Neglect: Fail to care for properly.
We can neglect many different things in our busy lives. We can, at different times, neglect our houses, our gardens, our vehicles, or even our own bodies by simply failing to care for them properly. And many of us human beings do one or all of the above at various times.
But there is no form of neglect more personal, more powerful, or more harmful than the neglect of a child. There are several different ways that a parent can neglect a child and we will talk about those shortly.
But first, let’s take a look at some of the factors that can lead even the most caring parents to neglect their child.
When parents bring a new child into the world, it is their biological imperative to meet that child’s needs to the best of their ability. For that reason, none of the above reasons should be thought of as excuses. It simply does not work that way.
But, on the other hand, human beings are fallible and the world can be rough on parents. Losses, pain, health, deprivation, and struggle can harm parents and prevent them from providing what their children need.
Not all neglect is the same and, unfortunately, most people use the word “neglect” to define all types. It is also common to use the term, “abuse and neglect,” to lump neglect with abuse. This dangerous over-generalization prevents people from talking and thinking more specifically about exactly what they did not receive as a child.
Truly, it’s important. And I want you to help you become aware of what you did and did not receive. As you read the list below, I encourage you to consider which of your needs were well-met when you were a child and which needs may have been less so.
Most adults who look back on their childhoods and see that all of their physical needs were met find it hard to believe that they could have been neglected in any way. Yet “neglect” is far more complex than that.
For example, your stay-at-home mom may often be home and may drive you to every activity, yet fail to notice or respond to your feelings (Emotional Neglect). Or your dad, who talks a lot, may simply be talking about impersonal logistics and facts, and end up still emotionally neglecting you.
The opposite is also true. Your parent who is struggling and rarely home may show such emotional care and attunement with you that you feel deeply known, understood, and loved by them. In this case, the physical presence type of neglect you experience may do far less harm.
Take a few minutes to think about this. What did you get and what did you miss? Is it missing in your life now? If you are a parent or hope to be one, are you able to provide those missing ingredients to your children?
It is entirely possible to see what you didn’t get, understand why your parents could not, or did not, provide it, and fill those gaps for yourself. It is a process of providing yourself with the physical, attentional, and emotional nurturance that was missing for you.
Amazingly, once you have given yourself what you didn’t get, you can give it to others. Especially your own children. The reality is there is nothing more important than that.
CEN can be hard to see or remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Two things are going on right now that are causing more pain in adults’ relationships with their emotionally neglectful parents. Care to guess what they are? It’s the holidays plus the COVID-19 Pandemic. Mixed together, they create a cocktail of uncertainty, worry, emotional distance, and feelings of emptiness.
COVID-19 is affecting many people in many different ways. But one effect that is shared by most, perhaps virtually all, of us these days is that it, especially combined with the holidays during this unusual year, is making us feel more vulnerable.
Exactly what do I mean by vulnerable? I mean many different flavors of vulnerable feelings.
In this unprecedented time, you may be feeling more physically, socially, and emotionally vulnerable than usual and perhaps more so than ever before in your life.
You may feel physically vulnerable due to the risk of getting sick.
You may feel socially vulnerable due to being cut off or distanced from your family and friends.
And you may be feeling emotionally vulnerable, a product of all three of the factors above. On top of all that, most of us are spending more time alone with fewer distractions. The pandemic, with its social distancing, requires you to sit with yourself more, so it’s difficult to escape your feelings, anxieties, doubts, and fears. And they may be many.
As COVID-19 drags on, the holidays approaching, and the world awaiting a vaccine, many relationships have been affected. Some have been enlivened or deepened or enriched. Marriages, friendships, and families have become closer, more mutually dependent, and more supportive.
Other relationships have been strained by the present situation we are in. They have been challenged, weakened, frustrated, broken, or pained.
As someone who hears from hundreds of people every week who are doing their best to cope with the pandemic, as well as the holidays, one of the relationship types that I have noticed taking a lot of boosts, as well as hits, are the relationships between CEN adults and their parents.
Whatever your situation with your parents, the pandemic may be complicating it. Your parents may live nearby or far away. You may have had issues with your parents before COVID-19. Your parents may be healthy emotionally and physically or they may be elderly and frail. They may be living in a facility.
