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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

The 5 Greatest Myths About Emotional Neglect

Of the hundreds of psychological and emotional conditions, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, in my opinion, among the least widely understood.

That’s because we have spent decades talking about and studying the negative things that can happen to a child. As we’ve done all of this vital and important work, we have overlooked, and essentially ignored, an equal but opposite force: what fails to happen for a child.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (or CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

Here are five natural, automatic assumptions that are frequently held and expressed, even by mental health professionals.

5 Common CEN Myths

Myth 1 — CEN is a form of child abuse.

This has been the default assumption of many people for many years. In professional articles and research studies, Emotional Neglect is typically lumped in with the various forms of child abuse. It’s assumed that all of these forms of childhood mistreatment belong in the same category, and have similar effects upon the child.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. While abuse is a parental act; something a parent does to a child, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. The emotionally neglectful parent may never hit the child or call her (or him) a name. A mother (or father) simply fails to notice or respond enough to her child’s emotional needs.

Not only does CEN happen differently, it also has different and distinct effects. Since the cause and effects are all different from abuse, the path to healing is also different.

Myth 2 — CEN happens more often in single-parent, divorced, or widowed families.

Contrary to how logical this assumption may seem, it’s not at all true. CEN is not about the number of available parents, or even the time available to spend with parents. It’s a matter of the emotional quality of the parent/child connection. Does the parent truly know the child on a deeply personal, emotional level? Does the parent notice, validate and respond to the child’s feelings? Does the parent teach the child how to tolerate, manage and express her emotions? These emotional aspects of parenting are not necessarily related to whether a parent is single or married.

In fact, many single parents are aware that their single parenthood, divorce, or loss has affected their children, and take extra care to notice what their children are feeling and support them.

Myth 3 — CEN is not as damaging as abuse.

It is true that CEN causes a different set of challenges than the experience of childhood abuse. But it’s not true that the effects of abuse are worse.

CEN is a quieter, less visible childhood experience than abuse so, as you might expect, its effects are quieter and less visible. But this is also what makes its effects more pernicious. Those who experience abuse will be impacted by it. They will grow up feeling perhaps violated, unsafe, and mistrusting. They may struggle to feel emotionally (or even physically) safe in relationships.

The effects of CEN are more like carrying around a weight. The CEN child must push away his emotions. In adulthood, he lacks access to this highly connecting, grounding, and enriching part of his life. He finds himself living in a gray world, feeling alone. Since he likely can’t recall the subtle and invisible emotional neglect from his childhood, he feels innately flawed. He assumes that he is to blame for these struggles.

Myth 4 — CEN is the result of a lack of love from your parents.

Ironically it’s often the most loving parents who emotionally neglect their children. This is because love and emotional attention are not the same thing and do not naturally go together.

In my experience, the single factor that most predicts a parent’s likelihood of emotionally neglecting her children is not whether she loves them. It’s having been raised with Emotional Neglect herself.

Myth 5 — All therapists know about CEN and how to treat it.

Virtually every therapist understands the foundation of CEN: that when a child’s emotional needs are not met, the child will suffer negative effects into adulthood.

However, there is far more to the concept of CEN than this general foundational point.  What are the specific effects of CEN? Exactly how and why do they happen? How do you know when a patient has CEN? How do you treat CEN specifically? The answers to these questions are not common knowledge in the professional mental health community. Nor have they been the subject of research. My goal is to change this in the near future.

The Takeaway

CEN is real. When your parents fail to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs, it does not matter why. It leaves a mark on you as you grow into your adulthood. This mark you share with others who grew up in a similar way. This mark can be healed.

CEN can be invisible when it happens and also hard to remember once you grow up. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!

To see a list of therapists who understand CEN, visit the Find A CEN Therapist List.

To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

The Different Faces of Emptiness: Part 1

150680407_88f0218e86_mSince the release of Running on Empty in 2012, many people have identified with the feeling of Empty. People who don’t have it don’t understand. But people who feel it know:

In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Empty is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.

(From Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect)

Empty is the” unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. Does it feel the same for everyone who has it? For example, does it feel different if you have depression, a personality disorder, or just straight Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?  The answer is yes. It all depends on one factor: how extreme were its causes?

