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.