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How To Overcome Abandonment Issues From Childhood

Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment. Legions of people are wondering how to overcome abandonment issues from childhood.

Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.

Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. 

Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.

If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.

Parental Abandonment

Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.

It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”

The 3 Main Issues Of The Abandoned Child

  1. Trusting others: When your parent abandons you, he or she is violating your most basic human need, which is to have parents who value and enjoy you. If the one who is meant to love and care for you the most in this world leaves you, it becomes very difficult to believe that anyone and everyone who becomes important to you will not do the same. You may end up living your life constantly on-guard for the possibility of being abandoned again. It’s hard to trust that your partner, friend or loved one has your best interests in mind. This holds you back from forming rich, deep, trusting relationships.
  2. Guilt and shame: All abandoned children are deeply mystified about why their parents left them. Many struggle with the fact that there is no good explanation because, let’s face it, apart from death there is no good reason for a parent to leave a child. In the absence of a logical explanation, the child naturally tends to blame herself. This sets up a pattern of feeling deeply responsible for her parent’s choice to leave her. The abandoned child often grows up to struggle with guilt and shame.
  3. Self-worth: “How could my own parent leave me?” the abandoned child wonders. Being left by the one who brought you into this world naturally makes you wonder what is wrong with you. The abandoned child is set up to never feel good enough. Deeply, painfully, he feels unworthy of true love and commitment.

Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.

Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.

Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.

Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.

How To Overcome Abandonment Issues From Childhood

Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.

By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.

If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.

It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.

To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!

Love and Wealth are Not Enough

What’s the most important ingredient for a happy life?

Philosophers, clergy, psychologists and researchers of all kinds have offered opinions on this question over the last five decades. Some say wealth, some say religion. Still others say family is the most important thing.

But one factor emerges over and over in study after study as a primary ingredient which must be present in childhood to produce a happy, healthy and well-adjusted adult. That factor is emotional attachment, warmth and care. In a word, love.

This factor was recently studied very specifically by Harvard researchers (Vaillant, 2012) who wanted to compare the effects of childhood financial wealth with childhood warmth. By following over 200 men (yes, only men) over an extended period of 70+ years, they were able to identify clear patterns. They saw that childhood financial wealth has little to do with adult success, satisfaction and adjustment. And that parental warmth and care throughout childhood is a much more powerful contributor.

Some may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t virtually all parents automatically love their children?”

In my years as a psychologist, I have seen for myself that money is not enough to raise a healthy child. But I’ve also seen that love is not enough. At least not the generic, “I love you because you’re my child” kind of love.Continue reading

Got Issues? It’s All Your Parents’ Fault

Everything that’s wrong in your life is the fault of your parents. Whatever your struggles, your mistakes and your pain, you are not to blame. You are an innocent victim of those who raised you.

At least that’s the way some folks interpret my definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

The definition of CEN: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. People who grow up this way go forward into adulthood out of touch with their own emotions, feeling empty, alone and disconnected, and are baffled about what is wrong with them.

Here’s a comment that was posted on Ten Steps to Learn Self-Discipline:

Are you saying that when a parent fails to teach their children this skill well enough, that parent is guilty of Childhood Emotional Neglect? This article was insulting.

I’ve received many such comments. They point to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.

Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they are as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”Continue reading

What No One Tells You About Personality Disorders

16-year-old Bruce is feeling lonely and bored on this Saturday. After buying a soda and candy bar for breakfast at the convenience store, he stops by his only friend Joe’s house to hang out. A couple of hours later, he starts to feel annoyed by Joe’s “childish” sense of humor. After several irritating jokes from Joe, Bruce loses his temper. “Grow up you loser. You’re boring,” he blurts suddenly on his way out the door, leaving a surprised and hurt Joe behind him.

Bruce walks slowly around the neighborhood, bored again. “Maybe I should go home and play my guitar,” he thinks. But then realizes that his mom may be up by now, and he doesn’t want to run into her. No telling what mood she might be in. So he decides to try to sneak in and up to his room by going in the back door. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

“Where the h—  have you been you  lazy little punk?!” his mother yells from the kitchen when she hears his footsteps. Bruce turns on his heel and goes straight back out the door. Back to Joe’s house, he knocks on the door, walks in and says, “What’s up?” as if this morning’s hurtful insult never happened.Continue reading

9 Steps to Reach Your Emotionally Neglected Spouse

My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused, overwhelmed or frustrated every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Some vital ingredient is missing.

