How COVID-19 May Be Affecting Your Relationship With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents at the Holidays

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.

Your Relationships

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.

7 Ways COVID-19 + the Holidays are Affecting Adults’ Relationships With Their Parents

  1. You may feel a need to reconnect. As the 2020 holidays approach, you may have become somewhat distant from your parents. Whether that was intentional or unintentional, you may find yourself feeling a longing to be more in touch with them.
  2. You may worry about their physical and mental health. The Pandemic may be making it hard for you to communicate with or see your parents. You may feel less able to be involved in their choices or care.
  3. You may feel more in need of validation. All human beings need to feel seen and known and loved by their parents. We need to hear certain things from our parents that assure us that our feelings and needs matter. If we don’t receive enough of that in our childhoods (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), our brains automatically continue to seek it as adults. To need this from your parents is not a sign of weakness, but of your humanity. Feeling vulnerable right now in general may make you need this validation from your parents even more. It’s painful.
  4. You may feel afraid of losing them. Will your parents get COVID? You may find yourself worrying about or imagining how you would feel if you lost them.
  5. You may find yourself appreciating them more. There’s nothing like a fear of loss to make you more appreciative. You may be feeling more love, more warmth, or gratefulness for what your parents have done for you.
  6. You may experience them as needy. Are your parents calling you more often, asking you for help or advice or support? Do they need to connect with you more often than has been typical of them? This is likely because they are feeling vulnerable or worrying about you.
  7. Family dynamics may be intensified. Not surprisingly, stress aggravates previously existing problems of all kinds. So, in many families, old anger or frustration, or resentment has been fomenting and increasing under the powerful pressure and strain of COVID-19.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

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.

3 Ways to Cope

  • Put yourself first. Your parents are important people, of course, but your primary responsibility in life is to yourself. So be sure to prioritize your own needs during this stressful time. Your physical, mental and emotional needs must be addressed before you can give to others, even your parents.
  • Try to accept what you cannot change. This wise principle is one of the tenets of 12-Step Programs and it applies here. You do not have control over your parents and you cannot change their choices. You also cannot get from your parents what that they do not have to give, like emotional validation, empathy, or connection. Accepting your powerlessness in this relationship can be quite painful, but it does protect you from the wheel-spinning and frustration of continually going back to an empty well, looking for the emotional connection that never appears.
  • Take note of what your feelings are telling you. Your feelings are communications from your body. Every feeling carries a specific message. For example, the feeling of longing drives you to contact them more, whereas anger/frustration tells you to take protective action. Your feelings are trying to guide you, but there is a second question to ask yourself: Is this feeling telling me to do something healthy for me or something that may be unhealthy or damaging? It is important to notice and listen to your feelings, but it’s important to process them first. Sometimes, it can help to run this by someone you trust to gain a more objective opinion of what is healthy for you.

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.

Jonice

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Karen - April 21, 2021 Reply

