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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!