Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment. Legions of people are wondering how to overcome abandonment issues from childhood.
Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.
Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.
If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.
Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.
It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”
Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.
Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.
Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.
Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.
Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.
By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.
If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.
It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.
To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
“I’m the black sheep of my family,”
said the young man who sat before me in my therapy office. I tried to imagine this adorable, sad young man being the “black sheep” of anything. I couldn’t.
Generally considered the outcast of the family, the black sheep is typically assumed to be an oddball. Furthermore, the rest of the family believes that the black sheep brought this upon himself.
It is true that sometimes the black sheep is indeed “odd” by anyone’s standards (sometimes the result of a hidden mental illness). Or she may be a sociopath who violates the family’s boundaries and care, so that the family has to exclude her to rightfully protect themselves.
But surprisingly, very seldom is either of these scenarios actually the case. Many, many black sheep are lovable folks with much to offer their families and the world. In fact, they are often the best and brightest. They may be the most creative of the family, or the one with the most powerful emotions.
In truth, the world is full of black sheep. Think hard. Does your family have one? This question is not as easy to answer as it may seem, for many black sheep are not physically excluded from the family. For most, it’s much more subtle. The exclusion is emotional.
Three Signs That Your Family Has a Black Sheep: Continue reading
“I scored high on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, but I actually grew up in a family that was the opposite of what you describe. My family was constantly yelling and screaming. How can this be?” –A question posted by a reader on PDAN.
Six-year-old Marcus feels invisible as he sits between his two older sisters in the back seat of the car. He actually hopes he IS invisible, because he doesn’t want to be the target of either of his angry parents. Marcus’ sister Marsha is sobbing loudly on his left. On his right, Blair stares ahead stone-faced with her headphones on, purposely shutting herself off from the brutal but familiar battle between their parents which is taking place in the front of the car.
Eight-year-old Marsha tries to sob loudly enough that her parents will hear her over their yelling, hoping they’ll realize what they are doing to their children and stop fighting.
Eleven-year-old Blair appears to be listening to music. Instead she is acutely aware that her mother will scream and hurl insults at her father until she “wins,” as she always does. Blaire repeats over and over in her head, “I hate these people. I’m going to run away from here as soon as I can.”
Here we have three children who are all responding differently to what is happening in their family. None of the three are experiencing direct verbal abuse, and no one is purposely harming them. But each suffers alone, unheard and unseen, in the back seat of the car. Each one is experiencing Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading
What’s the most important ingredient for a happy life?
Philosophers, clergy, psychologists and researchers of all kinds have offered opinions on this question over the last five decades. Some say wealth, some say religion. Still others say family is the most important thing.
But one factor emerges over and over in study after study as a primary ingredient which must be present in childhood to produce a happy, healthy and well-adjusted adult. That factor is emotional attachment, warmth and care. In a word, love.
This factor was recently studied very specifically by Harvard researchers (Vaillant, 2012) who wanted to compare the effects of childhood financial wealth with childhood warmth. By following over 200 men (yes, only men) over an extended period of 70+ years, they were able to identify clear patterns. They saw that childhood financial wealth has little to do with adult success, satisfaction and adjustment. And that parental warmth and care throughout childhood is a much more powerful contributor.
Some may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t virtually all parents automatically love their children?”
In my years as a psychologist, I have seen for myself that money is not enough to raise a healthy child. But I’ve also seen that love is not enough. At least not the generic, “I love you because you’re my child” kind of love.Continue reading
Is your family happy and supportive? Are your holiday family gatherings warm, loving and festive? If so, that is wonderful. And you can stop reading this article now.
Is your family complicated? Do you often feel hurt, pained, disappointed, damaged, or let down when your family is together? If so, this article is for you. Never fear, help is here. (For more about painful family dynamics, take a look at last week’s article, 4 Subtle Family Dynamics That Can Ruin Your Holidays.)
