Raised By Emotionally Neglectful Parents: 17 Signs to Look For
What kind of parents fail to notice their child’s feelings?
Since this type of parental failure (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) causes significant harm to the child, people naturally assume that emotionally neglectful parents must also be abusive or mean in some way. And it is true that many are.
But one of the most surprising things about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that emotionally neglectful parents are usually not bad people or unloving parents. Many are indeed trying their best to raise their children well.
3 Categories of Emotionally Neglectful Parents
Type 1: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves Parents (WMBNT)
There are a variety of different ways that well-meaning parents can accidentally neutralize their children’s emotions. They can fail to set enough limits or deliver enough consequences (Permissive), they can work long hours, inadvertently viewing material wealth as a form of parental love (Workaholic), or they can overemphasize their child’s accomplishment and success at the cost of his happiness (Achievement/Perfection).
What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning Category 1 status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised. They were raised by parents who were blind to their emotions, so they grew up with the same emotional blind spot that their own parents had. Blind to their children’s emotions, they pass the neglect down, completely unaware that they are doing so.
Children of WMBNT parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN, a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame and guilt. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you often see a benign-looking one. Everything you can remember may seem absolutely normal and fine. You remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall what your parents failed to give you.
“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills, unless you have taught them to yourself throughout your life since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.
6 Signs To Look For
- You love your parents and are surprised by the inexplicable anger you sometimes have toward them.
- You feel confused about your feelings about your parents.
- You feel guilty for being angry at them.
- Being with your parents is boring.
- Your parents don’t see or know the real you, as you are today.
- You know that your parents love you, but you don’t necessarily feel it.
Type 2: Struggling Parents
- Caring for a Special Needs Family Member
- Bereaved, Divorced, or Widowed
- Child as Parent
Struggling parents emotionally neglect their child because they are so taken up with coping that there is little time, attention, or energy left over to notice what their child is feeling or struggling with. Whether bereaved, hurting, depressed or ill, these parents would likely parent much more attentively if only they had the bandwidth to do so.
But these parents couldn’t, so they didn’t. They didn’t notice your feelings enough, and they didn’t respond to your feelings enough. Although the reasons for their failure are actually irrelevant, you have not yet realized this yet. You look back and see a struggling parent who loved you and tried hard, and you find it impossible to hold them accountable.
Children of struggling parents often grow up to be self-sufficient to the extreme and to blame themselves for their adult struggles.
4 Signs To Look For
- You have great empathy toward your parents, and a strong wish to help or take care of them.
- You are grateful for all that your parents have done for you, and can’t understand why you sometimes feel inexplicable anger toward them.
- You have an excessive focus on taking care of other people’s needs, often to your own detriment.
- Your parents are not harsh or emotionally injurious toward you.
Type 3: Self-Involved Parents
This category stands out from the other two for two important reasons. The first: self-involved parents are not necessarily motivated by what is best for their child. They are, instead, motivated to gain something for themselves. The second is that many parents in this category can be quite harsh in ways that do damage to the child on top of the Emotional Neglect.
The narcissistic parent wants his child to help him feel special. The authoritarian parent wants respect, at all costs. The addicted parent may not be selfish at heart, but due to their addiction, is driven by a need for their substance of choice. The sociopathic parent wants only two things: power and control.
Not surprisingly, Category 3 is the most difficult one for most children to see or accept. No one wants to believe that his parents were, and are, out for themselves.
Being raised by Category 3 parents is only easier than the other two categories in one way: typically, you can see that something was (and is) wrong with your parents. You can remember their various mistreatments or harsh or controlling acts so you may be more understanding of the reasons you have problems in your adult life. You may be less prone to blame yourself.
7 Signs To Look For
- You often feel anxious before seeing your parents.
- You often find yourself hurt when you’re with your parents.
- It’s not unusual for you to get physically sick right before, during, or after seeing your parents.
- You have significant anger at your parents.
- Your relationship with them feels false, or fake.
- It’s hard to predict whether your parents will behave in a loving or rejecting way toward you from one moment to the next.
- Sometimes your parents seem to be playing games with you or manipulating you, or maybe even trying to purposely hurt you.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Knowing the type of emotionally neglectful parents you have is tremendously helpful. It helps you improve your relationship with your parents, as well as protect yourself emotionally. Learn much more in my book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This post is an update of an article first published on PsychCentral.
Thank you for an insightful post. I recognize a bit of all three types of neglectful parents in my own parents.
There is an element of my parents having grown up in cold families themselves, I see that especially clearly with my father, who had a hard mother, as far as I know.
There is something of the struggling parent within my mother. I would not be surprised if she has struggled with some sort of low-level depression for many years.
And there is authoritarian streak in my father.
I do recognize all three responses within me. I felt sick and scared sometimes to bring up something with my father. I wanted to help and support my mother, who often felt as if she struggled. And I also recognized the signs of the first category.
I am especially intrigued by the remark that your parents feel boring. Mine always did, not in a sense of “old people are boring”, but in a more visceral sense: there was a greyness to our family, a lack of joy and silliness and a strong desire to conform. I have always felt that.
Thanks for the column, it gives me much to reflect upon.