Causes of Emptiness:

  1. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This is the type of Empty that I address in my book, Running on Empty.  It is caused by growing up in a household that is blind to emotion. Children who grow up this way sense that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. So they push their feelings down, so as to not burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. The emptiness that results is literally a deep sense that something is missing inside; some essential ingredient that is a deeply personal and vital part of who you are. That essential ingredient is, of course, your feelings.
  2. Active Invalidation in Childhood: This is a more extreme version of the CEN described above. It happens when your parents are not just blind to your emotions; they actively reject your emotions. Examples are rejection (ex: “Go to your room”) or punishment for simply being sad, angry, or hurt. If you grow up this way, you learn to not just push your emotions away; but to actively reject and punish yourself for having feelings. In adulthood, your empty space will be filled with self-directed anger and self-blame. On top of feeling empty, you may feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and you may not like yourself very much overall. You may be more vulnerable to depression.
  3. Shallow, Harsh, Unpredictable Parenting:  This is the type of childhood experience which causes significant disruption in the child’s personality that can lead to the development of a personality disorder (such as Narcissistic or Borderline). These parents respond to the child on the surface, while selectively, unpredictably rejecting and punishing his emotional responses. In addition, they greatly reward the child for being how they want him to be, and harshly reject or punish him for simply being, or feeling, himself. When you grow up this way, since you are not permitted to “be” who you are, you develop a fragmented version of who you should be. You reject parts of yourself that your parents find unacceptable, and may experience yourself as perfect one day, and horrible or worthless the next. The missing piece for this child, once grown up, is more than emotion; it’s a cohesive sense of self. This is the deepest, most painful form of Empty. This is the emptiness that is felt by people with personality disorders.

So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive “self,” but you lack access to your emotions. With Type 3, you have a fragmented “self” and little access to your emotions. But the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep. Those emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, outside your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.

Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be overcome. Watch for my next post, The Different Forms of Emptiness Part II, which will be about the paths to healing when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.

Yes, they are different.

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 adult life. 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 question is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. It can be extremely healing when an adult child and his or her 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. 

The 3 Main Categories of CEN Parents

  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. They may be struggling financially, emotionally, or with the caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT or Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their children and give them everything they can. But they are not able to give their child enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. They may be simply “emotion blind.”

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.

5 Ways to Talk With Your CEN 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 your 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: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect 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 (even if it causes a rupture or distance between you), 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.

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 with 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. 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.

The Takeaway

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. For much more information, details, and support for how to decide and how to protect yourself see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

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

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!!

 

On the Outside

 

I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in.

Whoever I’m with, I don’t feel I fit in.

When I’m with other people I may look fine, but I don’t feel fine.

The first item on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) is:

– Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong when you are with family or friends?

I put that question first in the ENQ on purpose. Because it is one of the most centrally defining qualities of a person who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a person carry around a pervasive feeling of being out of place? Of not fitting in? Of being on the outside, looking in? Especially when among people who love you? It is a difficult to identify, difficult to name feeling; yet it can hold tremendous power over a person. It can make it hard to go to a social gathering, and difficult to stay very long. Perhaps you get irritable when you’re around other people and you’re not sure why. Perhaps you’re good at putting on a show to look like you’re having fun, but only you know that actually, you are not. Perhaps you are actually looking around at other people laughing and talking and appearing comfortable, and wondering what you are missing.

In over twenty years as a psychologist, I have heard many lovely people describe this feeling. They each use different words, but they all have one common factor which links them: they all grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when parents fail to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When you are a child whose feelings are largely ignored, you receive an indirect, but very powerful message from your parents. That message is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” I have seen time and time again, that when children receive this message, they automatically adapt. They push their feelings down and away so that they will not bother anyone. This may help the child survive, or even thrive, in a household that is not friendly to emotion. But in adulthood, it becomes a problem.

Your Emotions and Your Relationships

As adults, we need our emotions. Emotion is the glue that connects us to other people and the spice that keeps things interesting. When your emotions are pushed away, it’s hard to feel the emotional connection that binds people together at a party. It’s even harder to experience the spontaneous, happy synergy that occurs when people are truly fully present with each other. So instead, you are like a baker without yeast. You are operating without a key ingredient that everyone else has. And you feel it.

If you find yourself identifying with this, please remember that while the “On the Outside” feeling is a real feeling, it is not a real thing. The people you are with do not see you that way. They don’t see you on the outside. They don’t feel that you don’t belong. They want to connect with you and enjoy your company.

The best thing about CEN is that it can be overcome.

4 Tips to Overcome Your On the Outside Feeling

  1. Become more aware of your “On the Outside” feeling. Notice when you feel it. Take notice of the power it has over you. Keep it in the back of your mind at all times. Remind yourself that it’s just a feeling.
  2. Once you’re more aware of the feeling, its source, and its power, start to fight it. Force yourself to go to social gatherings, and constantly fight the feeling while you’re there.
  3. Tell someone (your spouse, a sibling, a good friend) about this feeling. Explain the source and your struggle. Ask that person for their support at family functions, parties, and other gatherings.
  4. Address your CEN. It’s important to attack your CEN from all angles. One of the best ways to do this is to start working on accepting and feeling your own emotions more. The better you get at this, the weaker your “On the Outside” feeling will become.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ). It’s free.