Whatever the circumstances, I believe that millions of people are feeling extra vulnerable right now and are finding themselves struggling with their parents in some new way. And it is all due to circumstances that are completely out of their control.
If you grew up in an emotionally unavailable (CEN) family, you may be experiencing several of the effects above. You may feel a longing to receive the ingredients that were missing from your childhood, while also feeling distant and helpless and disappointed in your parents.
When you do not receive enough emotional attention, empathy, meaningful conversation, or validation from your parents as a child, (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) you are naturally, as an adult, continually driven back to try to capture it. But your CEN parents may simply not have it to give, and this compounds your pain.
Most likely, this pandemic is affecting many of your relationships for better or for worse. And now, with the holidays upon us too, the one thing you can do right now that will make you stronger in every area of your life: nurture yourself, care for yourself, and pay attention to what you are feeling.
When you feel vulnerable, treat yourself as if you are your own number one. Because you are.
Wonder if you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family? Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. See the book Running On Empty to learn what CEN is and how it affects you now; and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how you can heal CEN with your partner, parents, and children.
Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had a unique window into how CEN plays out in people’s adult lives and relationships.
The sad reality is that growing up in an emotionally neglectful family, with your feelings ignored or discounted, has profound effects on how you feel in your adult life, the choices you make, and your perceptions of yourself.
The Emotional Neglect you experienced as a child stays with you throughout the decades of your entire life. It hangs over your relationships, holding them back from developing the depth and resilience that you deserve to have.
But there is one relationship that is uniquely influenced by CEN. It’s affected relentlessly, even if silently, from Day One of your life. It’s your relationship with your parents.
Below is a section about emotionally neglectful parents from my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. In it, I explain how and why it’s so uncomfortable and painful to have your emotional needs thwarted by your parents.
Built into our human brains from birth is an intense need for emotional attention, connection, approval, and understanding from our parents. Every baby born needs to feel emotionally connected to its parents. We do not choose to have this need, and we cannot choose to get rid of it. It is powerful and real, and it drives us throughout our lives.
I have noticed that many people with Childhood Emotional Neglect try to downplay this essential requirement by viewing it as a weakness, or by declaring themselves somehow free of it.
“I’ve given up on my parents. They mean nothing to me now.”
“My parents are incapable of giving me anything. I’m done.”
“I simply don’t care anymore.”
I fully understand why you may say these things, either out loud or just inside your own head, and believe them. After all, it’s very painful to have your deeply personal, human needs for emotional connection and emotional validation thwarted throughout your childhood. It’s a natural coping strategy to try to minimize your frustrated needs or eradicate them altogether.
But the reality is, no one, and I mean NO ONE escapes this need. You can push it down, you can deny it, and you can deceive yourself. Sometimes it may seem to be gone, but it does not go away. It will inevitably return.
That’s why growing up without being seen, known, understood, and approved by your parents leaves its mark upon you. But with all that said, growing up thwarted in this way is not a sentence to being damaged.
In fact, it is very possible if, instead of disavowing it, you accept that your need is natural and real, you can purposely manage it. In this way, you can heal the pain of growing up unseen or misunderstood.
Often, contradictory feelings plague CEN children in their relationships with their parents. Love alternates with anger, appreciation with deprivation, and tenderness with guilt. And none of it makes sense to you.
If you identify with some of these struggles and feelings with your own parents, it’s okay. You are in the company of legions of other emotionally neglected folks who are struggling in the exact same way.
And there are answers. There are some key things you can do to make this easier for you.
By accepting your own needs and feelings, you have made a good start. Your first responsibility is to yourself. You must protect yourself, even if it’s from your own parents.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
James has always been confused by his family. He’s always sensed that it’s dysfunctional, but he could never put his finger on what’s wrong. Until he realized that his family is riddled with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now that he can see his own lack of emotional awareness, connection, and understanding, he also sees the CEN pattern of traits in his parents and his younger sister. But strangely, his older brother seems completely unaffected. Baffled, James wonders how he and his sister could be so deeply affected by CEN while their older brother is not. They were all three raised by the same parents, after all.
