Raised By Struggling Parents: The Invisible Child
Some people were raised by narcissists, and some were raised by addicts. Some were raised by parents who were emotionally immature, and others were raised by workaholics.
As a psychologist, I, along with virtually all of the other therapists, have seen how all of these different kinds of parenting, almost without exception, produce children who grow up to grapple with the aftermath in their adult lives.
But I have also seen that some of the most struggling people in the world are the ones raised by parents who were struggling as they raised them. Why? Because children raised by struggling parents grow up with the most invisible form of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Many are raised by parents who may be well-meaning and caring, but who are so busy fighting their own fight that they have little emotional energy left over for their child.
Types of Struggling Parents
- Working multiple jobs or long hours trying to make ends meet financially
- Adjusting to a divorce
- Coping with (or stuck in) volatile or conflictual marriage
- Caring for a disabled child, parent, or family member
- Physically ill
- Mentally ill
These are some common examples, but there are many other kinds of well-meaning parents who are simply not able to provide their children with the emotional validation and responsiveness that their child, like all children, naturally and biologically, needs.
The Invisible Child of Struggling Parents
Many children of struggling parents grow up with all of their physical needs met. For example, they may have a home, food on the table, clothing, and adequate education. But the problem is, their parents are so busy fighting their own battles that they lack the energy, focus, or ability to notice what their child is feeling.
The surprising thing about growing up with your feelings unseen is that it’s impossible to grow up this way without feeling, in some heartfelt and profound way, that you, as a child and a person, are also unseen. You are invisible.
The Invisible Adult
This is why, when I meet these children in my office, decades later and fully grown, I usually see adults who not only often feel invisible in the outside world but, even more tragically, continue to treat themselves as if they are invisible.
Not only that, children of struggling parents, when they look back at their childhoods, remember how hard their parents worked or how much they suffered. Most have a warm empathy and awareness of what their parents went through to raise them. As children, many tried to ease their parents’ load by cooking, cleaning, or taking care of younger siblings.
But almost ubiquitous among children of struggling parents, and probably the saddest and impactful, is the way the emotionally neglected child of the struggling parent tries hard to have as few needs as possible as a way to reduce the burden on his parents.
If This Is You
If this is you, you may have a memory of hiding certain things from your parents. Perhaps you didn’t mention anything when you were being bullied in your neighborhood, struggling in math or gym class, or fighting with friends.
Perhaps you even kept your accomplishments to yourself. Did you fail to mention your good grades, an award you won, or funny things that happened at school for fear that they might somehow make your struggling parents feel worse? It’s not uncommon for the child of struggling parents to try to keep their own light dim so that their parents will never feel outshone.
What did you learn from growing up this way? Several very pivotal things.
Simply put, you learned to hide your feelings, and you learned to hide your needs. You learned to hide your light. You learned to hide your self.
It is not easy to go through your life feeling invisible and wondering why.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when your parents fail to notice, validate, and respond to your feelings enough. Since CEN is not an active form of mistreatment, but instead the result of your parents’ failure to act enough, it can be extremely subtle, invisible, and unmemorable.
With struggling parents, the CEN you grew up with is probably not your parents’ fault. They were likely well-meaning and wanted to do what’s best for you.
But when you grow up with your parents’ attention elsewhere, it does not matter the reason. It does not matter that they were struggling, or why. It does not matter where their focus and energy were directed. It only matters that they did not notice and respond to your feelings enough.
Whether your parents were grieving, depressed, or working several jobs, if they were not able to notice what you were going through and what you felt and needed enough, then you were likely left with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Yet when you look back at your childhood, it may appear quite fine. As a child, you saw your parent sacrificing, and you saw your parent’s pain. Your parents may, in some circumstances, seem almost heroic in their efforts, and perhaps they truly were.
But that does not change the fact that they failed you in this one very important way. That does not, in your adulthood, relieve you of the consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
How To Become Visible – 3 Steps
- Accept that you are missing a vital ingredient and that it is not your fault. You are missing the feeling of being valid and important that everyone else walks around enjoying. It’s not because you’re actually not important; it’s just those old CEN messages at work, whispering, “You don’t matter,” and “Don’t let yourself shine too bright.”
- Start giving yourself the very thing you missed in childhood: emotional attention and validation. Start paying attention to yourself in a way you never have before. Ask yourself often, “What do I feel? What do I want? What do I need? What do I think?” These questions will begin to inform you and allow you to start seeing and knowing yourself. And this is a key step toward being seen by others.
- Set yourself free of the struggle: Being raised by parents who are struggling does not obligate you to live that struggle. Your parents’ lives belong to them, and your life belongs to you. It is your duty to live for yourself, free of the chains and pain that your struggling parents unwittingly handed down to you.
As you let go of the burdensome sense that you have brought your own struggles upon yourself, you can begin to see yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses, wishes, needs, feelings, and passions as things that are real and that matter.
As you let go of the battles that your parents, perhaps even lovingly, fought for you, you will feel yourself coming alive and taking up space in ways that will surprise you.
You will find yourself walking around just as other people do: knowing, in a deep and unshakeable way, that you are valid, you are important, and you matter.
Knowing, without a doubt, that you were not born to be invisible, not at all. You were, in fact, born to be seen.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be very subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about your emotionally neglectful parents, their struggle and yours, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.