These are complaints which I have heard many times. Almost always from folks who are in a relationship with someone who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when your parents communicate this subtle but powerful message:

Your feelings don’t matter. 

Children who live in such households naturally adapt by walling off their emotions so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.  Since these children’s emotions are squelched, they miss out on the opportunity to learn some vital life skills: how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express emotions.

If your spouse grew up with CEN, he may have difficulty tolerating conflict, expressing his needs, and emotionally connecting with you. No matter how much you love each other, you may feel a great chasm lies between you. No matter how long you’ve been together, you may feel inexplicably alone.Continue reading

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Real People, Real Stories

Some of the most powerful words are those of real people sharing their stories. Some of the quotes below were emailed to me (with permission to share), and some were posted as comments on my website. Here is a sampling of the real words of people who grew up with CEN.

The CEN Childhood

The first 16 years of my life that my family lived together, I can’t remember a single meaningful or real communication that occurred between any of us in that time.

My feelings and emotions were the last things on my parents’ minds. The best they could do was provide a home with basic amenities.

I honestly don’t remember my parents much at all, though both are still alive and married today.

I never heard the phrase “I love you.”  There was no one to talk to, no one who cared. I brought myself up in every sense of the word.

I remember the intense indescribable pain that I felt as a young child when my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the simple child affection I wanted to give.Continue reading

Raised By A Narcissist

Few phrases sum up the idea of narcissism better than:

It’s all about me. 

But the most defining feature of a person with narcissism is actually not his self-involvement. It’s his deeply concealed fear of being exposed as inadequate.

Underneath the bluster and arrogance of the narcissist lies a hurt and fragile core. Deep down, narcissists fear others will see that they are not special or superior (they are just human beings after all), so many of their grandiose behaviors are designed to prevent that exposure. Surprisingly, this deeply buried vulnerability is the trait that can do the greatest damage to the narcissist’s child.

What is it like to grow up with a narcissistic parent? Meet Lucy, who was raised by a narcissistic father.

The Child

Lucy 

Lucy grew up knowing that she was her father’s favorite. A straight-A student and accomplished athlete, she made sure to never let him down by making a B or dropping a ball in a game, like her brother did. Lucy noticed early that she was special in her father’s eyes. She saw how enraged and embarrassed her father was when her older brother got in trouble at school, and she made sure never to make him feel that way. 

Lucy made many decisions in her life that were designed to please her father. She felt that if she let him down he would stop loving her, so she followed in his footsteps to take over his dry cleaning business. Lucy never thought about what she herself wanted as a career because her father made it clear to her from birth that he had already set up her life for her. 

At age 23, Lucy was feeling bored behind the counter of the dry-cleaner and yearned to go back to college and get an MBA. It took her months to gather the nerve to tell her father her plan. When she did, he was enraged. “I’ve given you everything, and this is how you repay me? You have no idea what you’re doing. When you’re broke and miserable, don’t come to me for help.” 

From that point on, Lucy’s father treated her coldly, as if he no longer loved her. She was no longer the apple of his eye. Her brother finally got his turn as the favorite, and Lucy was on her own. 

The Parent

The narcissistic parent is not able to see his child as a separate person. The child is an extension of himself; an object to deliver admiration, but also capable of bringing shame. These parents often choose one child who they feel most likely to reflect positively upon them and lavish favoritism upon that child, as Lucy’s father did. This leaves the other children jockeying for attention and love.

Since the narcissist’s child is seen as an extension of the parent, any normal failure, struggle, or flaw of a the child poses a threat to the narcissist of being exposed as imperfect. So he keeps a tight rein upon the children, especially the favored one, out of fear of being exposed. When any child, particularly the chosen one, expresses his own wants, feelings or needs, this makes the parent feel vulnerable. The child is likely to meet with harsh rejection.