No, of course we can’t fix your family issues before this year’s holiday gathering. But we can give you some new tools to get you through it. One of the most powerful tools to cope with a painful family is a mantra. It’s a sentence that you repeat inside your head over and over throughout the day. You can call upon it whenever you need to feel calmer and stronger. It serves to remind you what’s really going on in your family. It focuses your attention, and it provides you with the strength and resolve to get you through the day.
While going through the list below, choose the one that feels most right to you. It should be one that you can feel in your gut. It should make you feel a little stronger as you say it.
Here are Ten Mantras to choose from:Continue reading
Recently at a dinner party, talk turned to the current news story about Bill Cosby. As the only psychologist at the table, everyone looked at me as one person asked with intense curiosity, “How could anyone victimize women all those years, and still live with himself? How could you sleep at night?”
Since I don’t know Bill Cosby, I can’t speak for him; nor do I know if he is guilty of the accusations against him or not. But generally, in an actual situation like this, there is an answer to the question. The answer is one word: narcissism.
In many ways, it seems like it would be fun to be narcissistic. Wouldn’t it be great to go through life feeling superior to other people, and with unwavering self-confidence? Yes!
But as we all know, there is a dark side to narcissism. That unwavering self-confidence is as brittle as an eggshell. Narcissists don’t move back and forth on a continuum of self-esteem as the rest of us do. Instead, they run on full-tilt until something taps that protective shell of self-importance hard enough. Then, they fall into a million pieces. Under that fragile, brittle cover lies a hidden pool of insecurity and pain. Deep down, the narcissist’s deepest and most powerful fear is that he is a nothing.Continue reading
Do you look forward to seeing your family at the holidays, but then often come away feeling vaguely disappointed, confused, angry or guilty?
If this is true of you, then you need answers to what is truly going on in your family. And you need them quickly since The Holidays are here. Is it possible to make this year’s family gathering less disappointing?
As a psychologist I have found that as adults, family dynamics have the power to make or break our holidays. And that family dynamics have the most power when they run under the surface, unseen and unknown by the family members themselves.
The bad news: it is often very difficult to change your family dynamics. The good news: it is usually not necessary to change them. Being able to see what is really going on between family members is enough to make you less vulnerable.
Here are Four Subtle Family Dynamics that can ruin your holidays:Continue reading
16-year-old Bruce is feeling lonely and bored on this Saturday. After buying a soda and candy bar for breakfast at the convenience store, he stops by his only friend Joe’s house to hang out. A couple of hours later, he starts to feel annoyed by Joe’s “childish” sense of humor. After several irritating jokes from Joe, Bruce loses his temper. “Grow up you loser. You’re boring,” he blurts suddenly on his way out the door, leaving a surprised and hurt Joe behind him.
Bruce walks slowly around the neighborhood, bored again. “Maybe I should go home and play my guitar,” he thinks. But then realizes that his mom may be up by now, and he doesn’t want to run into her. No telling what mood she might be in. So he decides to try to sneak in and up to his room by going in the back door. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
“Where the h— have you been you lazy little punk?!” his mother yells from the kitchen when she hears his footsteps. Bruce turns on his heel and goes straight back out the door. Back to Joe’s house, he knocks on the door, walks in and says, “What’s up?” as if this morning’s hurtful insult never happened.Continue reading
Reject the lie, and start living in the truth.
14-year-old Olivia sits at the dinner table with her family, picking at her food. While the others talk in the background, she is absorbed in her own thoughts, trying to sort out in her head why her math teacher seems to hate her. “Why don’t teachers like me? I try so hard, but I must be doing something wrong that I don’t know about,” she worries for the six hundredth time.
“Olivia!” her father says suddenly, breaking through her reverie. “When your mother talks, you listen!” Startled and overwhelmed in the moment, tears come to Olivia’s eyes. “There you go again,” her mother says. “You don’t even bother to listen when I talk, and then you pull out the tears. I’ve never seen such a selfish kid.”
