Category Archives for "Parenting"

How to Give Your Children What They Need Emotionally

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.

The 3 Essential Emotion Skills for Parenting:

  1. The parent feels an emotional connection to the child
  2. The parent pays attention to the child and sees the child as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of the parent, a possession, or a burden.
  3. Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional needs.

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

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.

5 Ways to Improve Father’s Day With Your Emotionally Neglectful Dad

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.

  • Do you get irritated or snap at your father for apparent no reason?
  • Do you cringe a little inside when you have to talk to your dad?
  • Does being alone with your father make you feel awkward or uncomfortable?
  • Are you uncertain whether your father loves you and/or is proud of you?
  • Do you sometimes feel that your dad doesn’t actually know you very well?
  • Do you look forward to seeing your father, and then often feel vaguely let down or perplexed afterward?

Continue reading

How Child Abuse and Neglect Plant the Seeds of Racism in Our Children

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.

The Comment (Slightly Edited)

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.

Anger

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.

How You Can Help Break the Cycle

  1. Be aware of your own childhood-based anger. If you grew up ignored or in any way abused, you do have anger about it. And it’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy.
  2. Listen to the messages of your own anger. What’s it trying to protect you from now? Is it really people who are different from you? Or is your anger actually trying to protect you from the people who, for whatever reason, failed to protect you or nurture you, or even actually harmed you, as a child?
  3. Work toward the courageous act of directing your anger where it truly belongs. When your anger goes toward its true target, it will at first feel painful and scary. But this is a huge step toward your own psychological and emotional health. Your tremendous courage will pay off for yourself and for your children.

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.

The 5 Special Challenges of Adult Children of Permissive Parents

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.

The 5 Special Challenges of the Adult Child of Permissive Parents:

  1. Difficulties with self-discipline: We are not born with self-discipline. Instead, we learn it by internalizing the structure that our parents provide us growing up. If your parents didn’t enforce enough rules and limits and structure when you were growing up, then you’ll be far more likely to struggle with this as an adult. Making yourself exercise, eat well, go to bed, get up, and other aspects of self-control can be difficult when you didn’t learn it well enough as a child.
  2. Emotion management: By not challenging the child enough, permissive parents inadvertently miss out on lots of opportunities to teach their children how to manage their emotions. When a parent says, “No” and the child cries, this is a valuable teaching moment. Just like self-discipline, if you miss these “emotion lessons” growing up, you may struggle later on to know how to manage your feelings.
  3. Tolerance for conflict: Many permissive families are short on something that is a key part of life: conflict. Conflict is a necessary part of relationships, business, friendships, and marriage. The better you are at handling anger and disagreement, the better you will do in life. When you grow up in a conflict-avoidant household, you don’t have the opportunity to learn these skills.
  4. Perseverance and motivation for tasks that are difficult or boring: When the child of the permissive parent gets bored, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” When the child struggles with something that’s difficult, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” The child as an adult, when faced with something difficult or boring says to himself, “That’s OK,” and moves on to something else.
  5. Self-blame: I know what the child of the permissive parent says to himself because I’ve heard it over and over in my office. “I’m weak,” “I have no willpower,” “I don’t want to rock the boat,” “I don’t want to make anyone angry,” “I’m lazy.” And here’s the kicker that underlies them all, “My childhood was fine. I had great parents. So why am I struggling so much?”

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.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to a Child

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.

The 3 Basic Emotional Needs of Children

  • Emotional Response: Children need to experience their parents noticing their feelings. “You look sad,” “I know you are angry right now,” “I see how disappointed you are,” are examples of emotional response. This communicates to the child that their feelings are real and that other people can see them and, perhaps most importantly, that they matter.
  • Emotional Validation: Children need to be assured that their feelings make sense. “Of course you feel sad, I’m sad about this too,” “I understand why you are angry right now, it’s because_____,” or “It makes sense that you feel disappointed. It’s so disappointing when something you were excited about doesn’t work out.” This communicates to the child that they live in reality and this deepest expression of who they are is understandable to others.
  • Emotional Education: Children will have emotions throughout their entire lives, but they are not born understanding emotions and how they work. If they are to learn, they must be taught by their parents. “You look sad and I understand why. Let’s sit and talk about this together,” “Let’s sort through your angry feelings and how we can help you feel better about this,” “Feeling disappointed is a natural response to this situation and it’s OK to feel that way. Sometimes you just have to wait it out and it will fade. In the meantime, let’s think about what else could be set up to look forward to because that will help too.”

