Real belonging requires us to be authentically ourselves.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
People who grew up with CEN end up feeling on the outside. It’s a sense of being alone, unable to join, separate, different. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the cause of it all, Childhood Emotional Neglect, doesn’t get talked about.
But in the last month I’ve noticed several news stories and articles that touch upon CEN, addressing it indirectly. They are all important and teach us something new. Here they are:
In the article, Dr. Charles Nelson, a Harvard professor, is quoted as saying, “Depriving the brain very early in life has very insidious effects.” Dr. Ann Easterbrooks, a Tufts University professor, is also quoted: “In cases of chronic, severe neglect, you see smaller brains and difficulties in emotion regulation. You might see serious depression, anxiety disorders, and negativity,” including blunted positive emotions and emotional flatness.
The Takeaway: We know, and science has established, that extreme physical neglect in childhood affects the brain’s wiring, and has severe and damaging effects that endure into adulthood. But this article, and the research it cites, focuses upon physical neglect, not Emotional Neglect.
The Question: Let’s study the brains of Emotionally Neglected children. Let’s look at the separate effects of Emotional Neglect from the physical type of neglect.
The Takeaway: Loneliness is a feeling, not a state. It is possible to experience powerful feelings of loneliness while surrounded by people who love you. And beyond that, those feelings of loneliness can have a profound effect upon your physical health. This study validates the importance of the empty, “on the outside” feelings that so often go along with CEN.
The Question: The deeper question is: Why would a person feel lonely while surrounded by people who love him? I believe that often, the answer is CEN. So is it a jump to hope that taking on your CEN and breaking down your walls could improve your physical health? I don’t think so.
The Takeaway: If grown-ups are more affected by being ignored (the adult form of Emotional Neglect) than they are by bullying (the adult form of abuse), imagine what it’s like for a child who is being ignored by his family.
The Question: Could this have implications for the impact of abuse vs. Emotional Neglect upon children? Abuse is a terrible thing for a child to endure. It has lasting effects throughout adulthood which must be addressed. But if you grew up emotionally neglected, you may suffer even more than the abused. You, like the ostracized adult in his work environment, did not feel like an important part of your family. Your suffering is real.
So children’s brain development is effected by physical neglect. It is possible to feel intensely lonely while surrounded by loving people. And being ignored is worse for adults than being bullied.
Yet widespread, subtle Emotional Neglect continues to erode the lives of thousands of children and adults. Unfortunately, since it is not visible, tangible, memorable, or dramatic, it receives no headlines and no research grants of its own.
What is it like to fall between the cracks? What is it like to feel that you don’t belong? Let’s pay attention to the children who know. Let’s ask the adults who can tell us. Let’s put our time and money into research, and give validation and a voice to those who feel on the outside.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, its causes and effects, and how to heal, see the book, 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
My mother has complained about my behavior as a child for YEARS. When I was little, she says I “always wanted to be held,” and was “so dramatic” as a teen, acting out to get attention. I was nearly held back in Kindergarten for lack of social skills; I hadn’t been around children my age regularly until then. In occasional situations with peers, she reports that I clung to the wall.
She was faithful to pass along my father’s criticisms because he rarely spoke. He had no friends and didn’t participate in social activities. He was hospitalized this January, and my mother didn’t even tell me! He passed away 3 weeks after I found out he was sick. I have no tears; I barely knew him. He hasn’t been gone 6 months and the house I grew up in is already on the market.
Perhaps they assumed that if their kids were fed, clothed, sheltered, and in school, their work was done. My mother said once that it never occurred to her that she should be teaching her children to take care of themselves. We were her job.
I’ve struggled for over 50 years to find my strengths, and am scared and frustrated to be without a career (or job) at an age when most people are preparing for retirement.
Reading your mother’s description of you as a child breaks my heart. She thought you were excessively needy. I can, without even knowing you, say with 100% certainty, that you were not needy or poorly behaved.
You were emotionally starving.
In reality, there is no such thing as a needy child simply because there is no such thing as an un-needy child. All children are emotionally needy by definition. It is the parents’ responsibility to try their best to understand what their child needs and to try their best to provide it. Whether it be structure, limits, freedom of expression, emotional validation or social skills, it’s all part of the job.
Growing up emotionally ignored results in growing up with a tendency to ignore yourself. When you ignore yourself, you don’t have a chance to truly know yourself. What career should you be in? What kind of job would you excel at and enjoy? Not knowing yourself makes you feel lost, alone and at sea. The answers are there inside of you, but you were not taught how to find them.
Many parents (yours included) don’t realize that their job is not simply to provide for their children and raise them; they’re also supposed to respond to their children’s emotions. Wanting to be held is a healthy and normal requirement that all children have. “Drama” is nothing other than a judgmental word for emotions. Teenagers act out when they’re either over-controlled or under-attended to by their parents.
How can you know yourself when your parents never knew you? How can you feel that you’re lovable when you didn’t experience enough feeling of love from those who brought you into this world and are supposed to love you first and best?
Fortunately, dear Anon, you can still get where you want to be! Accept that you are worth knowing, and start giving yourself the attention you didn’t get as a child. Notice what you like, love, hate, enjoy, prefer, and need. Start noticing what you feel, and start using those feelings to guide and connect you.
If you haven’t yet read the book Running on Empty, please do so as soon as you can. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider finding one. The social and emotional skills you missed can be learned. You are a classic example of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you can heal.
Emotional Intelligence (EI): Your ability to manage and understand emotions and relationships, your own as well as others’.