Olivia has been called selfish many times by her parents. They use this word often when they are not happy with something that she did or said or felt. In reality, Olivia is anything but selfish. She is by nature a kind and caring child. She worries a lot, and she feels things deeply. She keeps it all inside because she knows that there is not room for her worries and feelings and problems in her childhood home.
As Olivia goes forward with her life, grows into a young adult, and then gets married and has children herself, she will be troubled by a contradiction that she can’t resolve. Deep down, she knows that she’s not selfish. But she was labelled that at every turn by the people who are supposed to love and care for her most, her parents.
Last week’s blog, Were You Born Under the Gaslight?, was about the effects of growing up in a family that delivers messages that contradict each other, and/or contradict reality. In such a family you grow up walking on shaky ground, unable to trust yourself, your world or the people around you, and feeling deeply invalid and alone.
Is the Gaslight Effect a life sentence? How can a child like Olivia, once grown, get her feet back on the firm, solid surface of earth? How can she learn to trust herself? How can she realize that she’s not crazy?
There are seven billion people on the earth, and no two childhood experiences are the same. Everyone born under the gaslight takes with him his own unique set of challenges. But there are some particular steps that you can take to move yourself toward health, strength, self-confidence and happiness.
Five Steps To Move Forward From the Gaslight
Healing from the gaslight is a special challenge, mostly because it’s hard to trust yourself (and maybe others too). And trust is the foundation of everything.
Essentially, living under the gaslight is like living under a lie. The lie is, “The world doesn’t make sense.” The truth is, the world does make sense. And you make sense, if you only start to understand yourself.
So now, it’s your turn. It’s your time to shine. Do the work, and you’ll feel your feet meeting the ground. You’ll feel the warmth of your own emotions, and your own reality.
You’ll be living in the truth, not the lie.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable when it happens. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
The world is full of Invisible Heroes. People who are changing the world. People who do not realize how courageous they are. Quiet, unsung Emotional Warriors, who avoid the spotlight, even though they should have it.
How do I know this? I meet them every day.
The truth is you may be one yourself.
Maybe you’ve never saved anyone from a burning building, and maybe you never will. But still, you may be one of the most courageous among us.
How? By breaking through the bonds that were placed upon you in childhood, and looking your own weaknesses straight in the face. By seeing and owning and believing and working. By having the courage to sit with your pain.
All of these are the most difficult things to do in life. We celebrate the heroes who take risks, or sacrifice themselves to physically save others, as we surely should. But what about the ones who save others emotionally, even while they are suffering themselves?
We don’t see them. We don’t hear them. We don’t give them awards, and they don’t get written up in any newspaper. Yet they are quietly making a tremendous contribution to the health and happiness of the human race.
Do you treat others better than your parents treated you? Do you give your children what you never got yourself?
A man whose parents never said “I love you” makes a point to say it to his own children every day.
A woman struggles to face her own anxieties so that she won’t pass them down to her children.
A man who grew up watching his father verbally abuse his mother purposely takes great care in how he treats his wife.
A woman goes into rehab because she doesn’t want to be an alcoholic, as her mother was.
All of these people are Invisible Heroes. All of them are soldiers of care. Each deserves credit and recognition, but few will seek it, and most will not even accept credit if offered.
A stanza from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about heroism, A Psalm of Life:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time
Of course we now know that women are just as heroic as men. And we know that if we are to make our own lives better, we must face not dragons or enemies, but the most painful parts of ourselves. And when we do, we offer those near us, our husbands and wives, our friends and family, and especially our children, more than we ever received ourselves.
So this is a tribute to all of you Invisible Heroes. May you, at least inside yourself, know that you are a possessor of true courage and strength. Know that you are making a great difference in our world.
And be proud of the footprints that you leave upon the sands of time.
To learn more about how to give what you never got, see Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral