Parents, You Can Reverse Generations of Emotional Neglect By Doing 3 Small Things

Can well-meaning, loving parents fail their child emotionally? Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.

It is possible for even the most caring and well-intentioned parents to be emotionally neglectful. In fact, the largest subset of emotionally neglectful parents genuinely do love their children and want the best for them. I have encountered so many such parents over the years that I assigned them a name: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves parents — or WMBNTs.

Those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents are literally set up to under-respond to their own children’s feelings once they become parents. No matter how well-meaning they are as parents, it becomes not only vital but necessary for them to make a special, conscious effort to attend to the feeling side of life with their own children.

The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child. For healthy development, loving a child just isn’t enough. Parents must also be in tune with their child.

For a parent to be in tune, he must be a person who is aware of and understands emotions in general. He must be observant so that he can see what his child can and can’t do as he develops. And he must be willing and able to put in the effort and energy required to deeply know his child. A well-meaning parent who lacks in any one of these areas is at risk of emotionally failing his child.

To get a better idea of how Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) parenting works, I’m going to share a vignette from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Jack

Jack walks home from school with a worry on his mind. He knows that his teacher, Ms. Simpson, sent an email to his mother about his disrespectful behavior in class today. When Jack walks into the house, his Mother is in the living room watching her favorite show. “Hi, Jack, how was school?” she says absent-mindedly. Jack stands next to his mother on the couch and nervously stammers, “Well, actually Ms. Simpson…”  

“Hang on one sec, Jack. This is the very end of the show,” Jack’s mom says, interrupting him. Jack stands awkwardly next to the sofa for a moment, but after a minute or so he gets bored and distracted. Retreating to his bedroom to play video games, Jack forgets all about the email. The next day his mother sees Ms. Simpson’s email, which says, “Jack was disrespectful to me in class today. He continued to laugh and talk with his friend after I’d asked him several times to stop.” As Jack’s mom reads the message, she is momentarily bothered. But she thinks to herself, “Wow, Ms. Simpson sure overreacts to things,” and puts the note, and the problem, behind her.

In this example, Jack’s mom, although a loving mother, is not attending to the feeling level of life. She didn’t sense Jack’s anxiety about the problem at school. She does not see a reason to be concerned about his disrespect toward his teacher because she’s blind to the connection between behavior, feelings, and relationships — in this case, the relationship between Jack and Mrs. Simpson. She places no value on Mrs. Simpson’s feelings, dismissing them as an “overreaction.” These are all sure signs of a person who is not aware or in touch with the world of emotion, and who lives mostly on the surface of life.

The world is full of WMBNT Parents. And probably almost none of these well-meaning people have any idea that they are not providing their children with the fuel that they would need for a happy, connected life. They are each simply recreating what they experienced in their own childhoods.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot to emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and just like Jack’s mom, they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, the circle continues.

The Good News – 3 Things You Can Start Doing Right Now

As a WMBNT parent, it is never too late. Whether your child is a toddler, tween, teen or adult, there are specific things you can do to prevent or heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect that was passed down to you, and never your choice.

  • Begin to address your own Emotional Neglect. You were raised to ignore your own feelings, and so now you do. But you can turn the tables, and start to honor yourself in a new way. By caring about and noticing your own feelings and emotional needs, you will naturally begin to notice your child’s in a new way. The more you heal yourself, the more emotionally healthy and strong your child will be.
  • Get more curious. Ask your child more questions. Emotionally neglectful parents tend to talk when it’s necessary. You can change that! Talking more, especially asking questions and then listening intently, gives your child a loud and clear message that will turn the tides on the Childhood Emotional Neglect you were handed by your parents. The message is, “You matter. I care what you feel and think. I care who you are.”
  • Make a point to talk about meaningful things with your child. Life is full activities, plans, events, and things people do. Try to focus more on the world of emotion that runs like a river through it all. Notice your small child’s feelings; or if she is older, ask her what she’s feeling. Help her name what she is feeling, and talk with her on an emotional level. You can do that with a child of any age.

When you give your child the message that you are interested in his true self, you are plowing through generations of neglect, and reversing it.

You are making a difference that will change your child’s life forever. To learn much more about how to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect with the people you care about the most, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Jonice

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Garry - March 29, 2018 Reply

Errors are allowed by every parent and the main thing is that these errors do not recur. Parenting a child is a complex process that involves more than one nuance, or not 3 things, as you write, but much more. I know this from personal experience: I worked two job, I was engaged in the education of my younger brother, who is 12 years old. Because our mother finds it difficult to work and returned late.

Rachel - March 8, 2018 Reply

Thank you. I have two children (ages 3 & 7) and have just discovered CEN. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, my childhood was relatively happy, no active traumas aside from being held back a grade (of which we never spoke of). But I can remember plenty of times when I was told not to cry (“Only babies cry”) or given the impression that I couldn’t complain/express frustration or anger or unhappiness at situations because I had to be “adaptable”. Now as an adult, I’m very adaptable, but completely unable to deal with emotions. For some reason, anger seems to be the only emotion I express and not well which then leads me down my usual shame cycle.

This site and this article give me hope that I haven’t completely ruined my children, there is still hope to turn around my own emotional neglect of them. I never meant to do it, I wanted to be there for them, but I can’t express emotion myself, how can I help them?

Joy - February 6, 2018 Reply

Your articles and books are so incredibly helpful! Thank you for all the wisdom you and focus you put on CEN. It has completely changed my life.