The Result

Throughout childhood, Lucy’s own identity was neglected while she toiled to be the perfect child to protect her father’s vulnerable core from exposure. This is one of the many ways in which Childhood Emotional Neglect can happen. As an adult, Lucy will struggle to define her own wants and needs. In fact she may feel selfish for simply having wants and needs. As an adult, that long ago child will be trapped in her father’s mirror, yearning for his lost love and approval.

Healing 

  1. Separate Yourself:  Your parent probably gave you what he/she could, but it was limited, and some of it was painful. If you need distance from your narcissistic parent, take it. The more you can do so with compassion for his/her deeply buried vulnerability, the better.
  2. Discover yourself: You are behind on discovering who you are. As an adult, you now have to define yourself and what you want. Start paying attention to your feelings, wants and needs in a way that your parents never could.
  3. Lose the guilt: This is not your fault. You are not responsible for your parent’s needs and issues. But you are now responsible for your own healing. Now is the time for you to stop feeling guilty and take control of your life.
  4. Seek help:  Enlist the support and guidance of an experienced therapist. Follow the recovery steps set out in Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Or both.

Today, for your healing and for yourself, it’s your turn. Right here, right now:

It’s all about you.

CEN can be invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn much more about how to deal with your narcissistic or self-centered parent, especially how to protect yourself in a way that won’t make you feel guilty, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

How Fathers Can Change the World One Child at a Time

It is a well-known fact that the style of parenting that we received as children automatically repeats itself in our own parenting. Unless we consciously make a decision to parent differently and work hard to do so, we will simply repeat the negative patterns of our parents. 

— Quote from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

Father’s Day is meant to be a positive, happy holiday. It’s an opportunity to honor our fathers for all that they have done for us. After all, they gave us life. They worked to feed and clothe us. They cared for us and raised us. Virtually all parents deserve appreciation for the positive things that they have done for the world, simply by nurturing children.

But in reality, parenting is far more complicated than these holidays want us to admit. Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. There are an infinite number of ways to parent a child wrong, and if we allow ourselves to truly contemplate that, it is scary indeed.

Let’s use the example of Lily to see three different parenting styles, how they look in action in childhood, and how they play out in that child’s adult life.

Lily

Two-year-old Lily has a head full of dark, silky hair and big brown eyes. She has a happy, energetic nature, especially in the mornings. Lily sits in her high chair while her parents are at the kitchen table eating breakfast. In front of Lily, on the tray of her high chair, is a selection of cheese cubes and pieces of banana, all cut to the exact right size for her to pick up and pop into her mouth. On this morning, however, Lily is feeling particularly exuberant. She is trying to get her parents’ attention by being silly.

“Cheese pweeze!” she yells as she picks up a cheese cube and squeezes it until it smashes into a blob which she then drops back on her tray. With her eye on her father, who is looking at the TV, she picks up another cube. “Cheese pweeze!” she yells again.

This scenario, or one very similar, has played out in the household of almost every toddler in the world. There is nothing remarkable or unique about it. However, what makes this scene matter is Lily’s parents’ response to their toddler’s age-appropriate behavior on this morning. Let’s take a look at the various response options for Lily’s parents, and how those responses might affect Lily now and in the future.

Style 1Lily’s father senses that Lily is trying to get her parents’ attention. Glancing at his wife, he realizes she is exhausted, absorbed in the newspaper, and not aware of Lily’s antics. With laughter in his eyes at his daughter’s mischievousness, he stands up, walks over to Lily and says, “What are you doing young lady? Cheese is to eat, not to play with.” He hands Lily a piece of cheese and watches to ensure that she doesn’t squish it. Lily sees her father’s expression and senses that he thinks that she is cute and silly, but also that he means business. Lily is not to squish the cheese. She begins to eat it.

Style 2: Lily’s mother is engrossed in her television show. She ignores Lily for a while, hoping that she will stop her bad behavior if she doesn’t get attention for it. However, Lily only escalates, yelling “Cheese pweeze!” even louder, over and over. Finally, Mom looks over and sees a pile of squished cheese and banana on the tray of the high chair. “What the hell are you doing?!” she yells loudly, startling Lily. She runs over, snatches Lily from her chair and places her roughly on the floor. “You made this mess. Now you can clean it up!” She stalks off angrily, leaving the wailing Lily sitting on the floor surrounded by a mess of food.

Style 3: Lily’s father is engrossed in reading the newspaper. He says, without taking his eyes off of the TV, “Lily, stop making a mess of your breakfast. You need to eat it.” Lily continues to yell exuberantly, trying to get her parents’ attention. “Eat your breakfast or I’m going to give you a time-out,” Dad says absent-mindedly. After a few more efforts to get her parents to pay attention, Lily realizes that they are not going to notice her and engage. She grows tired and hungry and begins to quietly eat her breakfast instead of squishing it.

In these examples, it is probably fairly easy to see that Style 1 is healthy, nurturing parenting and that Style 2 is abusive and will, sadly, likely cause some enduring damage to little Lily. Style 3, however, isn’t quite so clear. It is not abusive, and it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable in any way. Actually, it probably mostly seems like a loving but tired mom who just needs to get breakfast done.

Most good parents reading Style 3 can probably relate to it quite well. And truly, that is nothing to worry about. In fact, Style 3 is not a problem at all unless it happens enough. If it happens enough to send Lily clear messages that her feelings and needs don’t matter, then Style 3 becomes emotionally neglectful parenting.

Let’s track how Lily’s development will progress if she grows up receiving, overall, the Healthy parenting style depicted in Style 1, the Abusive parenting style of Style 2, or Style 3, the Emotionally Neglectful parenting style.

Adult Lily

Style 1 – Healthy, Nurturing Parenting: Lily is a confident woman.

  • She knows that she is lovable (because she saw the love in her father’s eyes, even when she was being silly and causing trouble).
  • She knows that her needs for attention, love, and care are healthy and normal (because they were met in childhood).
  • She is able to give and receive love and care (because she was able to do both as a child).
  • She has good control over her impulses (because her father gave her simple, age-appropriate rules like “cheese is to eat, not to play with,” to live by and clear, healthy consequences).
  • She is typically able to determine what she feels and why (because her feelings were noticed, validated and responded to throughout her childhood).
  • She experiences the full range of natural human emotion and is usually able to manage, name, share and use her feelings (because she learned all of this as a child)

Style 2 – Abusive Parenting: Lily is a traumatized woman.

  • Lily doesn’t trust people (because her mother often flew off the handle in a startling, scary way).  She has anxiety because of this.
  • She feels that if she is not vigilant, others will hurt or take advantage of her (because her mother did).
  • She has anger (because she was mistreated as a child) simmering beneath the surface, ready to protect her if needed.
  • In relationships and friendships, she can be difficult to get along with (because she is guarded, anxious and angry).
  • Generally, she feels beaten-down by life (because she was beaten down as a child). She knows that if she wants something in life, she will have to fight for it.
  • Lily does not know what she is feeling or why, much of the time (because her emotions were not considered as a child; in fact, her basic emotional needs, such as her need for attention from her mother, often led to punishment and hurt).
  • She experiences the full range of natural human emotions, but often very intensely (because she grew up in an intense household where emotions ruled the family).
  • Lily does not have good control over her feelings and impulses (because her mother gave her excessively harsh punishments when she was a child instead of giving her simple, age-appropriate rules).

Style 3 – Emotionally Neglectful Parenting:  Lily is well-adjusted, but feels empty inside.

  • Lily thinks that she is lovable, but she is not sure (because her parents didn’t look at her with love in her eyes enough).
  • Lily tries not to need anything from anyone (because her basic emotional needs were not met enough in her childhood).
  • She typically does not know what she is feeling, or why (because her feelings were not noticed, validated, named or responded to enough as a child).
  • Lily often feels empty and numb inside (she has pushed her feelings down and out of her awareness because they were not accepted or noticed by her parents).
  • Secretly, Lily feels that something is wrong with her (because she lacks access to her emotions, and she knows that something is missing in herself and her life).
  • She feels alone no matter who she is with (because she lacks the emotion that would connect her to other people in a meaningful way).
  • Lily looks at other people laughing and talking as they walk down the street and wonders, “What do they have that I don’t?” (Because she can see that other people are living a richer, more meaningful life than she is able to have without access to her own feelings).

Of course, we all know that no parent is perfect. The majority of parents strive to do their best. But some parents do not. And even of those who try hard, some fail their children in ways which will cause pain in their children throughout their lives.