26-year-old Michelle sits at the table at her parents’ house for a family dinner. Looking around at her siblings she thinks about how different she is from all of them. Right now, two are laughing and talking with each other while the third sibling is having an involved conversation with her parents. Michelle has been working on her Childhood Emotional Neglect and has been paying closer attention to her family. Watching her family interact at the table she wonders why her siblings don’t seem to be affected by her parents’ lack of emotional awareness. “Maybe I don’t actually have CEN,” she wonders.
It’s the kind of parenting that pays too little attention to the feelings of the children. Kids who grow up in this kind of family do not learn how to read, understand, or express their own emotions. In fact, they learn the opposite. They learn that their emotions are irrelevant, a burden, or a bother. And on top of that, they do not learn the useful emotional skills that they need to become happy, connected, emotionally thriving adults.
So what were Michelle and James seeing in their parents? They were seeing an emotional void, avoidance of meaningful conversation, and a tendency toward superficial interactions. James and Michelle recall feeling very alone in their families as children and they still feel this way now. It is only after discovering CEN that they are able to understand what is wrong and begin to take the steps of CEN recovery to address it.
Of the thousands of CEN people I have met, a remarkably large number have expressed confusion about why one or more of their siblings don’t have it.
And I understand. How can two kids who grew up in the same family end up experiencing their adult emotional lives so differently? At first glance, it does not make sense.
But there are reasons. Real reasons. Let’s look at what they are.
Almost every child receives some form of attention from their parents. The questions that define CEN are: Was it emotional attention? And was it enough?
Some siblings who receive a different form of attention can seem to be CEN-free, but their CEN may emerge later. Or perhaps, due to genetic or family factors, they may not be affected at all.
If you look around at your siblings and you have difficulty seeing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in them, do not allow that to make you question your own.
Having grown up virtually emotionally unseen, you have been invalidated enough already without continuing to doubt your own emotional truth.
Learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it plays out plus the steps to heal in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Find the link below.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free and you can find the link below.
Watch for a future article about how to talk to a sibling about CEN.
Almost a decade ago, when I first started blogging about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I wrote a post that introduced my Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
It was a brief article, but one of the first blog posts ever written about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Despite the shortness of the article itself, it did make quite a stir. In fact, that early post received 71 comments. Recently, while taking a look back at where we started, I came across not just that early article, but those many comments.
First, a refresher.
It’s growing up in a household that under-notices and under-attends to the feelings and emotional needs of the children.
CEN happens in legions of homes, in virtually every culture, and every social stratum. It even happens in homes that are otherwise loving and in which the parents are trying their best.
All it really takes for CEN to happen is for the parents to be unaware of the world of emotions, what they are, what they mean, and why they matter. This renders them emotionally blind to the feelings of their children.
Because CEN is caused by a lack of response and is not caused by overt action on the part of the parents, many CEN sufferers have no memory of anything going wrong for them as a child. Instead, they may recall a nice childhood and wonder why, as adults, they feel so empty, unfulfilled, lost, or alone.
Since you can’t easily know or remember whether you grew up with Emotional Neglect, I created the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. Instead of asking you about events in your childhood, it asks 22 questions about how you are experiencing your adulthood.
The test was initially introduced by my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It has now been taken by many hundreds of thousands of people and has been translated into many different languages.
Below is a sampling of the comments shared by readers. In them, you will see the reactions of people who were finding themselves touched by CEN awareness for the first time.
Neglect doesn’t have to be intentionally practiced in order to cause harm. For instance, a child prodigy whose parents “neglected” to ever provide a piano will be, if not derailed, certainly behind all the other prodigies. There can be a whole range of reasons for the neglect of a child’s developing ego and worldview, but a developing child has no way of remotely grasping those reasons. That’s why one child can still thrive in the same situation another becomes stunted because not every person needs the same amount of information to make judgments of this life. Internal processing of experiences is actually quite sacred to the individual, as it should be for humans.
Being a grown-up isn’t something that humans are just awarded for turning a certain age, it’s the system of processing experiences in a manner that engenders healthy expressions of and responses to Life. If we have skipped a step of learning who we are somewhere along the line, making processing information rationally difficult, it helps the healing process a lot to know where that step is
I got all 22. This explains so much! I have subconsciously known for a long time now that I have suffered from CEN, but this clarifies it. I probably wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to being manipulated by others if I hadn’t experienced CEN.