Garry - January 11, 2018 Reply

Errors are allowed by every parent and the main thing is that these errors do not recur. Parenting a child is a complex process that involves more than one nuance, or not 3 things, as you write, but much more. I know this from personal experience: I worked two jobs, and while doing freelancing as a writer of articles, I was engaged in the education of my younger brother, who is 12 years old. Because our mother finds it difficult to work and returned late.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 11, 2018 Reply

    Dear Garry, it sounds like you have learned about parenting in some difficult ways. I surely am not saying that these 3 things are all there is to parenting! It’s such a complex process that sometimes it helps to identify a few single, understandable truths/guidelines to follow, especially when it comes to emotions.

Tommy G. - January 11, 2018 Reply

One parent dead, one lost to dementia. This isn’t going to happen for me, which makes me feel like a guy in a stone canoe riding a river of lava: the boat isn’t stopping and you aren’t jumping out to swim for it.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 11, 2018 Reply

    Tommy, it’s painful when you realize you’ll never get emotional validation from your parents. But it’s not the end of the road; it’s a beginning. You can begin to focus on yourself and give yourself what your parents couldn’t give you. Keep reading and learning about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and it will pay off I assure you.

grannyfrog - January 10, 2018 Reply

I’m already an adult with 3 adult children and 4 teenage grandchildren. My kids don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to talk about it. About anything. I don’t even know how to talk to them. When we do talk, I just listen to them talk. I’m stuck as to what to do or say to them. When I asked what I could do to ‘fix’ the situation, I was told they don’t want to ‘fix’ it. Just keep it the same as it is. Which is nothing. Where to I go from here

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 11, 2018 Reply

    Dear Grannyfrog, it is very hard to give your children something that your parents couldn’t (I’m guessing) give you: true emotional attunement. It’s great that your adult children talk to you so much! Try to understand what they are feeling while they talk, and try to respond on a more feeling level to them. It will make all the difference. There’s lots of help on how to do it in Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. Do not give up on this, OK? All my best wishes.

      grannyfrog - January 11, 2018 Reply

      My children don’t/won’t talk to me about it. They don’t want to hear about it. They tell me to ‘get over it’ if I do mention it. You can’t Transform Relationships unless both parties are willing to try.

        Jonice Webb PhD - January 11, 2018 Reply

        You don’t have to talk directly about “the problem” if they refuse to do so. Just start responding differently. It will take time but will gradually make a difference.

          grannyfrog - January 11, 2018 Reply

          How do you respond differently when there is basically no communication?

          Darryl - January 12, 2018 Reply

          I think at this point in time the problem, right now, is lack of communication before emotional neglect. I have been in this same situation as you before but coming from the child side. I say invite your kids over but not to “talk”. Your relationship hasn’t been that way, why should it start now? Just hang out, watch a movie or if you can’t get them to do that, have them take you to the store to buy a coat or laundry soap (actually buy something so it won’t feel like a waste of their time). Ask their advice on what color garment to buy. Start interacting that way. It’s a start. I suggest not trying to jump in and get close right off the bat. When you do get to the point of confronting the emotional neglect, don’t start off with “I want to talk to you about..”. That is code for “hey, here’s what is wrong with YOU (not wrong with me but wrong with you)!”. In my situation I know that when my parent(s) finally did get around to the emotional neglect issue I had such a distrust, such suspicions, such…I don’t really have a word for it. But I was thinking “why are they bothering now? They didn’t when it would have mattered”. It was like my needs did not mean enough to them to get their attention but I was a chore to them rather than worthy. I can imagine it is the same for your kids. If the kids don’t want it ‘fixed’ then don’t. Trying to fix it would be just another incident of neglecting what they want (even if it would be for their own good). But do not ignore the emotional neglect issue. Maybe start paying attention to their emotional needs without saying you are paying attention to their emotional needs. ‘Fake it until you make it’ as I have heard it said before. Just start trying to meet their needs (without pouring it on too thick because they will know something is up) without having to have an entire speech of how your neglect of them made YOU feel.

          Jonice Webb PhD - January 13, 2018 Reply

          That is wonderful advice for grannyfrog Darryl! Thank you for taking the time to write it!

          grannyfrog - January 13, 2018 Reply

          Thank you Jonice and Darryl, My CEN is not about my kids as much as it is about me. And besides, my kids would laugh me off the planet if I suggested going shopping or even coming over. They don’t even come over for holidays. Too busy with their kids’ activities. For me it’s about being laughed at when I cried, being told to lose weight & I’d have more friends (I was about 8 years old). Being told not to be sad or angry or any other emotion but Happy. I should have nothing to be sad/angry about cuz I have a home/food/parents etc. They weren’t wrong but they never validated my feelings. I was always told to ‘feel’ some other way. I shy away from expressing my feelings for fear of being laughed at. BTW, my parents have been gone for 20 years. My own siblings (I’m the youngest of 4) don’t value me at all for anything. I see them maybe once a year and we all live within a few miles of each other. Like my kids, I really don’t want to fix anything or to be ‘fixed’. I just need to be heard.

Mom of 2 Boys - January 9, 2018 Reply

This is an incredible article!!! Thank you for these very specific, actionable, yet transformative steps. I think you should rename your title to, “Parents, You Can Reverse Generations of Emotional Neglect By Doing 3 Small (But Powerful) Things”

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 9, 2018 Reply

    Good idea for the title! I’m glad you like the article. Take care!

resmiye oral - January 9, 2018 Reply

great guidance! I love posts that provide practical guidance to parents, especially those including “address your own issue first and foremost” like you did. thank you on behalf of my clients. I posted it on facebook.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 9, 2018 Reply

    I’m glad you found the article helpful Resmiye! We parents can use all the help we can get 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

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