Becoming more comfortable with your emotions is a key part of this process, as well as learning how your feelings (and you) fit into relationships with other people. If you find yourself mystified or daunted by this, you can learn much more about how to use your emotions to enrich, enliven, and deepen your relationships in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Once you realize what’s wrong, you are on your way to recovery. You’re on the path to a more connected, more comfortable, and more fully satisfying life. You don’t need to feel on the outside anymore.

Six Tips for Parenting Teenagers

 

There is very little about raising a child that prepares us to raise a teen.

We tend to hit our parenting stride when our children are around age 9, 10, 11. Then, the child enters adolescence and all of the rules suddenly change. It’s like plate tectonics. The earth shakes, and your child wakes up a different person. And this requires you to be a different kind of parent.

As a psychologist who specializes in treating teens, I have helped scores of adolescents and their parents navigate the rough waters of adolescence over the last twenty years. I am now the parent of two teenagers myself, and I think this puts me in a unique situation. Shouldn’t I be really good at this, since it’s my professional specialty? The answer is:   Hmm. It’s just not the same when it’s your own child.

As a psychologist, I call children’s natural, gradual detachment from their parents throughout adolescence “individuation.” As a parent, I call it simply “loss.” I’ve never felt more alone in my house than I do now. My children, ages 17 and 14, far less often choose, unprompted, to speak to me. When I ask my 17-year-old how her day was, the answer is typically an eye-roll. My son, whose sunny disposition and warm heart has always been my consolation during his older sister’s natural distancing, is now only “himself” about 20% of the time. The other 80%, he’s a sullen, preoccupied, hungry, headphone-covered young fellow.

These two went from, as young children, seeking a kiss and hug from me before leaving for school in the morning, to tolerating it, to outright refusing it. When I walk in the door after a long day’s work, only one person offers a greeting:  my husband. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s thankless.

It might sound like I’m complaining, and I guess I am. But I would also like to acknowledge the great things about having teenagers. For example, I now have considerably more free time. My daughter drives herself and her brother places. Neither seems to need me as much. I get to spend more quality time with my husband, doing fun activities that we both enjoy. Exciting things are happening, as my daughter has started to think about and explore the process of choosing a college. It is exciting to watch little babies grow into almost-adulthood and the amazing people that they are becoming.

Now I would like to share some of the lessons that I have learned along the way. Each of these Tips for Parenting Teenagers represents things that are distinctly different from parenting young children. I learned them the hard way, through my own personal experience; then I ran them through the sieve of professional research and experience. So you can rest assured that all of these tips are doubly tried and true, personally and professionally.

  1. Choose your battles carefully. Younger children are more dependent upon you, so you have more intrinsic power. Your bond is more consistent, and you can afford to address things as they come up. On the other hand, your teenager is trying to assert independence and needs to feel a sense of his own power and authority. That makes it very important to preserve your bond and to fight only the battles that really matter.
  2. Don’t over-respond to your teen’s moods:  Teens are moody in a way that younger children are not. And their moods can be very powerful in the household. It’s important to give them the space to be in a bad mood without getting angry in return or trying to “fix” it for them. Often, their moods have nothing to do with their parents. They are more related to hormones, or to simply being an adolescent.
  3. Let your teen choose your moments to communicate with her: With an adolescent, timing is everything. Your teen will tell you what moments to choose. Don’t try to talk to your teen when she’s tired or stressed or moody or seems to be shut down. Instead, when she seems open, put down everything you are doing and talk to her then.
  4. Make sure the rules and expectations are clear and well-communicated. I recommend writing them down and posting them on the refrigerator. Teenagers are masters of manipulation. They are great at blurring, fudging, forgetting. Writing things makes them more concrete and inviolable.
  5. Give your teen room to grow while keeping the emotional connection intact. This is the most difficult tip of all. Your teen doesn’t want to need you and doesn’t want to want you. It’s your job to tolerate the rejection, and simply be there for him, no matter what. Never reject your teen.
  6. Walk the line. Your adolescent is either approaching or at the line that separates the child from the adult. He’s confused by this. His roles are changing and his brain is changing. Your job now is to walk that line with him. As his parent, this line becomes the one between freedom and rules; between dependence and independence; between family and friends; between home and the rest of the world. To be on that line with your teen means tolerating the confusion and discomfort that he feels himself. So set limits and enforce them, while taking your teen’s personal characteristics and needs into account. Let him make mistakes, but not too many. Encourage his peer friendships, but check up on him when you have concerns or doubts about them. In other words, back off. But not too much.

To learn all about how to parent your child of any age in an emotionally responsive and attuned way, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It’s filled with tips that explain exactly how to emotionally affirm and validate your child, keeping the emotional connection strong.