Do you know that children have physical needs? OF COURSE, YOU DO! Virtually all parents, and all people, for that matter, understand that children must be fed, clothed, kept warm and sheltered, rested and exercised. Kids need to have all of these needs met in order to physically survive and thrive.
Most people also realize that children have emotional needs. Children need to be loved. But children’s emotional needs actually go far beyond that.
You, when you were a child, needed much more than love from your parents. One of the things you needed the most is something most parents hardly think about if they think about it at all. It’s emotional validation.
Emotional validation happens when your parents see what you are feeling, acknowledge your feelings, and seem to understand why you are having them.
Just like adults, children’s feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are. In order to feel seen, understood, and heard, a child must feel that their feelings are seen, understood, and heard.
What happens when you feel seen, understood, and heard as a child? You grow up to feel like a person who is seeable, understandable, and hearable. You feel knowable. You feel valid.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your parents didn’t have the emotional awareness or emotional skills to see and accept what you were feeling, they may have, perhaps of no fault of their own, failed to validate you.
As a result, you may have grown up to feel unseen, misunderstood, and unheard. You may feel less valid than everyone else.
I call this Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Did you see yourself in any of the examples above?
Whether your emotional threshold was not met as a child or your feelings were invalidated (both constitute Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), I want you to know that it has left its mark on you. The effects are substantial and significant, and they seldom go away on their own.
But they do go away. With your awareness, attention, interest, and commitment, you can reclaim your valuable emotions and learn to listen to their messages. You can learn to understand, trust, and love yourself.
That is the process of validating yourself. It’s never too late to do it.
Let’s get started.
To learn specific ways to emotionally validate and emotionally connect with your child, toddler, teen, or adult see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. You can find helpful resources for understanding and healing Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this website.
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.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
Even though every child is different, all children are also the same in one very important way. In order to thrive, children require emotional attention, validation, and responsiveness from their parents.
Knowing that you need to provide this to your child gives you a tremendous leg up on parenting. But knowing how to provide it is another thing altogether.
Think of parenting as a process of teaching your children how to manage their emotions. The better you handle your children’s emotions, the better they will be at managing them throughout their lives.
Although these skills sound simple, in combination they are a powerful tool for helping children learn about and manage their own nature, for creating a secure emotional bond that carries the children into adulthood, so that they may face the world with the emotional health to achieve happy adulthood.
In short, when parents are mindful of their children’s unique emotional nature, they raise emotionally strong adults. Some parents are able to do this intuitively, but others can learn the skills. Either way, the child will learn them.
Zach is a precocious and hyperactive third-grader, the youngest of three children in a laid-back and loving family. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from the teacher describing his infraction by stating, “Zach was disrespectful today.”
Zach’s 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. Rollo 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. Rollo 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. Rollo confiscated his pencil, wrote his name on the board, and sent him home with a note.
Before describing how Zach’s mother actually responded, let’s figure out what Zach needs to get from the coming parent-child interaction: he is upset by the incident with his teacher, whom he generally likes, so he needs empathy; on the other hand, he also needs to learn what is expected of him by his teachers in order to succeed at school. Finally, it would help if his mother has noticed (emotional attentiveness) that lately, he is very sensitive to “being treated like a baby” because his older brother and sister leave him out a lot due to his age. Zach’s mother needs the three skills: feeling a connection, paying attention, and responding competently, in order to help Zach with his problem.
Here is how the conversation went between mother and son:
Mother: “Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to poke 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.”
Zach: “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. Rollo doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Zach 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. Rollo’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, Zach?”
Zach: “Yeah, Mom.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Rollo asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think something is unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
This mother’s intuitive responses in the above conversation provide us with a complex example of the healthy, emotionally attuned parenting that leads to the sane, happy adult whom Winnicott describes. What exactly did she do?
-First, she connected with her son emotionally by asking him to tell her what happened before she reacted. No shaming.
-Then she listened carefully to him. When she first spoke, she provided him with a simple rule that an eight-year-old can understand: “When a teacher asks you to do something, you do it right away.” Here Zach’s mother is instinctively attuned to his stage of cognitive development, providing him with a general rule to use at school.
-She immediately follows the rule with empathy and naming his feeling (“Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed…”). Hearing his mom name the feeling, Zach is able to express more of his emotion to his mother (“I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”).
-Again, his mother responds to Zach by naming or labeling the emotion that drove Zach’s rude behavior towards his teacher, the behavior of contradicting the teacher that was viewed as disrespectful (“Yes. I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk…”).
-Zach, feeling understood, responds by repeating this emotion word for himself, “Yeah, she got me so frustrated, and then she took my pencil.”