Research has shown that Emotional Intelligence is more vital to life success and satisfaction than general intelligence. This makes EI a very important skill for parents to teach their children.
The good news: Children automatically learn EI when they are raised by parents who have it themselves. Parents with EI are able to understand what their child is feeling and why. Their emotionally attuned responses to the child model and teach him how to read, understand, and respond to his own and others’ feelings in a healthy way.
The bad news: A parent who struggles with EI himself may lack the skills necessary to be able to teach them to his child. In other words, you can’t teach your child what you don’t know. This is why low EI is self-perpetuating through generations of families.
One way to make sure that you do not teach your child about emotion is to simply ignore his emotions while you are raising him (Childhood Emotional Neglect). If you seem not to notice that your child is upset, sad, angry, hurt or anxious, you are subtly telling him that his sadness, anger, pain or anxiety don’t matter. You are teaching him to ignore his own feelings.
Emotionally neglected children grow up to experience a variety of challenges, only one of which is low Emotional Intelligence. As adults, these children also struggle with excessive guilt and self-blame, feelings of emptiness, and a general lack of joy in life.
No loving parent wants to set her child up for that scenario. But parenting is probably the most complicated job in the world. In fact, it is built into the natural process of parenting that even the most loving parents will pass our own strengths and weaknesses on to our children. Often, the only way to stop that cycle is to consciously make the effort to override it.
Three Parenting Tips to Maximize Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence:
Life Advantage: Your child will see herself reflected in your eyes, and she will know who she is. This will give her confidence in her life choices and will make her resilient to life’s challenges.
Life Advantage: Your child will learn empathy and will have healthier relationships throughout his life.
Life Advantage: Your child will have a healthy relationship with his own emotions. He will naturally know that his feelings are important and how to put them into words and manage them.
No parent can follow these tips perfectly, of course. This is not about perfection; it’s about making the effort. Effort in itself shows love and care. When your child sees you trying to understand his feelings or feel his feelings, whether you succeed or not, he receives a powerful message:
Your feelings matter to me.
And what your child will hear:
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often invisible and unmemorable. To find out if it is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
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.
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 1: Lily’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.
Style 1 – Healthy, Nurturing Parenting: Lily is a confident woman.
Style 2 – Abusive Parenting: Lily is a traumatized woman.
Style 3 – Emotionally Neglectful Parenting: Lily is well-adjusted, but feels empty inside.
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.
Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?
Should I tell my parents how they failed me?
If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?
How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?
If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.
One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”
It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.
That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:
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.
Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents
If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.
For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:
Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.
In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.
Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.
Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.
So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?
If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.
IN SUMMARY: It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.
To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.
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 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
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.
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.
Do you have an obnoxious uncle, a surly son, a snide sister or a mean mother?
Few people can hurt us as much as the people closest to us. Usually, that’s family. Most people have at least one family member who is verbally brutal, judgmental or just plain thoughtless. Unfortunately, when we react to the rude comments these people make, our reaction can easily make us look worse than them. Here is a good example of how this can happen:
When I was 22 years old, I went with my friend Jackie to her parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner. I was a little nervous about going, because Jackie had, over the two years that I had known her, told me many stories about how critical her father was. He had said things to her in the past like, “Well, Jackie, looks like you’ve put on the proverbial Freshman Fifteen,” and “I never thought a child of mine could be as poor at math as you are.”
Jackie had a large family, and dinner was served buffet style. As all of the twenty-some people were bustling around filling their plates, Jackie’s dad said, “Watch out everyone, don’t get between Jackie and the food.” Everyone laughed. That is, everyone but Jackie and me. I was looking at Jackie, as a momentary look of devastation crossed her face. Then she did something extremely surprising to everyone. She dropped her plate of food on the tile floor, and stomped out of the room with a look of impenetrable hatred directed at her father.
Everyone stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then her cousin said, “Wow, what’s with her?” Another relative said, “Man, she’s touchy.” I seemed to be the only person there who understood the background, and that Jackie was not reacting to that one comment. She had finally snapped after a lifetime of putdowns and insults from the man who was supposed to nurture and protect her.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to NEVER draw the negative attention to yourself, while still defending yourself. Here is the “magic formula.”
Tip #1: BE PREPARED. Before your family event, it’s important to do some thinking. Try to recall some of the rude comments this person has said to you in the past. What basic theme do they follow? Imagine the upcoming scenario (location, event, e.g., family dinner), who will be there, and exactly what your critic might say in those circumstances. Next, think of some comebacks that you can pull out of your metaphorical back pocket and throw at your critic as needed. Expect a mean comment. It is better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than it is to be unprepared for something you didn’t foresee. See the examples for comebacks below in Tip #3.
Tip #2: BE CALM. Vow to stay calm, no matter what. Remember that your critic’s attacks upon you say more about him/her than they do about you. Do not let yourself get worked up. The calmer you remain, the more effective your comeback will be.
Tip #3: BE ASSERTIVE. “Assertiveness” is basically this: Speaking your mind in a way that is not designed to hurt the other person.” Here are some examples of some effective assertive comebacks for situations like this:
“Dad, comments like that are hurtful.”
“Excuse me, that was uncalled for.”
“That’s nice. Real nice.”
“I don’t understand why you feel a need to say something like that to me.”
Tip #4: BE STRONG. The worst thing you can do is let a critical or verbally brutal person hurt you. If you prepare yourself in advance, stay calm, and say something assertive, you will appear unscathed and will earn the admiration of all those around you. Then, when you go home, think it over and remind yourself that this person is attacking you because of his or her own weakness. Don’t take it in. Be Strong.