I circled most. Studies are finally finding that children need emotional care and love more than was previously thought, yes we survive without it or with less, but my goodness it cripples us as adults. And Yes the parents are responsible for this. They are the adults, we were the children. Children are innocent and they take in everything. Adults now have access to infinite information like this book. It’s time to end this cycle and hand me down of pain and neglect. I’m stopping it on my branch of the family tree, no more. It’s the best thing we can do for ourselves, our children, and the whole world to heal this.
I circled 16 and three of them with double or triple circles. How is one supposed to deal with and heal the scars? I am married to a man who is negative and enjoys very little. I have been blessed with talents (so I’ve been told as an adult) but have barely been able to use them. I am 55 and sometimes feel trapped and stifled. At the same time, I am afraid to go it alone. The only thing that seems to make me feel better is being around those less fortunate and trying to be of help somehow. Life is too short for learning from mistakes. Parents need to encourage and empower their children or don’t have them in the first place.
Hmmm…interesting. I wonder if race adds yet another dimension? Do some ethnicities and cultures experience more societal neglect that may add yet another layer of neglect for a child growing up in it?
Well, knowing that I may be an emotionally neglected child makes me somewhat at peace knowing that there are others like me, that I’m not the only one feeling like this, cause I feel guilty sometimes when I feel sad and dissatisfied with my life when there are others who have it worse than me.
I am the product of severe CEN and abuse. I have been working on healing for years. To others who are struggling with this: Don’t give up, things can get better! It takes time. Just keep learning how to tune into your own feelings and honor them, and know that you have every right to do it. Your needs are as important as anyone else’s, and treating yourself as well as you treat the other people in your life is a very good thing! AND it FEELS good!
I learned to bury my feelings deep down from the time I was a toddler. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; now I know it was necessary for my protection. As a result, it took me many years to be able to access my feelings about anything! I went into an abusive marriage—probably because it felt familiar—and after 20 years of that finally began to realize that something was really, really wrong. I left the marriage and have been on a healing journey ever since. It has taken a lot of work, but it is so worth it.
I have good friends and activities that I enjoy. The anxiety that was ever-present (without my even realizing it) is gone. I indulge myself occasionally without guilt and get real satisfaction and enjoyment out of recognizing what I need or prefer and saying so. I am kind to other people, and also kind to myself.
Over the years since that early blog, I have received hundreds of thousands of comments like the ones above. In fact, some regular readers send their reactions and responses to CEN posts on an ongoing basis so that I actually get to follow along with their progress.
From taking the Emotional Neglect Test, which is basically the entry point of CEN awareness — to beginning to take some steps onto the path of CEN recovery and then progressing through the stages of reclaiming their feelings and learning how to use them for energy, connection, and direction, it’s incredibly rewarding to follow the evolution of progress.
Now, here is an amazing thing. Once you realize that your own childhood did not fully prepare you to live fully and close to your own heart, you are free to shake off the chains of Childhood Emotional Neglect and open your arms to healing.
You can know you are not diseased or damaged and that you can give yourself what you didn’t get. You can, like all those many readers who have shared their CEN thoughts, experiences, challenges, and triumphs, walk down the healing path to a warmer, more rewarding life, where you are running on empty no more.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects adults and families, and how you can strengthen and deepen your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
I want to hear your comments too! Share your thoughts and experience with Childhood Emotional Neglect and I will be happy to publish them here.
It’s that time again, the holidays are coming. First comes Thanksgiving so let’s start preparing now.
Since Thanksgiving is generally a family holiday, you may be excited about Thanksgiving or not-so-much. And that is likely determined by the type of family you have.
How do you feel when you get together with your family? Is it enriching and enjoyable? Or is it more draining and challenging? Or is your family experience somewhere in between?
If your family has any kind of abuse, grief, or addiction in it, for example, this family-focused holiday may be extra challenging for you.
There is one very large group of folks who either look forward to Thanksgiving and then find themselves disappointed every year, or have learned to dread it because of its draining, disheartening nature.
This large group of people struggles to identify why Thanksgiving is disappointing each year. And the answer is not anything that happens at Thanksgiving dinner. It is actually because of what does not happen when their family gets together.