-But the mother isn’t finished yet. She has, in this conversation, demonstrated to Zach that she understands him and feels for him by demonstrating that she sees his behavior differently than his teacher does. However, she can’t stop there, because his tendency to debate (the likely result of having two highly verbal older siblings) will continue to be a problem for Zach at school unless he can correct it. So his mom says, “It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away.”
-Finally, she holds her son accountable for his behavior, setting the stage for future check-ins on his feisty nature by asking him, “Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zach?”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Zach’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Zach 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. And, in the event that Zach repeats this behavior at school, she will adjust her message and her actions to adapt to the difficulty he is having in the classroom.
One of the biggest challenges for most parents in this area comes from their own lack of skills for managing their own emotions. It’s hard to give your children something that you don’t have yourself.
If this sounds like you, never fear. It’s not your fault. Most likely your parents didn’t teach you the skills because they didn’t have them. And the best part: you can learn the skills!
To find out how to learn the skills for yourself, see the bestselling 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.
This blog is adapted from the book: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It was originally published on psychcentral.com as The 3 Essential Emotion Skills For Parenting. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.
Father’s Day is easy for all of the people who feel loved by, loving, and close with their dads. If your relationship with your father is strong and uncomplicated, I hope you will give him the wonderful Father’s Day that he so deserves.
But the world is full of people who have more complex relationships with their dads. If you feel either confused or disappointed about your father, there’s a fairly good chance that it’s because of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
In the United States of America, it is a time of reckoning. As a nation, as a people, who do we want to be?
Divided? Filled with hate and judgment of each other? We must decide.
In 2016, a reader commented on my blog, and it made me think deeply about anger, hate, and the harsh way that humanity judges and treats those who are different from ourselves. That reader’s comment inspired me to write this blog post on Psychcentral. Today, in 2020, it is still highly relevant. I have updated it and republished it here.
I’m a white working-class man. I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by people I trusted as a child.
The unquenchable anger from the white working class is not caused by a government or system or any other institution. It is caused by neglectful and abusive parenting. You simply can’t stay that angry, resentful, and cruel all your life if you grew up with loving people, no matter what government you have.
When people call others, like millennials, “pampered” what they are really saying is that they wish they had received that kind of care when they were young. When they brag how their toys and playgrounds were unsafe and they turned out OK, what they are really saying is that they wish someone had cared enough to put rubber matting under their own swings when they were growing up.
These people’s parents, guardians, and leaders deflected their own anger from the true target, their own parents, to “others” who did not look like them.
As a child, your parents really scare you when they spit out whatever nasty words they may have used to describe people who are of different races or creeds. You get afraid of these people, and because they don’t look nor talk like you they are very easy to spot. The working-class white people’s current anger is the flip side of genuine fear. A fear you were taught before you could form words.
A man stood on my street corner the day after the election and shouted to all of us, “Those ****” are going to get what’s coming to them now.” He looked like a 60-year-old teenage boy who can’t stop being afraid.
Neglect and abuse are passed down like a family heirloom and often go side by side. Parents will often go from one to the other as the day goes on.
As a trained therapist I believe you could provide much value by teaching people with this much hate how to break the chain of hate by raising their children with attention and love.
Truth be told, I felt somewhat stunned as I read this comment. It expressed in perfect prose some things that I know, with every fiber of my being, are fundamental truths.
Yes, anger is the flip-side of fear.
Yes. The way we treat our children shapes our world.
Yes. Of course. Childhood neglect and abuse are the root causes of anger, racism, and hate.
Anger is a fascinating emotion in many ways. It flows like water, touching and affecting all who are near it. One important way that anger differs from other emotions is that it always seeks a target.
Anger is not satisfied floating freely, like sadness or other forms of pain. Anger is built into us as a self-protective measure, so it naturally needs to be directed at someone or something.
So what if that “someone” who’s the true target is our parent? Our parent who is angry or scary, or inattentive. Our parent who has hurt or neglected us, but upon whom we are completely dependent for food, clothing, shelter, and all forms of care.
A child’s own anger seeks another, safer target; one removed as far as possible from our childhood home. The farther removed the target, the safer it feels for us. It’s a natural human process that is virtually wired in.
Here’s what I believe. Racism will never go away until we all face the true source of our own fear and anger. I hope that we can stop misdirecting our feelings, and have the courage to parent our own children differently than we were parented ourselves.
Let’s face our own pain, and work through it in a healthy way. It’s for the children. It’s for our country. It’s for our world.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. To learn more about how CEN affects relationships see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Warm thanks to Tyler, who authored the candid, thoughtful comment that inspired this article.
This article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.
Permissive parents are difficult to spot. Many appear to be great parents to an observer, and even to the children who are raised by them. Even after those children grow up, it still appears that way.
Why? Because permissive parents are often very loving. They may provide a childhood that seems ideal to their children after they grow up.