Dear Jonice, I came across this article browsing on your website. My father, now over 100, and living 15 miles away in a care home with my stepmother is adamant that he does not want me to visit them, and has been like this for years ever since he got involved with my stepmother. Because of this we used to meet in a pub for lunch and catch up because stepmother drives and I do not and am recovering from cfs. I took particular care to give them flowers each time and thank them for the lunch and small gifts that my father likes to give me. It is now April 2021, the last time I saw them was August last year, as a friend dropped me off. Since then I continued to keep in touch but now, since the jabs have been rolled out, father has become frailer but still does not want me to visit. It was very different when my mother was alive, I would regularly visit my parents and they would visit me, but it seems ever since he remarried, he does not want me visiting them, although he continues to offer finance (I am on State Support) because I cannot work, even if I insist he does not need to as I don’t want him to think I am only wanting his money. Last week after months apart when he again told me he did not want me to visit, nor even to write now, all the hurt came out after the call, and I called a support line in the middle of the night to share the pain because i wanted my feelings and needs to be heard, understood and validated, and then I calmed down. I am keeping things pleasant with my very elderly parent and have just accepted that is the way things are. My situation is very similar to Sharon above – my brother is the same. I am the one who reaches out and rarely hear back from him either. He actually rang up this year to ask if I had a nice birthday during lockdown – he has never done that, and I actually wondered whether he was being sarcastic and doing it to be cruel because of the lockdown. When I took the call I thought he was ringing about a crisis, which shocked him and he explained (as above). After the last fob-off from dad, the light went on and I realised I had probably experienced emotional abuse/neglect as a child (I’ve never married) and both my brother and I have had a rough time in life and I cannot get close to him. My parents were quite controlling, especially my mother and she could say cruel things and was quite judgmental, my father less so. Also when I got caught by a cult at age 19, they tried to kidnap me and force me to come home and take me to a psychiatrist which frightened me because I was under mind control. Their reaction was to sell the family home and go off to another continent and dad did not speak to me for 2 years. As a result of losing the family home, dialogue broke down and I was stuck in a bad situation and suffered serious abuse from which I have never recovered. I am quite sure if they had stayed put, I would have eventually left and come home and escaped the abuse and maybe married. Eventually I managed to leave and they came home but they never suggested counselling for what I had been through; I always felt like the “black sheep” of the family and that my “behaviour” was all my fault. My mother once turned on me years after and told me nastily: “you’ll never get married”! I almost feel I would like to get married just to prove her wrong because of all the shame and humiliation that made me feel. My father’s distancing makes me as if I am being shunned for some reason. Anyway I decided this week to seek support and counselling to work on emotions and decided not to offer to visit either of them again and I will not call for a while; usually my brother only wants to speak to me at Christmas. I also decided to stop sending flowers to my dad and stepmum but will ring up to thank him for gifts and have a short chat. This seems hard, but I simply cannot continue to pour out and get emotional abuse back. At times I have wondered if the cruelty may even be intentional, but they may simply be disconnected from their own feelings. I do not think dad realises what he is doing but he seems to want to control everything around him and gets angry if he doesn’t get his own way. I think he is fearful and insecure and maybe frightened he cannot control his own death. He even rang me up and asked me if I wanted to speak at his funeral as if he was arranging a business meeting. I was flabbergasted and said it depended on how I felt at the time. I am calm now but there were lots of tears this week, however enough is enough. I have decided to take care of myself for a change. I seem to attract needy people, some are polite and respectful back, but I am tired of showing love and kindness and respect to my family, only to get neglect and downright abuse back, so am drawing a line in the sand now I see it for what it is and what it is doing to me emotionally. I started to question who and what I am, whether I am even likeable or loveable and even my own worth. That was the red light – no more!

zeeky - December 24, 2020 Reply

Thanks again for all your info you put out it really is amazing. I’m a 20 year old who has CEN parents. I suffer from CPTSD. The question is, my father is a great person who does not have the capacity to understand my emotional health (at least at this point), and is one of my many triggers. The thing is, I need an adult in my life. (to feel part of something and to feel safe/secure).
At what point do you recommend looking elsewhere for parental (safety/security) support?

    Jonice - December 27, 2020 Reply

    Dear Zeeky, it is healthy to look for an emotionally validating relationship with an adult. Have you considered seeking a CEN therapist? Check the list on this website under the Help Tab.

      zeeky - December 30, 2020 Reply

      Going to a therapist already. Right now focusing on the trauma that is restricting me from starting new relationships. But definitely going to make sure to focus on the CEN aspects as well.

Caroline - December 21, 2020 Reply

I’m 66 year old woman. Live alone and having my elderly father, older brother, his wife and a son to stay for 3 days over Christmas. It’s all done for my fathers sake really. My father lives alone and relies on me for his happiness. Although he adores his whole family I am the closest and the day to day carer/manager. He is enormously grateful for this and loves me very much. But Im dreading those three days. I don’t feel I really love any of them. I am an introvert who needs lots of space. My dad is a kind man, but I did not have a happy childhood. I am only acting out of obligation. I’m feeling very emotional and find I’m often angry and stressed and aggressive. How should I deal with my unruly feelings this Christmas?
I know really. I should just put on a good face and survive it. I have been dropping in and out of an unsatisfying long term relationship for months. Seems it’s gone for good now.
Don’t think COVID affected me so much. But I am down. I know others have much worse situations but anyway here I am alone, except for the dogs, just going through the motions, overly emotional and yet emotionally stunted in my relationships, all from the lack of real love and care in my childhood. Thank you for your work on CEN Jonice.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Caroline, I encourage you to pay more attention to your unruly feelings. Try to understand what they are, why you’re having them, and what they are telling you. The only way through feelings is to go through them, not around them.

Jen - December 20, 2020 Reply

Sounds about right. CEN.2 Nothing like the holidays and a global pandemic to bring people-apart.

