both: a huge step in your recovery involves learning to recognize, own, accept and express your feelings, and realizing why they matter.

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.

When Both Members of a Couple Have Childhood Emotional Neglect

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?

Jason and Betsy

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.

The 5 Struggles of the Double CEN Couple

You are divided by your walls.

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.

You each lack the emotion skills to understand what’s really going on.

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.

Your interactions are rife with misinterpretations.

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.

Over time, you end up increasingly distant from each other.

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.

Even if you love each other, it isn’t enough.

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.

The 5 Special Challenges of Adult Children of Permissive Parents

Permissive parents are difficult to spot. Many appear to be great parents to an observer, and even to the children who are raised by them. Even after those children grow up, it still appears that way.

Why? Because permissive parents are often very loving. They may provide a childhood that seems ideal to their children after they grow up.

Permissive parenting is a type of camouflage. It’s a case of the inadequate parent disguised as adequate; the conflict-avoidant parent disguised as kind.

Not that permissive parents purposely disguise themselves. Quite the opposite. In fact, most permissive parents really love their children and want to do right by them. Yet they inadvertently fail their children in the most important way.

The Permissive Parent: This is the “Don’t worry, be happy”  parent. This parent avoids conflict with the child. They view themselves and behave, more like a friend than a parent. They consult with the child on decisions that they should be making in their role as a parent. They don’t provide enough structure to the child or impose consequences when appropriate.

In short, by failing to perform the difficult role as a parent they over-empower the child. This may feel wonderful to the child but is, in fact, a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Psychologist Diana Baumrind was the first to describe the Permissive Parent way back in 1966. Here are Diana Baumrind’s thoughts about this type of parent:

“She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior. She allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”

If you weren’t raised by permissive parents, as you’re reading this you may be feeling envious of the child who was. After all, what child wouldn’t love to have that kind of freedom from responsibility and consequences?

But that kind of freedom has a dark underside. In fact, those raised by permissive parents face a particular set of challenges in adulthood.

The 5 Special Challenges of the Adult Child of Permissive Parents:

  1. Difficulties with self-discipline: We are not born with self-discipline. Instead, we learn it by internalizing the structure that our parents provide us growing up. If your parents didn’t enforce enough rules and limits and structure when you were growing up, then you’ll be far more likely to struggle with this as an adult. Making yourself exercise, eat well, go to bed, get up, and other aspects of self-control can be difficult when you didn’t learn it well enough as a child.
  2. Emotion management: By not challenging the child enough, permissive parents inadvertently miss out on lots of opportunities to teach their children how to manage their emotions. When a parent says, “No” and the child cries, this is a valuable teaching moment. Just like self-discipline, if you miss these “emotion lessons” growing up, you may struggle later on to know how to manage your feelings.
  3. Tolerance for conflict: Many permissive families are short on something that is a key part of life: conflict. Conflict is a necessary part of relationships, business, friendships, and marriage. The better you are at handling anger and disagreement, the better you will do in life. When you grow up in a conflict-avoidant household, you don’t have the opportunity to learn these skills.
  4. Perseverance and motivation for tasks that are difficult or boring: When the child of the permissive parent gets bored, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” When the child struggles with something that’s difficult, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” The child as an adult, when faced with something difficult or boring says to himself, “That’s OK,” and moves on to something else.
  5. Self-blame: I know what the child of the permissive parent says to himself because I’ve heard it over and over in my office. “I’m weak,” “I have no willpower,” “I don’t want to rock the boat,” “I don’t want to make anyone angry,” “I’m lazy.” And here’s the kicker that underlies them all, “My childhood was fine. I had great parents. So why am I struggling so much?”

Deep down, the adult child of permissive parents feels flawed. With no explanation for your struggles, you assume there is something wrong with you.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this. Recognize the source of your struggles. Recognize that it’s probably not your parents’ fault since they most likely thought they were showing you love and care by not making you angry or setting limits. They just wanted a happy child. They had no idea that they were emotionally neglecting you.

Know that all of these skills are learnable.

If you’re reading this blog and thinking you might be a permissive parent yourself, don’t despair. It’s not your fault! We all raise our children the way we ourselves were raised unless we consciously override it. And you can!

To find out more about permissive parenting, how to acquire the skills you missed, and how to make sure you don’t raise your children this way, see the books, Running on Empty, and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.

How Covid-19 Social Distancing Recreates Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Just Letting You Know: On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.

As the psychologist who literally wrote the book on Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have heard thousands of people describe what it was like for them to grow up in a family that avoided talking about meaningful or emotional topics, and who treated feelings as irrelevant or burdensome.

In case your reaction to the paragraph above was, “What’s the big deal about that,” I will take a moment to explain.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Your emotions are biologically wired into you for a reason. They go far beyond just the fight-or-flight mechanism. They are also an expression of your deepest self. Your feelings tell you what you like, love, enjoy, dislike, abhor, want and need, what harms you, and much, much more. Your emotions are like your rudder; they ground you and direct you. They also connect you.

