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.
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.
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.
In research that has gone on since the late 1990s, psychologists and neuroscientists have found that a fraction of the population is simply “wired” differently than most (Aron, E. & Aron, A., 1997).
In 1997, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. wrote The Highly Sensitive Person. She describes the HSP as more sensitive to sounds, textures, and essentially all outside stimulation than average.
HSPs also think more about decisions and actions, and naturally process more deeply. This is thought to be an adaptive, survival mechanism. It has also been found in animal species, like fruit flies, fish, and almost 100 other species.
According to Aron and her research, some of the signs that you may be an HSP are being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, and loud noises. You may get rattled when rushed, avoid violent TV shows, and withdraw into bed or a dark room when you get stressed. As children, HSPs also have a rich, complex inner life, and are often seen as shy by adults.
A very important thing to know about highly sensitive people is that they are born this way. In the classic question of nature vs. nurture, scientific evidence shows us that the HSP falls soundly in the Nature camp.
So we know that your parents do not cause you to be highly sensitive by the way they raise you. But it does beg another kind of question:
Is the highly sensitive child affected differently by emotionally neglectful parenting than a non-sensitive child might be?
Based on the thousands of emotionally neglected adults who I have had the privilege to know and/or work with, I would have to answer that question with a resounding yes. In my experience Childhood Emotional Neglect affects HSP children differently than non-HSP.
What is the experience of a child growing up in an emotionally neglectful home? It is a feeling of growing up deeply alone, even if surrounded by people. It is a process of having your emotions ignored, or even thwarted. It is what happens when you are not asked often enough:
What do you want?
What do you need?
What do you prefer?
What are you feeling?
Do you need help?
In the emotionally neglectful home, it’s not so much what your parents do to you that’s a problem. It’s just the opposite. The problem comes from what your parents fail to do for you: validate and respond to your emotional needs enough.
This can be very confusing for the child since from the outside (and sometimes even from the inside too), for many emotionally neglected children their family appears perfectly normal in every way.
Children who grow up in an emotionally neglectful home learn some powerful lessons very early and well:
Your feelings are invisible, a burden, or don’t matter.
Your wishes and needs are not important.
Help is not usually an option.
As we talked about above, the HSP child is born with some special sensitivities. Deep thinkers, thoughtful and responsive by nature, HSPs are greatly affected and more easily overwhelmed by external stimulation. HSPs also have greater emotional reactions and more empathy for others.
Imagine being a deeply thoughtful, intensely feeling child growing up in a family that is neither. Imagine your intense feelings being ignored or discouraged. Imagine that your thoughtfulness is viewed as a weakness. Imagine if it seems the people around you are operating at a different speed, and living on a different plane than you.
What do you do with your powerful anger, sadness, hurt or confusion? How do you try to fit in?
Many HSP adults have shared with me the words they heard often in their childhood homes, from parents and siblings alike:
“You are overly emotional.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You are over-sensitive.”
Some HSPs are actively made a joke of in their families. Some can be chided and derided or identified as “the weak one,” “the slow one,” because of the more thoughtful processing, or “the dreamer” because of the rich and complex inner life.
Most emotionally neglectful families are not only unaware that emotions are important, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the feelings of their members, typically either passively or actively discouraging the show of any feelings.
What if one particular child feels more deeply than the rest? What will he learn about his feelings in this family? How will he learn how to value, tolerate, understand, and express his feelings?
The HSP child in the emotionally neglectful family learns that she is excessively emotional. And since our emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who we are, that HSP child learns that she is different, damaged, weak and wrong. She may grow up to be ashamed of her deepest self.
Do not worry, there are plenty of answers for you!
From the many posts on this blog, or by visiting my website (also linked below), you can learn much more about the Emotional Neglect you grew up with, the messages you received, and how to heal. You can also learn about what it means to be an HSP by visiting the website of Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
Understanding is a good start. After that, there are clear steps to take to fight those messages and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It is only by clearing the Emotional Neglect from your life that your HSP qualities will be allowed to shine. Only then will you be able to allow your intense emotional energy to empower you, and your deep processing abilities to guide you.
Only then will you be able to celebrate the unique qualities that make you different, and see that being set apart from birth, and again in your childhood, does not need to keep you set apart for life.
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.
As a psychologist who works with adults and adolescents, I am in a unique position to observe the results of different types of parenting as they play out through adulthood.
Nevertheless, I found myself baffled for an entire decade. Patient after patient sat in my psychotherapy office telling me that they felt that something was wrong with them.
“I am not happy, and there’s no reason for it.”
“Other people’s lives seem rich and colorful, but I feel like I’m living in black and white.”
“I feel empty. Something is missing, and I have no idea what it is.”
“Even when I’m surrounded by people, I feel alone.”
I was baffled not only by the vagueness of their complaints but even further by the lack of an explanation for them. Many of these people insisted that they had been raised by loving parents, and had fine childhoods. They felt there was no reason for their lack of engagement in life; so they blamed it on themselves.
The more I heard these confusing concerns, the more curious I became. After all, how could so many people with fine adult lives who claimed to have had happy childhoods feel so set apart, empty and alone? It simply did not add up.
Until I realized that my clients were not suffering because of anything that was happening in their adult lives, or anything that had happened to them in their childhoods.