Emotional Abandonment

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.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to the Child

  1. Lack of Response: Children feel their emotions in a raw sort of way, in many ways even more intensely than adults. Children’s feelings are experienced as a powerful force as their bodies try to tell them what they want and need. When your parents do not respond to them enough the child feels a sense of abandonment from their parent. A gulf appears between them in which the child feels alone.
  2. Lack of Validation: Children do not know whether their emotions make sense or where they come from. If their feelings are not expressly understood by their parents, they are left with the impression that their feelings are not understandable and perhaps do not make sense to others. This leaves them feeling not just not validated but not valid. They will go through their lives feeling less-than.
  3. Lack of Emotional Education: Children are naturally in the dark about the world of emotions. Where they come from, what they mean, how to read and interpret them and how to use them. If they are not taught by their parents how to understand, manage, and interpret the world of feelings in themselves and others, they grow up lacking emotional intelligence, which has been shown by research to be a key factor in building a successful personal and work life in adulthood. The uneducated child feels at sea, alone and abandoned in the emotional world.

What to Do if You Experienced Emotional Abandonment as a Child

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.

10 Question Quiz: Do You Need Better Boundaries With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

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.

6 Different Ways You May Feel About Your Parents 

  • You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  • You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  • You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  • You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  • You may get physically ill when you see them
  • You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

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.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent starting from an early age.
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

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?

10 Questions About Your Boundaries With Your Parents

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

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.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Works and Why It Transfers Through Generations

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.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child in Adulthood

Marc

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.

Alise

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.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child

  1. Excessive self-sacrifice: If you grew up caring for others, you may not have learned how to care properly for yourself. You may not have learned something that everyone else knows: that your first and primary responsibility in your life is your own health and happiness. Unless you take care of yourself first, you will be depleted by your life.
  2. Regret: When the child becomes the parent, she grows up far too soon. This leaves you with a feeling of sadness and loss when you look back on your childhood. “I never got to be a kid,” you lament. You hear stories of other peoples’ childhoods, and you feel envious and sad. You are sentenced to a lifetime of regret.
  3. Co-Dependence: When you are programmed as a caretaker, it becomes difficult to step out of the caretaker role. This, in some ways, is a set-up. You are more likely to form friendships with or marry people who need care, and stay with them far too long. At your own expense.

Marc

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

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.

3 Steps for Marc, Alise, and You

  1. Put yourself first. Accept that you have needs, and pay attention to what they are. When you need healthy food, fun, rest, fresh air or alone time, take it.
  2. Replace the joy you missed as a child by finding it now. You didn’t get to run free through the neighborhood with your friends, or be doted on by two caring parents? Maybe you didn’t learn the feeling of emotional freedom? Learn it now. Discover what you love, and pursue it. Seek joy, and know that you’ve earned yours.
  3. Stop over-caring for those around you. Life is short, and you are living yours for others. This is your time to turn your powerful caring skills toward yourself.

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.

Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Thanksgiving Survival Tips

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.

It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.

The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.

If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving? 

5 CEN Tips for Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Make sure that you have one person with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect, and knows what you have been through. A spouse, sibling or trusted friend can give you great strength at the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: During the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger or disappointment to name a few. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them, and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strength: Growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you uncommonly strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for.
  5. Especially focus on self-care: Get some exercise, wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are OK, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.

For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.

Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.

 And you’re all right.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens how it affects you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

Parents: 10 Steps to Connect With Your Adult Child

The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.

“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”

It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.

One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.

So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.

One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.

Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.

Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start

  • It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
  • In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
  • The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
  • Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.

10 Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child

  1. Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
  2. Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
  3. Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
  4. Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
  5. If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
  6. If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
  8. Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involve you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
  9. Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
  10. Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.