When, as a child, your family is generally uncomfortable with the vital resource of emotions embodied in each of its members, when your family treats your feelings as if they do not exist or are a burden, you learn to do the opposite of what is healthy.

You learn to push your feelings away and wall them off. You learn to view them as a problem instead of the solution they are meant to be. You grow up separated from the deepest expression of who you are.

Then, as an adult, instead of listening to your gut, you ignore it. Instead of knowing what you want, you ignore it. Instead of seeking what you need, you ignore it. On and on and on, you miss the cues that should be your roots, your rudder, and your meaning.

You are literally living your life without taking your own feelings into account. But that does not mean that they are gone.

3 Feelings That Take Root in the CEN Child and Persist in the CEN Adult

  • Alone. The lack of meaningful communication and emotional support and validation communicates to you, the child, that you are alone in the world. The CEN child feels, on some deep level, that they are on their own. Then, as an adult, you find it hard to ask for help or to accept it; deep down you feel something lacking in your friendships and relationships.
  • Insecure. Being taught to literally ignore yourself takes away your ability to learn who you are and what you’re made of. This leaves you feeling unmoored and unprepared as a child. What’s going to happen next? Will I be ready for it? Can I handle it? Will I have help? The CEN child feels unprepared and unsure far too often, and this feeling revisits you often as an adult.   
  • Lost. Separated from your true rudder, feeling alone in the world, having little to rely on and feeling deeply insecure, you go through your childhood feeling somewhat adrift and at sea. As an adult, you find it easier to go where the tide takes you rather than making confident and clear decisions for yourself.

The Power of Core Feelings

Core Feelings: The feelings you had most often as a child. They can be positive feelings or negative ones. They are the feelings you had so often as a kid that they have become a part of who you are. They reside in your body, with or without your awareness of them.

Every adult alive has brought feelings forward from their childhood, whether they realize it or not. The vast majority of emotionally neglected children are easily revisited by the alone, insecure, and lost feelings they felt so often as kids. These 3 emotions simmer under the surface of their adult lives, easily touched off by current events that recreate them in some vague way.

Enter the Covid-19 Epidemic. Enter quarantines, sheltering-in-place, and social distancing.

Hello, Core Feelings.

How Covid-19 Social Distancing Recreates Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

I hope that as you read this you are already thinking about how the feelings of your own childhood may be touched off by our current situation. And now I’m going to give you some help with that.

First, I want you to know that most everyone is feeling these 3 feelings during this extraordinary time, even those who did not grow up with CEN.

Alone: Social distancing is keeping the population physically isolated from each other, and so most people are naturally feeling alone right now. But when “alone” is your core feeling, this situation returns you back there in an achy sort of way. The aloneness you naturally feel now as an adult gets combined with the aloneness you felt as a child and you feel it with extra power and pain.

Insecure: Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow and in the future, and so everyone’s feeling of security is threatened right now. But if you were instilled with a deep sense of insecurity as a child, you are more at risk of doubting yourself and your ability to handle whatever is to come. You may be feeling some anxiety and wondering how — and if — you will be able to cope.

Lost: Just as it happened for you as a child, your feelings of aloneness and insecurity threaten to undermine the roots you have planted for yourself. Since this feeling has been with you for so very long you are vulnerable to helplessness and hopelessness about finding your way through this worldwide crisis.

What To Do

  1. Know that every situation that taps your core feelings is an opportunity for growth. This one is no exception.
  2. Becoming aware of your core feelings is one giant step toward your emotional health and strength, and also toward healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now is your chance to do just that.
  3. As you go through this epidemic pay attention. Tune in to your body and make an effort to notice when you are feeling alone, insecure or lost. When you do, focus on that feeling and ask yourself, “How much of this feeling is about now, and how much is about the past?” Trying to sort this out is a key part of processing an old feeling and that takes away some of its power over you.
  4. Us your brain to process the feeling. Why did you feel this as a child? Why do you feel it now? Is the intensity of the feeling in keeping with the intensity of the situation now? How often have you felt this feeling during your life? How has it affected your choices, your actions, your confidence in yourself?

Even though you may feel alone, insecure, or lost right now, please know that you are not. Your feelings are expressions of your emotional truth but they are not necessarily a reflection of external reality.

When you let your feelings run rampant on their own, you are at their mercy.

When you own them, consider them, and process them, you can put the past where it belongs, choose the emotions that are helpful, and put the rest in their place.

You can use this pandemic to become more authentic. You can claim your power to shape your choices, your future, and your life by taking this chance to face your feelings and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings, process them, and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join an online community of CEN people going through the healing steps together see the Fuel Up For Life Program.

To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.

 

Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

I have often talked about the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN on a marriage. It’s somewhat like an invisible barrier that blocks spouse from spouse, holding the two emotionally apart, creating and feeding distance and a deep sense of being alone.

But since Childhood Emotional Neglect can be so difficult to pinpoint in your own, or your partner’s, history, it’s not easy to know if it’s playing a part in your marriage.

3 Signs of Emotional Neglect in Your Marriage

  • Fighting

Why is the lack of fighting a potential sign of Emotional Neglect? Strangely enough, often it’s the couples who fight the least who are in the most trouble. This is because fighting requires a willingness to challenge each other, an ability to tolerate anger (your own and your partner’s), and some element of emotional connection.

