Childhood Emotional Neglect: What Your Parents Didn’t Say and Why It Matters
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
What do you wish your parents had said to you? Answers Posted On Facebook
Anything much. I don’t remember being talked to at all.
You have a right to your feelings, & the right to be heard & have them considered.
We believe in you.
How do you feel? What do you want? I will help you figure life out.
I love you. You are enough. I am proud of you.
There is nothing wrong with who you are.
Are you okay?
Do you want to talk about it? You look upset.
My love for you is unconditional.
There’s nothing in this world you cannot do. So stand up, shoulders back and go out there.
I wish they meant what they said.
That I was beautiful.
You can make mistakes and I will not think any less of you. You don’t have to be perfect.
Don’t be scared. It will be alright. Things will go wrong but it doesn’t matter. We’re all the same.
It’s OK to get angry/sad/mad.
Anything that wasn’t emotional abuse ……anything that didn’t leave me feeling worthless or that I had to please them for their attention.
Recently I posted this blog’s title question on my Facebook Page. I got many thoughtful and heartfelt responses. The quotes above are a direct sampling of them.
Why did I ask this particular question? Because in my experience as a psychologist, I have found that people are naturally far more able to think about and describe what they wish their parents had not done or said to them than what they wish their parents had done or said to them.
This distinction is also a fair description of the difference between abuse and neglect. Abuse is an action, whereas neglect is a lack of action. Our brains record and remember things that happened (like abuse), whereas our brains do not notice things that don’t happen (neglect).
Which seems worse: a parent who screams and yells at a child and calls him names? Or a parent who simply does not talk to or engage the child at all?
I have seen that failure to engage, notice and affirm a child does just as much damage to him or her as abuse, but the effects are different. An abused child will feel “hit,” verbally, physically or emotionally; whereas a neglected child will feel simply “at sea,” invalid and alone.
I see Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) as one of the greatest potential threats to future generations. It is difficult to stop something that is invisible, intangible, unnoticeable and unmemorable.
The subtlety of CEN gives it extra power. Many adults who grew up with an absence of emotionally attentive observations and questions like those listed above do not recognize the damage that this absence has done them. And even when they recognize it, they can’t quite believe or grasp it.
People with CEN vastly underestimate its effects on them. CEN is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
A few reviewers of my book, Running on Empty, have said that the recovery chapters are unrealistic because they are about helping readers give themselves the attention, validation, and structure that they did not get in childhood. But I know that people with CEN can make tremendous progress toward this. It requires effort and motivation, but it is very much possible. I know this because I have watched it happen many times.
All of the emotionally neglected people who offered those many requests in response to my question hold a secret key. A key to fulfilling their own needs; a key that offers healing, solace, and fuel.
How to Give Yourself What You Never Got
- If your parents didn’t talk to you, then talk more to yourself. Put yourself in situations where you will be required to talk.
- If your parents never told you that you were good enough, then you must resolve this question for yourself. Are you good enough? Listen to your answer, and trust it.
- If your parents never meant what they said, then you must pledge to yourself to always mean what you say. Always speak the truth, no matter how difficult it may be.
- If your parents never asked you if you were okay, then you must ask yourself this often, and listen carefully to your answer.
- If your parents didn’t notice when you were upset, then you must try to always notice what you are feeling and why.
And so on and so on, the answer lies within you. The beginning is self-awareness.
Because once you realize what you didn’t get, this tells you what you need. And once you know what you need, I hope you will also realize that you can get it. I hope that you will fight for what you didn’t get. Ask for help and accept support because you deserve it. And then you will have it to give to your own children.
To learn more about how to give yourself and your children what you never got yourself, see the books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.