Got Issues? It’s All Your Parents’ Fault

Everything that’s wrong in your life is the fault of your parents. Whatever your struggles, your mistakes and your pain, you are not to blame. You are an innocent victim of those who raised you.

At least that’s the way some folks interpret my definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

The definition of CEN: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. People who grow up this way go forward into adulthood out of touch with their own emotions, feeling empty, alone and disconnected, and are baffled about what is wrong with them.

Here’s a comment that was posted on Ten Steps to Learn Self-Discipline:

Are you saying that when a parent fails to teach their children this skill well enough, that parent is guilty of Childhood Emotional Neglect? This article was insulting.

I’ve received many such comments. They point to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.

Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they are as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”

Here is a section copied almost exactly from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect:

“In my psychology practice, I have found that many, if not most clients are very uncomfortable with the notion that their parents had such a powerful effect on them. Perhaps acknowledging the incredible power of parents is inherently threatening to us all. If we understand the true impact that our parents had on us, we may feel ourselves alone, disempowered, or even victimized, all of which are profoundly uncomfortable. If we understand the true impact that we have, as parents, upon our own children, we may feel terrified or guilty. So, as a people, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our own issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our children.”

As a psychologist, a parent and a daughter, I truly understand this discomfort on multiple levels. The concept of blame weighs heavily upon us all. If we blame our parents, then perhaps we will feel less burden of blame upon ourselves. But is this a way of letting ourselves off the hook for taking responsibility for our own choices and behavior? And won’t we then have to feel guilty, and take the blame for how we have parented our own children? It is a Win/Lose situation at best; and a Lose/Lose situation at worst.

So what is the answer? Who is at fault for our adult struggles, mistakes and issues? Do our parents get a free pass? What if our parents were well-meaning? What if we have made mistakes with our own children? Are we to blame for that? What is the answer?

Fortunately, there is an answer to this dilemma. And it is free and available to anyone who is willing to embrace it. The answer is:

Remove blame from the equation. Instead, focus upon understanding your parents’ effects upon you and taking accountability for your own decisions, mistakes and choices.

Unless your parents were unloving, uncaring or abusive, blame is a useless concept. It is a road that takes you directly to Nowhere. Blame is not healing and it is not helpful.

However, it is worthwhile to try to understand how your childhood affects you. Understanding is crucial to being able to have compassion for yourself and to conquering your adult struggles. You can have an understanding of how your parents’ mistakes affected or hurt you without going down that Blame Road to Nowhere.

Once you see how your childhood affected you, you are freed up to hold yourself accountable as an adult. You, the adult, are responsible for your own decisions, mistakes, and choices. Own them. Be accountable for them. Learn from them, and move forward. No blame or guilt necessary.

I think that we would all be much healthier and happier if we would let go of this obsession with blame, realize that yes, each and every human being has a childhood living within him which has a profound effect upon who he is as an adult. Understanding your childhood does not absolve you of responsibility for your adult life. Instead, it frees you up to take responsibility for your adult life.

Yes, there are complex interactions between genetics, environment and parenting which are yet to be discovered. But the true power of parents is not one of them. It is a known, highly studied and highly proven fact. And the better we embrace it and use it to our advantage, with a focus on understanding and accountability and less on blame, the happier and healthier we will be.

See a more complete version of this article on Personality Disorder Awareness Network.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Arze - February 2, 2024 Reply

I see that you are trying hard to remove blame from the equation, but in the book you really do set up the language surrounding blame. “Yet it is incredibly difficult to forgive someone who has not recognized how they have wronged you, apologized …..”.
For most people not forgiving and setting up the “sides” as the wronger who needs to apologize to earn their forgiveness, is synonomous with blaming.
Even if it is not meant to create blame and a lack of self responsibility, it is certainly presents a model which can both resonate very intuitively to a person who has a predilection to blame others and not take self responsibility thereby easily leading to misdiagnosing CEN, and can also create a pattern of blame which travels to other arenas of life like school, work, and community.
In my personal guidance I have seen people who have narcissistic tendencies who quickly self diagnose themselves or their partners with CEN.
How can one respond when CEN is mistakenly self diagnosed? Any response of the parent for a second diagnosis or professional diagnoses has been labelled by the system as denial, defensiveness, or misunderstanding.