Emotional connection, the opposite of Emotional Neglect, is not made up solely of positive feelings like warmth, affection, and love. It also requires an ability to tolerate conflict with each other, and a mutual trust that you, as a couple, can get angry and upset, share difficult words, and come through to the other side with your relationship intact.

A willingness to fight is a willingness to share painful emotions. And that’s a sign of emotional connection.

  • Loneliness

There is no feeling of loneliness worse than that experienced inside of a relationship. It feels terrible to feel alone when you’re with someone. And loneliness is one of the greatest warning signs of an emotionally neglectful couple.

You can have a relationship that seems great, with a partner who has a good sense of humor, common interests, a good job, and kind nature, but still feel alone.

This happens when your relationship with your partner is good on the surface but lacks emotional substance. Emotional connection is the foundation of a relationship. When it’s weak, the relationship has an emptiness to it. It can take two people years to see past their good surface connection and realize what is missing underneath.

  • Support

Do you find yourself using friends or family to “fill in” for your spouse when you need support? If so, is it because your spouse isn’t there? Because she often says the wrong thing? Because you’re not sure he’ll care?

In a close, connected, non-neglectful marriage, your spouse will be the first person you want to tell when things go wrong or when something great happens.

One key question to ask yourself is: Does she want to be the first person? If you don’t think so, this is a sign of other problems in your marriage. I encourage you to find a skilled couple’s therapist and convince your partner to go with you.

If you think your mate does want to be your go-to person, then the problem may be simply that he doesn’t know how to be that person for you. This is a matter of skills, and the good news is that these skills can be learned.

Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

  • Do your best to identify, as specifically as possible, the type of Emotional Neglect in your relationship. If needed, talk to a friend or therapist for help sorting it out. Put the problem into words for yourself so that you’ll be able to explain it to your partner when you’re ready.
  • Think about your own contribution to the problem. How emotionally aware and skilled are you? Might you be partially responsible? What are you willing to do to fix this?
  • Find a way to tell your partner that there is a problem. Do this with full awareness of the significance of your message. This means taking great care with the way you express it. Use words like:

“I’m happy in our relationship in some very important ways, but yet it feels like something is missing.”

“I read an article about relationships that struck a chord with me. Will you read it for me, and let me know if you have a reaction to it too?”

“Did you know that not fighting in a relationship is not necessarily a good thing?”

“I love you so much, and I want us to be even closer. Will you work on this with me?”

  • No matter how your partner responds, start working on beefing up your own emotional skills. The more you understand your own feelings and are able to identify, name, share, tolerate and work through them, the better equipped you’ll be to provide emotional connection for your partner.

To learn how to build your emotion skills see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to share them in your marriage to build emotional intimacy see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to a Child

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.

The 3 Basic Emotional Needs of Children

  • Emotional Response: Children need to experience their parents noticing their feelings. “You look sad,” “I know you are angry right now,” “I see how disappointed you are,” are examples of emotional response. This communicates to the child that their feelings are real and that other people can see them and, perhaps most importantly, that they matter.
  • Emotional Validation: Children need to be assured that their feelings make sense. “Of course you feel sad, I’m sad about this too,” “I understand why you are angry right now, it’s because_____,” or “It makes sense that you feel disappointed. It’s so disappointing when something you were excited about doesn’t work out.” This communicates to the child that they live in reality and this deepest expression of who they are is understandable to others.
  • Emotional Education: Children will have emotions throughout their entire lives, but they are not born understanding emotions and how they work. If they are to learn, they must be taught by their parents. “You look sad and I understand why. Let’s sit and talk about this together,” “Let’s sort through your angry feelings and how we can help you feel better about this,” “Feeling disappointed is a natural response to this situation and it’s OK to feel that way. Sometimes you just have to wait it out and it will fade. In the meantime, let’s think about what else could be set up to look forward to because that will help too.”

Emotional Abandonment

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.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to the Child

  1. Lack of Response: Children feel their emotions in a raw sort of way, in many ways even more intensely than adults. Children’s feelings are experienced as a powerful force as their bodies try to tell them what they want and need. When your parents do not respond to them enough the child feels a sense of abandonment from their parent. A gulf appears between them in which the child feels alone.
  2. Lack of Validation: Children do not know whether their emotions make sense or where they come from. If their feelings are not expressly understood by their parents, they are left with the impression that their feelings are not understandable and perhaps do not make sense to others. This leaves them feeling not just not validated but not valid. They will go through their lives feeling less-than.
  3. Lack of Emotional Education: Children are naturally in the dark about the world of emotions. Where they come from, what they mean, how to read and interpret them and how to use them. If they are not taught by their parents how to understand, manage, and interpret the world of feelings in themselves and others, they grow up lacking emotional intelligence, which has been shown by research to be a key factor in building a successful personal and work life in adulthood. The uneducated child feels at sea, alone and abandoned in the emotional world.

What to Do if You Experienced Emotional Abandonment as a Child

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.

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