The answer was far more elusive than any of that. Their adult discomfort was actually caused by something that had failed to happen for them in their childhoods. Each had been raised by parents who did not respond enough to their emotional needs: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
This subtle failure to act on the part of their parents had left them struggling in adulthood with something which they could not remember or name. So I began to study how it happens, and how it could lead to these particular problems for my patients. I discovered that children whose feelings are not validated or responded to enough receive an unstated but powerful message from their parents. That message is:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who receive this message automatically adapt. They push their own emotions down and away so that they will not trouble their parents, or even themselves.
In this process, they lose access to their own emotions, which are a vital source of connection, guidance, meaning, and joy. Without this resource (their emotions), these children grow into adults who feel rudderless, set apart, disconnected and alone.
CEN is silent, invisible, and powerful. It affects untold numbers of people in today’s world. But CEN can be stopped in its tracks by teaching parents how to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs.
Max is a precocious and active second grader, the youngest of 3 children. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from his teacher stating “Max was disrespectful today.” His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Simpson told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Simpson by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Simpson confiscated his pencil, and sent him home with a note.
How might an emotionally neglectful parent respond to this situation once she sees the note?
CEN Parent #1: Max hands his mother the note. She reads it and says angrily, “How could you do this, Max? Now Ms. Simpson will think I’ve not taught you good manners! Go to your room.”
CEN Parent #2: Max hands his mother the note. A barely perceptible shadow crosses her face but is quickly replaced by a brightening. She picks up a football that Max had left on the kitchen counter earlier, points toward the living room and said, “Go long!” Max runs to catch the ball. “You’re such a tough guy,” she says while mussing his hair. “Rough day though, huh? Would some ice-cream make it better?”
CEN Parent #1 makes Max’s problem about herself and her own embarrassment. CEN Parent #2 seems caring, but she glosses over the problem. Both parents miss an opportunity to teach Max about his emotions, his behavior and himself.
Now let’s see how an Emotionally Attentive Parent might respond.
Mother: “Mrs. Simpson didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Max: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Max relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Simpson’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Max?”
Max: “Yes, Mum.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it’s unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Max’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Max to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it.
I want to give all the parents in the world the skills of Max’s mother. Then all of the children of the world can learn these valuable lessons when they need them: in their childhoods.
Then, as adults, they will not struggle with secret shame and self-blame, or a deeply buried feeling that something is wrong with them. They will not feel set apart, empty, or alone. Instead, they will be aware of their own feelings and be able to put them into words. They will be able to manage their emotions and behavior. They will live their lives in living color, fully, richly connected to themselves, the world, and the people who matter the most.
To learn exactly how to be an emotionally attuned parent to your child, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Legions of good people live through decades of their lives harboring a painful secret. They guard it as if their life depends on it, not realizing it’s not even real.
It’s a secret that is buried deep inside them, surrounded and protected by a shield of shame. A secret that harms no one, but does great damage to themselves. A secret with immense power and endurance.
It’s their Fatal Flaw.
A Fatal Flaw is a deep-seated, entrenched feeling/belief that you are somehow different from other people; that something is wrong with you.
Your Fatal Flaw resides beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Outside of your awareness, it drives you to do things you don’t want to do and it also stops you from doing things you should do.
Rooted in your childhood, it’s like a weed. Over time it grows. Bit by bit, drop by drop, it quietly, invisibly erodes away your happiness and well-being. All the while you are unaware.
The power of your Fatal Flaw comes partially from the fact that it is unknown to you. You have likely never purposely put yours into words in your own mind. But if you listen, from time to time you may hear yourself expressing your Fatal Flaw internally to yourself or out loud to someone else.
I’m not as fun as other people.
I don’t have anything interesting to say.
When people get to know me they don’t like me.
I know that I’m not attractive.
No one wants to hear what I have to say.
I’m not worthy.
I’m not lovable.
Your Fatal Flaw could be anything. And your Fatal Flaw is unique to you.
Where did your Fatal Flaw come from, and why do you have it? Its seed was planted by some messages your family conveyed to you, most likely in invisible and unspoken ways.
The Flaw The Roots
|I’m not as fun as other people.||Your parents seldom seemed to want to be with you very much.|
|I don’t have anything interesting to say.||Your parents didn’t really listen when you talked.|
|If people get to know me they won’t like me.||You were ignored or rejected as a child by someone who was supposed to love you.|
|I’m not attractive.||As a child, you were not treated as attractive by the people who matter – your family.|
|No one wants to hear what I have to say.||You were seldom asked questions or encouraged to express yourself in your childhood home.|
|I’m not lovable.||As a child, you did not feel deeply seen, known, and loved for who you truly are.|
Yes, there is some good news. Your Fatal Flaw is a belief, not a fact. A fact cannot be changed, but a belief most certainly can.
I am fun to be with. I am interesting. People like me more as they get to know me. I am attractive, and I have important things to say. I am just as lovable as anyone else.
Your Fatal Flaw is actually neither fatal nor a flaw. It’s not even real.
It’s powered only by your supercharged belief that it is both.
To learn much more about Fatal Flaws, how they happen, and how to defeat yours, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.
Few would disagree that parents have the most difficult job in the world. And the huge majority of parents are doing the very best they can for their children.
As much empathy as I have for parents (being one myself), today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is challenging in some way.
There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.
Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.
How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally?
Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.
Individuation is the natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.
Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”
Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.
When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.
So now the big question.
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.
Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen properly through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.
So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you. I know this sounds difficult and complicated.
Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong.
To learn more about how even loving parents can have a blind spot to their child’s feelings, disrupting individuation, and to find out what you can do about it now, see the books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.