Nonameplease - December 22, 2023 Reply

I am not sure what to think of this article. I love my parents dearly and they were good parents. But I have always felt something confusing that I cannot put into words. In sixth grade I was molested by a cousin. when my parents found out they did not report it to the police nor did they ever bother to tell my aunt & uncle. They simply swept it under the rug and stopped letting him spend the night. I never wanted to see him again, but was still forced to see him regularly when the family went to visit them and also forced to spend holidays with him. I never received counseling. It was very painful for me, and I even suppressed the memory for a few years until I “remembered” again in tenth grade. At which point I had trouble dealing and started cutting myself. My parents still didn’t take me for counseling and instead threatened me screaming that I had better stop because “you’re not crazy like your cousin”. I just got better at hiding it for a little which and didn’t actually stop until during college when my fiance helped me want to stop hurting myself. For once in my life I do want to live now, and I haven’t seen my cousin since I became an adult except for one funeral my parents guilt tripped me into attending of an aunt. I do love my parents. really, I do. and they treat me well. But the emotions are confusing, and I can’t quite decide what they are I feel about this. I just know anytime I think about it and how I was forced to see him I still want to scream and cry. I love my parents, but I feel strangely detached from them and never have that normal child desire to see them. I am like that with everyone (grandparents, sibling, parents, etc) except my husband and own children. I miss my husband and children easily. It is why I have no friends (the whole lack of bonding with people) and it does not bother me. And I am not sure why I’m like that. because it cannot be normal, feeling so detached from your own birth family. if anyone else in this situation reads this, please don’t force your kids to see their abuser. it will seriously screw them up in the head like it did me. Just back your children up and be in their corner. Not the abuser’s.

Jonathan - July 19, 2023 Reply

I lost everything because my stupid mother

compelledtonote - March 31, 2015 Reply

This outlook (opinion in the original blog & promoted book) can be superficially appealing; but must agree with comments noting the “one hat fits all” approach:
over-simplified explanation for complexity of life challenges and struggles faced by Adults. This does not fit for me personally, nor anyone I’ve known.

    Dfgddg - April 16, 2024 Reply

    genes determine the vast majority of our lot in life. if you have two parents whom are ugly and dumb, probably so dumb they didn’t know the primal act of sex can produce life, then how can’t you blame them? if ALL your shortcomings are inherent in them abd almost 1:1 with the sum if whatever gene expression you adopt, then yeah, their fault. my parents have absolutely no edu, no basic intelligence, both broke at 50+, mindless blue collar work for both, and I’m likely not capable of overcoming my deficiencies I’ve adopted from them. even a abused and neglected child can have a more successful life if his abusive parents at least had genes that made him/her desirable and effective in society.

Jay Wood - March 5, 2015 Reply

I cannot begin to say how distressing the assumptions made here are. Whilst I believe my late parents loved me they were highly complex people with various issues and emotional abuse featured regularly in my childhood, emotional neglect was very much part of the package. I graduated and then did a post grad in education specialising in working with kids with social, emotional and behavioural special needs, yes, I frequently encountered students who were emotionally and physically abused and neglected, I fully understand the impact of social, environmental and emotional factors on development.
I have according to various assessments very high emotional intelligence, I am a communicator, a teacher and a writer, I am also a parent.
As parents we have focused on meeting all our kids emotional needs, from having regular and open conversations about their needs, fears, joys and interests to as they have grown up been responsive to all their concerns whether it wasn’t getting a part in the school play, dealing with bullying issues, listening to and chatting about their evolving sense of the world and always having an open door policy with their friends, we love and support our kids and respect them as individuals. Last year my teenage daughter started suffering from depression and anxiety bases issues, we talked, we helped, we sought advice most importantly we have loved absolutely unconditionally. To go through your check list, yes I’d say someone who has low self esteem would relate to many of the areas you identified, I’d also say many adolescents would too, or anyone who has suffered from a depressive illness. Your one hat fits all assumptions are cruel and misguiding, child abuse in any form is horrific but to say all behavioural responses stem from emotional neglect when there are often genetic predispositions to depression, there are environmental factors, personality types and a plethora of circumstances that make up an individual is deeply distressing to someone who despite experience has done everything to ensure their child’s emotional needs were met and supported is crushing. Thank you, the life I had as a child is not one I replicated as a parent, your words are vicious and ill conceived.

    JstJayne - March 5, 2015 Reply

    Vicious and ill conceived? WOW. If nothing else you shown me 2 things; your ability to use “big” words and your total misunderstanding of this issue. I was an RN for 30 years and excelled at my job. I was able to function in the world despite my “low self esteem,” which stemmed from feeling unloved. This article was very helpful to me, and others. I’m sorry your superior attitude impairs your ability to understand the core topic.

JstJayne - February 5, 2015 Reply

I knew as a child that the way my mother treated my siblings and me was wrong. The only time she ever touched us was to spank us. She showed absolutely NO empathy, emotion or love. I remember thinking at a young age that when I had a child I would never treat him or her that way. I had a great father and when he was home she never hit us. The hitting wasn’t what bothered me. It was never feeling loved by her. I stayed in my hometown and took care of my parents when they died. All my life, I just wanted my mother to say or even show that she loved me. She never did. She died at 83.. I realize my issues are mine to deal with, but that feeling of being unworthy of her love will always be with me. I’m sorry but I DO blame her to some extent. We were never hugged, or shown any signs of affection, and I needed that badly. I was raised in a Christian home and was taught to honor my parents and I did. But honoring them is not forgiving her. I have tried, and I’m still trying to forgive her. My son will never doubt my love for him. I am affectionate and tell him I love him every day. I suppose I have my mother to thank for that, at least.