What’s missing is a real, substantial emotional connection.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Growing up with CEN is essentially growing up in a family that has “emotion blindness.” These families are not able to see and respond to the feelings of the children enough. They may avoid meaningful discussion and tamp down or negate strong feelings instead of responding in a helpful, instructive, and supportive way to emotions.
Recent research studies have found that feeling gratitude makes people happy. So Thanksgiving is a special opportunity to focus on what you are grateful for.
And there is a silver lining to growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Being raised in a family that ignores your emotions forces you to adapt. You learn some life skills that will be useful throughout your lifetime.
So now, at Thanksgiving, you have some valuable things in your life to be thankful for. And when you do, I hope it will help to bring you some of the happiness that you deserve this holiday season.
Think about whether there might be one person in your family you can connect with more; it may be a sibling, a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or in-law. Just one person you can perhaps share your CEN experience with. You can ask them to read this blog or the Running On Empty books. It helps enormously to have an understanding person in your family.
Wondering if this blog applies to you? Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable when it happens in childhood so, as an adult, it can be difficult to know. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect left its mark on you. Yes, it will color your holidays gray if you let it. But there is a silver lining to your CEN. And now, at Thanksgiving, you can set your sights on healing and give yourself the emotional attention you never got. You are worth it.
Warmest wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving from me to you.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
The most common type of emotionally neglectful parents is also the most difficult kind to identify.
They lurk in fine neighborhoods, fine jobs, and fine houses. They create fine families, and if you are friends with them, they appear to be absolutely fine.
They may drive their children from one sports activity to another, stay on top of schedules, take family vacations, and help their kids with homework. They may even love their children and strive to do their best to raise them.
Yet they make one crucial mistake that, even though not their fault, leaves a lasting mark on their child.
Many are mostly kind and welcoming when their adult child comes to visit. But despite all this, there are telltale signs. There are ways to know if your parents are of this ilk. We will get to that later.
First, we must talk a little bit more about how emotionally neglectful parents are made, where they come from, and how they parent.
The key to the most common type of emotionally neglectful parent, the Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves or WMBNT parent, is summed up by their title. These parents want to do right by their children, but they can’t. It’s because they grew up emotionally neglected themselves. WMBNT parents cannot give their children what they do not have. Unfortunately, it is that simple.
Because Childhood Emotional Neglect is so very common, so are emotionally neglectful parents. And since emotionally neglectful parents are so common, so are emotionally neglected children. It’s because these children grow up to be parents. The cycle continues, and on and on it goes, passing down through generations until someone finally sees what’s happening and calls a halt to its insidious process.
There are so many different varieties of WMBNT parents that we cannot possibly talk about them all. But here are the three common categories.
What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised.
This is what we human parents do. We automatically follow the “programming” that our parents set up for us, and to change that programming, we must first be aware, and then we must make a conscious choice to do something different from what our parents did.
Children of Well-Meaning parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN — emptiness, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of disconnection — a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you may see a benign-looking upbringing.
Everything you can remember about your childhood may seem fairly normal and fine. That’s because you remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall how what they were unable to provide.
“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You may feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.
Since WMBNT are difficult to identify, how do you know if you have them? Look for these signs, taken from my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below this article).
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: If I have WMBNT parents, does this mean that I am one? Do not panic, but the answer is that you may well be. It is very, very important for you to remember that this is a legacy handed down to you by the generations that came before you. It is not your fault. And it can be reversed!
You did not ask for this, yet you have been coping with it all your life. Now, you are in a unique position to change everything. Your grandmother, grandfather, mom, and dad simply did not know.
But, now you do. And you are the one who will refuse to pass it down.
In an act of emotional heroism, you are the one who, in your family, will stop Childhood Emotional Neglect in its tracks.
To learn much more about how CEN plays out in families and passes down through generations and concrete ways to heal it in family systems, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children
Some people were raised by narcissists, and some were raised by addicts. Some were raised by parents who were emotionally immature, and others were raised by workaholics.
As a psychologist, I, along with virtually all of the other therapists, have seen how all of these different kinds of parenting, almost without exception, produce children who grow up to grapple with the aftermath in their adult lives.