Permissive parenting is a type of camouflage. It’s a case of the inadequate parent disguised as adequate; the conflict-avoidant parent disguised as kind.
Not that permissive parents purposely disguise themselves. Quite the opposite. In fact, most permissive parents really love their children and want to do right by them. Yet they inadvertently fail their children in the most important way.
The Permissive Parent: This is the “Don’t worry, be happy” parent. This parent avoids conflict with the child. They view themselves and behave, more like a friend than a parent. They consult with the child on decisions that they should be making in their role as a parent. They don’t provide enough structure to the child or impose consequences when appropriate.
In short, by failing to perform the difficult role as a parent they over-empower the child. This may feel wonderful to the child but is, in fact, a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Psychologist Diana Baumrind was the first to describe the Permissive Parent way back in 1966. Here are Diana Baumrind’s thoughts about this type of parent:
“She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior. She allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”
If you weren’t raised by permissive parents, as you’re reading this you may be feeling envious of the child who was. After all, what child wouldn’t love to have that kind of freedom from responsibility and consequences?
But that kind of freedom has a dark underside. In fact, those raised by permissive parents face a particular set of challenges in adulthood.
Deep down, the adult child of permissive parents feels flawed. With no explanation for your struggles, you assume there is something wrong with you.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this. Recognize the source of your struggles. Recognize that it’s probably not your parents’ fault since they most likely thought they were showing you love and care by not making you angry or setting limits. They just wanted a happy child. They had no idea that they were emotionally neglecting you.
Know that all of these skills are learnable.
If you’re reading this blog and thinking you might be a permissive parent yourself, don’t despair. It’s not your fault! We all raise our children the way we ourselves were raised unless we consciously override it. And you can!
To find out more about permissive parenting, how to acquire the skills you missed, and how to make sure you don’t raise your children this way, see the books, Running on Empty, and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Yes, it’s true. Emotional Neglect can feel like abandonment to a child.
Let’s start with a refresher on Childhood Emotional Neglect. What exactly is it?
Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than most people would think. That’s because it happens far more simply than most people would think and is far more powerful, as well.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when the parents fail to respond enough to the emotions of the child. That’s all it takes.
You may grow up with plenty of food, clothes, and a good school. You may have a fine education and even a stay-at-home parent. But none of this is related in any way to Childhood Emotional Neglect.
You may enjoy having all of these basic needs fully met throughout your childhood and, from the outside, you may even appear to be fortunate, indeed. In fact, even from the inside, you may believe that too.
But here is the hard reality. There is no more basic need than emotional validation, emotional connection and emotional support. All children require this. And they need to receive enough of it from their parents in order to become emotionally strong and thriving adults.
Why? Because emotions are far more important than most people think. They are wired into us before birth for a very good reason: to help us survive and thrive.
Our feelings tell us what to do and when to do it and why we’re doing it. They drive us, direct us and motivate us. They tell us with whom we should connect and why we should connect with them, and then they connect us.
In short, our feelings are the deepest, most personal expression of who we are. They are messages from our bodies and when we ignore or discredit them, we are actually ignoring and discrediting ourselves.
So how does Emotional Neglect feel like abandonment to the child?
The vast majority of parents respond to an infant’s cries. Parents understand that a crying infant is uncomfortable in some way and needs attention; and to help out, an infant’s cries can be difficult to ignore. In this way, biology provides a way for a non-verbal infant to communicate its needs to its parents.
As children grow they develop verbal skills. They learn to say, “I’m hungry,” for example; but far too few parents teach their child to say, “I’m sad.”
As parents, we teach our children to express their physical feelings but we do a far lesser job when it comes to emotions.
First, do not worry because it is never too late. You can un-abandon yourself!
To do this follow the steps of recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Begin to pay more attention to your feelings, the vital messages from your deepest self. You will find that what you always thought was useless or shameful is actually incredibly useful.
When you follow this process of healing you will find your passion, your preferences, your strengths and your weaknesses, your joy, your needs, and yes, also your pain.
But as you allow yourself to experience all of these mixtures and nuances from within you will be building a richer, more complex, more powerful inner life that will transfer to your outer life.
You will be finding that long-ago abandoned child, reclaiming and validating and nurturing them. And in recovering the deepest expression of who you are, you will finally be allowed to become the person you were born to be.
To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join a community of CEN people going through the steps together with my guidance see the Fuel Up For Life Program.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to 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 a problem in your life.
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: 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. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?
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 fully 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.
Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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 the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
And how it affects your day-to-day life now.
Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.
To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.
First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened.
Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:
Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.
This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.
In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
And now back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.
As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.
When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.
I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another. I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, 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. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reprinted here with the permission of YourTango.
Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven. From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.
When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.
There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.
Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.
Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.
Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.
However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.
Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.
Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.
If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.
To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.