    Jonice Webb - February 5, 2015 Reply

    Dear JstJayne, you may not have noticed this sentence in the article, “Unless your parents were unloving, uncaring or abusive, blame is a useless concept.” Your mother was so unloving and uncaring that it crossed over the line to emotional abuse. I think you should blame her and feel fine about that. Obviously you’ve taken your mother’s “nothing” and turned it into “something” for your children. You are inspiring. Thank you for your comment!

      mcamp - February 18, 2015 Reply

      Ah good. I’m glad to see this comment and answer.

      No love or affection here either. The only affection I can remember is a tag on gifts at xmas ‘love mother’. That always threw me. Who is this person? haha

      I’m over 50 and it’s taken until my 40’s before I got mad. I would dearly love to rip into her and give her a piece of my mind, but I suspect she’s dead.

Lora - February 4, 2015 Reply

This was helpful to me; thank you. I went to counseling but stopped when she asked me to write a letter to my father. I felt it wasn’t fair to blame him when I knew the things he’d gone through as a child and knew that he was doing his best, but just didn’t have much to give. Looking at it from the perspective of understanding and taking responsibility will help.

    GoWest - February 5, 2015 Reply

    Our extended family had a get together a few months ago. We live all over the world, so don’t get to visit often. One afternoon we took time to go around the room and discuss family issues, or personal mental health issues. One cousin talked about her mom, and I could see the pained look on her face, even though she was very respectful, yet confused. It was a lightbulb moment for me. I shared with her my experiences with her mom, my aunt. I told her if I had been raised by my aunt it would have harmed me, even though I loved and respected my aunt. I could see the look of peace cross my cousin’s face, as she realized that her sense of pain and hurt had a cause. We all still respected our elders, but we embraced the reality that no one is perfect.

oldblackdog - February 4, 2015 Reply

yes, it’s vital to our ability to live life fully to chuck blame and guilt as they cripple us emotionally. Parents profoundly affect children – but they don’t create the entire environment, and they themselves were profoundly affected by their past treatment. There are familial patterns — and once you understand that you can figure out ways to break your family’s pattern.

Some of us became very parentified as kids – and became defenders of parents and the family unit, seeking to avoid shame.

It is a paradox — but you have to be able to acknowledge that you were neglected or hurt in some ways by your parents if you want to (1) figure out how to nurture yourself and (2) figure out how to do better with your children if you have them. And if you are in this group, it’s important to know that the more neglected you were, the harder it might be to acknowledge your grief because it can be so hard to let go of the hope that some day you will get what you need. That need to fix relationships can lead us into other non-nurturing ones with spouses and such.

Some of us also become professional fixers – seeking to do right for others what was done wrong to us. It’s not such a bad outcome – as long as we can accept who we are.

JoAnn - February 3, 2015 Reply

I completely agree that we need to stop blaming our parents. Yea i had a horrible childhood…but ull neber hear me say i do this or that cuz my mom hit me. I am an adult taking responsibilty of my own actions. I actually have for many years been lookong at how my childhood has affected me as an adult and doing what i need to so i can change behaviors that are ‘automatic’. Some parents are to blame and some arent. Ita up to us to stop the cycle so we dont imduce the same psychological harm to our children. It might not of even started w our parents…could of started w theirs and even generations before, but its up to us to stop it..

    Jonice Webb - February 3, 2015 Reply

    Well said Joann thank you for your comment!

warrior7 - February 3, 2015 Reply

I think a lot of us grew up with the “Honor your Father and Mother” commandment. It is a hard thing to realize they caused it. I’m sure mine were oblivious to the ramifications of their non actions and actions.

    Jonice Webb - February 3, 2015 Reply

    Yes, Warrior, well said. But we don’t have to blame them to understand their contributions to the problems. Wishing you the best!

Jen - February 1, 2015 Reply

We didn’t create the problem, but now we have to deal with it.

Understand CEN is the Key - February 1, 2015 Reply

The keys is understanding CEN. Your parents are to blame but they do not need to be held accountable. I am 39 and have battled with this for over 29 years. It was still happening to this day until though personal research I found a cause for all my pain. I have removed these people from my life and they will never become part of it again. I am 1000% times better. I have not passed it on to my children as I have treated them how I would of liked to be treated as a child. I am trying to overcome my limitations that I have imposed on myself because of a total lack of self-worth. I also know that I am the only person that can heal me. My partner was experiencing PTSD from issues from her past. She felt I would not be emotionally supportive of her. I knew something was wrong. I tried talking to my mother who she had confided in. She had told her not to tell me. I knew something was wrong and had spoken to my mother about it for 3 years. Bad mistake. Even at 39 CEN was still occurring. My only way of punishing my partner for not confiding in me was to hold back on the emotional support for her. I was not consciously doing it. This had made me look back on my life and times when I really needed them. The problem I found was that before the age of 10 I can not remember much except for the times when the emotional support was not there when I truly needed it. After the age of 10, I just did not bother with trying to get it. Understanding your own issues with CEN is the key. I do not blame my parents as I can see how it can manifest over time, I can also see there own issues,(not my problem). They are responsible though. They are responsible for the person you are. Once you find the cause, it is up to you to take responsibility of yourself and change yourself for the better. I will never allow it to happen to me again. 22/22 in questionnaire.

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