But I have also seen that some of the most struggling people in the world are the ones raised by parents who were struggling as they raised them. Why? Because children raised by struggling parents grow up with the most invisible form of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Many are raised by parents who may be well-meaning and caring, but who are so busy fighting their own fight that they have little emotional energy left over for their child.
These are some common examples, but there are many other kinds of well-meaning parents who are simply not able to provide their children with the emotional validation and responsiveness that their child, like all children, naturally and biologically, needs.
Many children of struggling parents grow up with all of their physical needs met. For example, they may have a home, food on the table, clothing, and adequate education. But the problem is, their parents are so busy fighting their own battles that they lack the energy, focus, or ability to notice what their child is feeling.
The surprising thing about growing up with your feelings unseen is that it’s impossible to grow up this way without feeling, in some heartfelt and profound way, that you, as a child and a person, are also unseen. You are invisible.
This is why, when I meet these children in my office, decades later and fully grown, I usually see adults who not only often feel invisible in the outside world but, even more tragically, continue to treat themselves as if they are invisible.
Not only that, children of struggling parents, when they look back at their childhoods, remember how hard their parents worked or how much they suffered. Most have a warm empathy and awareness of what their parents went through to raise them. As children, many tried to ease their parents’ load by cooking, cleaning, or taking care of younger siblings.
But almost ubiquitous among children of struggling parents, and probably the saddest and impactful, is the way the emotionally neglected child of the struggling parent tries hard to have as few needs as possible as a way to reduce the burden on his parents.
If this is you, you may have a memory of hiding certain things from your parents. Perhaps you didn’t mention anything when you were being bullied in your neighborhood, struggling in math or gym class, or fighting with friends.
Perhaps you even kept your accomplishments to yourself. Did you fail to mention your good grades, an award you won, or funny things that happened at school for fear that they might somehow make your struggling parents feel worse? It’s not uncommon for the child of struggling parents to try to keep their own light dim so that their parents will never feel outshone.
What did you learn from growing up this way? Several very pivotal things.
Simply put, you learned to hide your feelings, and you learned to hide your needs. You learned to hide your light. You learned to hide your self.
It is not easy to go through your life feeling invisible and wondering why.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when your parents fail to notice, validate, and respond to your feelings enough. Since CEN is not an active form of mistreatment, but instead the result of your parents’ failure to act enough, it can be extremely subtle, invisible, and unmemorable.
With struggling parents, the CEN you grew up with is probably not your parents’ fault. They were likely well-meaning and wanted to do what’s best for you.
But when you grow up with your parents’ attention elsewhere, it does not matter the reason. It does not matter that they were struggling, or why. It does not matter where their focus and energy were directed. It only matters that they did not notice and respond to your feelings enough.
Whether your parents were grieving, depressed, or working several jobs, if they were not able to notice what you were going through and what you felt and needed enough, then you were likely left with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Yet when you look back at your childhood, it may appear quite fine. As a child, you saw your parent sacrificing, and you saw your parent’s pain. Your parents may, in some circumstances, seem almost heroic in their efforts, and perhaps they truly were.
But that does not change the fact that they failed you in this one very important way. That does not, in your adulthood, relieve you of the consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
As you let go of the burdensome sense that you have brought your own struggles upon yourself, you can begin to see yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses, wishes, needs, feelings, and passions as things that are real and that matter.
As you let go of the battles that your parents, perhaps even lovingly, fought for you, you will feel yourself coming alive and taking up space in ways that will surprise you.
You will find yourself walking around just as other people do: knowing, in a deep and unshakeable way, that you are valid, you are important, and you matter.
Knowing, without a doubt, that you were not born to be invisible, not at all. You were, in fact, born to be seen.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be very subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about your emotionally neglectful parents, their struggle and yours, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) permeates your everyday life. And there are some situations that can make CEN struggles even more present and challenging. One of them is the holiday season.
Notice the picture accompanying this post. I chose it for a special reason, and I want to start by apologizing for it. It is a perfect example of the pressure society puts on everyone throughout the holiday season. Commercials, ads, and images abound which show warm, happy families or beautiful people smiling with gifts.
We’re a loving, close family!
The pictures call out to us day after day.
As a specialist in Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I see how this affects many people. There is no time of year when folks are under this much pressure to feel. And even more challenging: you’re supposed to feel happy.