Mine is an OCD Narcissist. So, the emotional side is minimized all while the appearance of a ‘happy-loving-old-timey-family facade is strengthened. Been in therapy too long to let it flatten me anymore, but it sure is annoying!
Keep the articles coming, they are the buckler on the shield of ‘stay out of the crazy mud.’
Jen

Maria - December 20, 2020 Reply

Thank you for the following—“When you feel vulnerable, treat yourself as your own number one. Because you are.” This is permission to take care of myself and pay attention to my needs, and to stop obsessing over parent or extended family relationships, particularly during these trying times.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Yes, definitely, Maria. It is exactly that. I hope you’ll put yourself first.

Laverne - December 20, 2020 Reply

Thank you, Dr. Webb, for all the work that has gone into your wisdom and compassion for others, and for offering so much of it free of charge. I am identifying with CEN as perhaps the main cause of my lifetime depression.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful to you, Laverne. I hope you’ll do everything you can to heal your CEN

Diane - December 20, 2020 Reply

It appears I’ve not been negatively affected by Covid/holidays as I don’t relate to any of those things. But I assume that simply because my Mum and I are not close and while I wouldn’t wish her any suffering, I don’t worry about her and don’t have her in my life other than the odd text in birthdays etc. She is coming for Xmas day though but it wouldn’t bother me or the kids if she didn’t come. I just have no feelings for her. Just none. It’s fine though as I’ve accepted that’s the way it is and she has no real maternal love for me either. I get all my needs met with my lovely hubby, kids and best friend as well as God/my Church family. And I actually don’t mind Covid either? A weird part of me doesn’t want it all to end as I’m happy working from home and with the few people I have in my life. And my dog obviously!

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Diane, it sounds like you have found a way to cope with having a mother who’s incapable of loving you. I’m glad you are seeking and accepting love from your husband and kids and friends.

Sharon - December 20, 2020 Reply

I admit I have isolated during the Pandemic, however, part of it is because I am tired of reaching out to my family (not just my living parent, but also my sister and brother) and still not receiving attention, except for being thanked for taking care of my other sister, who has multiple disabilities. So, I really don’t want to “reconnect”. We have done Zoom calls to bring us all together and I get very frustrated and hurt because the same thing gets played out everytime. I ask how each person is doing and we listen to them speak. Does anyone ask me about what I’ve been doing? No. Then two months down the road, I’ll hear, “Oh we didn’t know you were doing _______________”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less tolerant and don’t feel like even participating in these family “get-togethers”. No one has a clue I’m sure. Thanks for letting me vent.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sharon, just a thought… perhaps you could try saying nothing during the Zoom calls to see what will happen. It sounds like you are doing all the work, and everyone else is letting you. I wonder what would happen if you stopped taking care of everyone else.

      Sharon - December 23, 2020 Reply

      Thank you Jonice for your response and your suggestion. I will try this during our Zoom call Christmas Day.

NancyAnne - December 20, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this advice. I realize that at Christmas we are more sensitive. I have told my daughter not to worry about me. But I failed to understand that she may need to see me so I can offer love and support to her (even at 6 feet apart). I will encourage her to come over so we can be together, even if it is on Covid19 terms.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Good idea, NancyAnne. It’s quite possible that your daughter does need to see you on Christmas. CEN children are not good about asking for what they need.

Agata - December 20, 2020 Reply

thank you for your articles. It helped me to cope with my struggles in last days. I’m 50 and still didn’t overcome my childhood experience. My mother abused me – phisically and mentally, but for my younger sister was the best mom. I have very deep depression, my life is a mess, many bad decision made by 8 yo girl (I feel like that). And this year, when I hit my limit, she not only has breast cancer but also get covid after mastectomy and is in hospital now. I can not answer my sisters calls Im frozen, but my guts went creazy, I spend all the time on the toilet. I know, I’m black sheep again, nobody from the whole family will ever understand, why am I right now not able to talki about her and care about her condition. Nobody knows, what I have been through. For them – I am exatcly this way what my mother was telling about me whole time.

    Jonice - December 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Agata, it is so important that you talk with a professional about this. Please look for a therapist near you or one who can see you using telehealth. You deserve to be understood and supported.

Karen - August 23, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb for a very thought provoking article. It’s made me aware that I have been thinking of my mother a lot more lately. I’m not worried about her – she is safe and sensible. However it’s so evident that she and I are not close. You’re right. Having more time away from distractions is giving rise to greater reflection on life and what’s important. Thank you for validating a decision I didn’t even realise I’d made. And that is, I’m not willing to guilt trip myself into having any more contact with her than is good for me. One more example of how far I’ve come – thanks to the progress I’ve made since I came across your writings.

Diana - August 23, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this and the work you do. It is so helpful!

    Jonice - August 23, 2020 Reply

    You are welcome, Diana. Glad to be helpful!

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