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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.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: What Your Parents Didn’t Say and Why It Matters

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.

What do you wish your parents had said to you? Answers Posted On Facebook

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’m sorry…

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.

How to Give Yourself What You Never Got

  1. If your parents didn’t talk to you, then talk more to yourself. Put yourself in situations where you will be required to talk.
  2. If your parents never told you that you were good enough, then you must resolve this question for yourself. Are you good enough? Listen to your answer, and trust it.
  3. If your parents never meant what they said, then you must pledge to yourself to always mean what you say. Always speak the truth, no matter how difficult it may be.
  4. If your parents never asked you if you were okay, then you must ask yourself this often, and listen carefully to your answer.
  5. If your parents didn’t notice when you were upset, then you must try to always notice what you are feeling and why.

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.

10 Question Quiz: Do You Need Better Boundaries With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

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.

6 Different Ways You May Feel About Your Parents 

  • You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  • You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  • You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  • You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  • You may get physically ill when you see them
  • You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

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.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent starting from an early age.
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

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?

10 Questions About Your Boundaries With Your Parents

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

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 Childhood Emotional Neglect Works and Why It Transfers Through Generations

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.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child in Adulthood

Marc

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.

Alise

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.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child

  1. Excessive self-sacrifice: If you grew up caring for others, you may not have learned how to care properly for yourself. You may not have learned something that everyone else knows: that your first and primary responsibility in your life is your own health and happiness. Unless you take care of yourself first, you will be depleted by your life.
  2. Regret: When the child becomes the parent, she grows up far too soon. This leaves you with a feeling of sadness and loss when you look back on your childhood. “I never got to be a kid,” you lament. You hear stories of other peoples’ childhoods, and you feel envious and sad. You are sentenced to a lifetime of regret.
  3. Co-Dependence: When you are programmed as a caretaker, it becomes difficult to step out of the caretaker role. This, in some ways, is a set-up. You are more likely to form friendships with or marry people who need care, and stay with them far too long. At your own expense.

Marc

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

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.

3 Steps for Marc, Alise, and You

  1. Put yourself first. Accept that you have needs, and pay attention to what they are. When you need healthy food, fun, rest, fresh air or alone time, take it.
  2. Replace the joy you missed as a child by finding it now. You didn’t get to run free through the neighborhood with your friends, or be doted on by two caring parents? Maybe you didn’t learn the feeling of emotional freedom? Learn it now. Discover what you love, and pursue it. Seek joy, and know that you’ve earned yours.
  3. Stop over-caring for those around you. Life is short, and you are living yours for others. This is your time to turn your powerful caring skills toward yourself.

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.

2 Kinds of Lonely Feelings and How to Cope With Them

It was Thanksgiving, twenty-some years ago, and I was in graduate school. I decided not to go home to visit my family that year. Unexpectedly, my close friend and roommate told me that she was going to spend the holiday at her fiancé’s house in another city.

“Come with me,” she said. “It will be fun!” I knew that it would be, but somehow, I just didn’t feel like it. “No, I’ll be okay. I feel like being alone,” I assured her.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I got up in an empty house, and instantly knew I had made a mistake. The house felt empty, and so did I. I walked into the empty kitchen, and filled an empty cup with coffee. I sat down with an empty thud, and stared down at the empty table.

Thus began one of the loneliest days of my life.

Almost everyone feels lonely sometimes. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition. Few are so surrounded by people at all times that they never feel left on their own.

But it does seem that loneliness is becoming a serious problem that threatens us all. New research from the American Psychological Association has established that far more people are living alone than was true in the past. New studies also show that loneliness can significantly harm your health, and decrease the length of your life.

This new research suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to the spread of “alone.” We need to take a closer look at “alone,” and “lonely.” What do they mean? How do they feel? Can we prevent ourselves from experiencing them?

First I would like to assert this one vital point: You needn’t be alone to be lonely. And you can easily be alone, and not be lonely. In other words, “lonely” is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Actually, it’s a feeling; a feeling that visits some folks more than others.

The 2 Kinds of Loneliness

1.  The kind you feel when you are actually alone. This “alone” is situational. It happens when you acutely recognize that there are no people with you. You may feel this when, for example, you weren’t invited to a party, or you just moved and haven’t made any friends yet, or are sitting at home alone on a Saturday night. This alone is painful, and difficult to tolerate. But it goes away when people arrive.

2. The kind that’s more lonesome than being alone. You can feel this kind of loneliness anywhere, even when surrounded by people. This “lonely” can happen when you are actually alone. But it can also happen when you are in the company of people who genuinely love and care about you. This type of loneliness can follow you wherever you go, and it often does. This loneliness can come at any time, under any circumstances. In fact, it may be so woven into the fabric of your life that you feel it all the time. It’s a feeling that can become a part of your everyday experience of yourself and your life.

This kind of loneliness comes from your childhood. It comes from growing up in a household where the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are ignored or squelched by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

Having your feelings ignored or discouraged while your brain is developing sends you a deeply-felt, never-understood message:

You are alone in this world.

This is one of the powerful messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And it does not leave you simply because you grow up. It stays there, visiting at will, and often when you least expect it.

The Solution to the Loneliest Lonely

The amazing thing about CEN is that its solution is the exact opposite of its cause.

As a child, your emotions were squelched or regarded as “nothing.” So now, you must encourage your own feelings, and make a choice to treat them as “something.”

Your walled off emotions are keeping you walled off from the people who could be occupying your heart and mind right now. Your walled off feelings represent your true self, and they have waited for you long enough.

When you begin to pay attention to them, you are paying attention to your true self. When you listen to them and take them seriously, you are listening to yourself, and taking yourself seriously.

Once you become aware of your CEN, and how it’s affecting you, you can begin to use your emotions in a way that connects you to people. It can literally change the way you feel inside, and the way you live your life.

You can begin by putting words to all of the emotions that go into “lonely” for you. Here is what I felt that day, some 20-odd years ago:

Sad

Singular

Rejected

Empty

Lost

Isolated

Bereft

Unloved

Uncared-for

On my own

On the outside

I now understand that I wasn’t rejected by others that day. No. I was rejecting myself.  I now know that taking down the wall that your child self built is one of the most important things you can do in your life. And beginning to use your emotions to connect with others in a new way is the icing on the cake.

It does take work and perseverance, but it will change you for the better in significant ways. You can defeat your Type 2 Lonely. You can take this on, and win, I assure you. 

On your mark. Get set. Go.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn more about how to use your emotions in a new way to connect with the central people in your life, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article was initially posted on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

My Dear Black Sheep, 3 Things You Must Know

I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed. 

In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.

Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.

My Dear Black Sheep

Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:

First, Research Supports You

First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.

But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.

They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.

If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.

Imagine how it affected you.

Second, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Affects You

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.

Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.

The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.

Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.

You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.

The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.

So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?

Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.

A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.

And Third, You Were Chosen

You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.

Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.

Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.

But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.

So embrace your difference, for it is your power.

And please know this:

You were chosen for a reason.

You are real.

You are valid.

You matter.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.

Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Thanksgiving Survival Tips

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.

It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.

The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.

If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving? 

5 CEN Tips for Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Make sure that you have one person with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect, and knows what you have been through. A spouse, sibling or trusted friend can give you great strength at the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: During the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger or disappointment to name a few. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them, and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strength: Growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you uncommonly strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for.
  5. Especially focus on self-care: Get some exercise, wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are OK, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.

For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.

Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.

 And you’re all right.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens how it affects you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

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