I have followed many emotionally neglected people through many holiday seasons, and I have seen how they often experience them. Under pressure to feel, the holidays can seem vaguely disappointing and burdensome for those who grew up emotionally neglected.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents raise you in a way that does not pay enough attention to your emotions. Childhood Emotional Neglect leaves you with a particular set of struggles within yourself, and also with your family, throughout your adult life.
As you read the list of special challenges below, I encourage you to think about yourself and whether each one applies to you. Knowing and thinking about these challenges before they happen, or as they are happening, will help you minimize their effects on you this holiday season and beyond. First, let’s talk about the general effects of growing up with your emotions ignored.
Although the CEN ship has already sailed through your childhood, it is never too late to turn that ship around. But to do so, you must be proactive. Now that you see what’s been dragging down your holidays for years, you are in a good position to start making things different for yourself.
In the short term, now before the holidays, start treating yourself more as if you matter. Set aside time every single day to do something that nurtures you. Pay attention to the feelings you are having each day, and accept what you feel without judgment. Make sure you get enough rest, healthy food, and fresh air, and spend time with someone you enjoy.
And most importantly, start healing the roots of what’s wrong: your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To get started, Take the CEN Test. It’s free. Then learn everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect: how it happens, how it affects you, and the 4 Steps to CEN Recovery. Start working on Step 1, and do not stop. You can learn much more about all of these things in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
What kind of parents fail to notice their child’s feelings?
Since this type of parental failure (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) causes significant harm to the child, people naturally assume that emotionally neglectful parents must also be abusive or mean in some way. And it is true that many are.
But one of the most surprising things about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that emotionally neglectful parents are usually not bad people or unloving parents. Many are indeed trying their best to raise their children well.
There are a variety of different ways that well-meaning parents can accidentally neutralize their children’s emotions. They can fail to set enough limits or deliver enough consequences (Permissive), they can work long hours, inadvertently viewing material wealth as a form of parental love (Workaholic), or they can overemphasize their child’s accomplishment and success at the cost of his happiness (Achievement/Perfection).
What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning Category 1 status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised. They were raised by parents who were blind to their emotions, so they grew up with the same emotional blind spot that their own parents had. Blind to their children’s emotions, they pass the neglect down, completely unaware that they are doing so.
Children of WMBNT parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN, a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame and guilt. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you often see a benign-looking one. Everything you can remember may seem absolutely normal and fine. You remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall what your parents failed to give you.
“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills, unless you have taught them to yourself throughout your life since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.
Struggling parents emotionally neglect their child because they are so taken up with coping that there is little time, attention, or energy left over to notice what their child is feeling or struggling with. Whether bereaved, hurting, depressed or ill, these parents would likely parent much more attentively if only they had the bandwidth to do so.
But these parents couldn’t, so they didn’t. They didn’t notice your feelings enough, and they didn’t respond to your feelings enough. Although the reasons for their failure are actually irrelevant, you have not yet realized this yet. You look back and see a struggling parent who loved you and tried hard, and you find it impossible to hold them accountable.
Children of struggling parents often grow up to be self-sufficient to the extreme and to blame themselves for their adult struggles.
This category stands out from the other two for two important reasons. The first: self-involved parents are not necessarily motivated by what is best for their child. They are, instead, motivated to gain something for themselves. The second is that many parents in this category can be quite harsh in ways that do damage to the child on top of the Emotional Neglect.
The narcissistic parent wants his child to help him feel special. The authoritarian parent wants respect, at all costs. The addicted parent may not be selfish at heart, but due to their addiction, is driven by a need for their substance of choice. The sociopathic parent wants only two things: power and control.
Not surprisingly, Category 3 is the most difficult one for most children to see or accept. No one wants to believe that his parents were, and are, out for themselves.
Being raised by Category 3 parents is only easier than the other two categories in one way: typically, you can see that something was (and is) wrong with your parents. You can remember their various mistreatments or harsh or controlling acts so you may be more understanding of the reasons you have problems in your adult life. You may be less prone to blame yourself.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Knowing the type of emotionally neglectful parents you have is tremendously helpful. It helps you improve your relationship with your parents, as well as protect yourself emotionally. Learn much more in my book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships,
This post is an update of an article first published on PsychCentral.