Over recent decades, fathers have become more physically present and emotionally aware. Dads are just as able to show their children emotional attachment and validation as parents. Dads have the power to change the world, one child at a time.

As children and as parents, we all have choices. Will we pass on the abuse or the emotional neglect that we grew up with to our children, who will, in turn, pass it on to theirs? Or will we face our own missing pieces and hurt and pain? Because that is the only way to offer our children the healthy parenting they deserve.

If all of the parents in the world could work to heal themselves, then all of the children of the world could grow up receiving an improved, healthier version of parenting than their parents got. And in the next generation, the world would be a healthier, happier place for all of us.

To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how to heal yours, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to stamp out Emotional Neglect in your parenting, your relationships with your parents, and in your marriage, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:

  1. Self-centered, Abusive or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. This might be financially, emotionally, or with caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT – Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their child and give him everything they can. But they are not able to give him enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. 

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when you parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first, or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame, and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty so that they can read about it for themselves. 

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents 

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.

To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.

Tame Your Brain for a Happier Holiday Season

Why are some folks’ holidays happier than others?

For the majority of people, there is a one-word answer to this question:  Family.

Here’s why:

  1. During the Holidays, there is extra intense focus on family dinners, family parties, family reunions, and family gift-giving.
  2. During the Holidays, there is extra pressure to enjoy family time together. This “family joy” pressure is deeply rooted in holiday tradition, and also comes from everywhere around you, including the media.
  3. Because of all this, our families take on extra power over us November through January.
  4. Our human brains are biologically programmed from birth to need and seek emotional connection from our families of origin. This program runs throughout adulthood, whether we want it to or not. During the holidays, it kicks into high gear, driving up our needs and expectations for feeling loved and known by our families.
  5. Most of us don’t think about this. We go through the usual holiday motions, unaware that we are under such tremendous influence from our brains, history, the media and our families during this time of year.

Here’s what it all adds up to. If your family is healthy and warm, chances are, you will experience a healthy, warm holiday season without having to give it much thought.

If your family is clearly dysfunctional, chances are you will be expecting a challenging and stressful holiday season, and chances are, you will unfortunately have that. If you are in this group, you can find some good ideas and tips for the holidays HERE.

Then there’s a whole, large, Third Group. The Third Group is made up of people who come from a family which is neither healthy and warm, nor dysfunctional. A family which falls somewhere in-between.  A family which perhaps appears to be normal and fine, but which lacks some essential ingredient that makes its members feel loved, connected and happy. These families are a set-up for high expectations, followed by dashed hopes, disappointment, and feelings of emptiness. People in the Third Group fall between the cracks. No one thinks or writes about your dilemma. Don’t worry, I am here to help!

In my experience as a psychologist, I have realized that the majority of people who are from these Third Group families are unaware that they are not from healthy and warm families. When your family lacks enough emotional connection and validation, it is not something that you can readily see or notice. The absence of an invisible entity is doubly invisible. So these Third Group people experience the ultimate set-up. High expectations — dashed hopes — puzzlement about why they’re not feeling joyous. After all, there’s no visible explanation.

If you think you may be from a Third Group Family, here are some:

Tips for a Happy Holiday Season

  1. Recognize that you are living in an unnatural bubble until January.
  2. Tame your brain by purposely taking control of your own expectations. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be “joyous.” Instead set the goal of enjoying moments of the season, and of your family gathering.
  3. Focus on getting enjoyment from providing and expressing to others. Show the warmth and connection that you feel for someone when you feel it.
  4. Keep in mind that it’s not your fault. You are not the cause of the lack of emotional connection and validation in your family of origin. It’s not because of you, and it’s not in response to you. It just is.
  5. Identify the people in your life who truly know you and truly love you. These are the people who can provide you with that feeling of warmth which your human brain naturally needs. Spend more time and energy with those people throughout the season.
  6. Make a vow that in January, you will start to take a closer look at other ways that your Third Group family might be affecting you year-round. Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire to get started. Dealing with this now can make 2014 a year of personal growth, warmth and connection like no other.

Wishing you a warm, connected Holiday Season!!