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
  • Depressed
  • Grieving
  • 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
  • Addicted

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

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

What Now?

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.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Tara - February 9, 2021 Reply

Once again, thank you so much for your helpful articles. I read Running On Empty and got so much out of it. At 56 I had no idea why I was struggling so much with anxiety and depression. Now it all makes sense. I look forward to reading your next book very soon.

Lori - February 8, 2021 Reply

It’s sometimes hard for me to identify what pattern I fall into with regard to my upbringing. Is it normal to have several categories apply? Well, NOT “normal” but I think you know what I mean?
For instance, I identify with being invisible in that I learned early on NOT to have needs and that negative feelings weren’t ok. At the same time, how invisible could I have been if I was being sexually abused three times a week on average for years? In one regard I felt TOO visible but with my mom who I KNOW loved us dearly, was kind and provided for us (as did my stepfather provide for us) it turns out two of the three of us siblings (one has yet to mention it either way) felt that we weren’t mothered enough.
I clearly remember when bad things happened (even relatively low key things) that I decided NOT to mention to mom that I was hurt or sad because it would “make her sad” or “she’s too busy” or “I don’t want to burden them” or even “I’m the oldest I should be old enough to deal with it!”
I remember “teaching myself” not to cry so that by the time my dear Nana died a few months after I turned 9 (we had moved to a different state when I was 7 but she kept in close contact) I never cried. I went back with my mom and the rest of the family to settle her estate, and so the funeral service could be held and mom brought me into Nana’s bedroom to tell me privately. I can picture the chair I sat in, I can picture the anguish in my mom’s voice and on her face, I can hear myself saying “Nana died? Where is she now?” And my mom saying “She’s in Heaven. She was very sick and now she’s in Heaven.” I just said “Okay…” and mom pulled me to her in a hug, I hugged her but I just felt awkward and numb, like “what do I do now? What does ‘die’ mean and where exactly IS this Heaven?” I remember KNOWING it was significant, that I would not see her anymore and feeling this odd sensation about my face and neck like I WANTED to cry but couldn’t. I had to be strong for mom.
The legacy is a hard one to break. Just last week I was given a new diagnosis. I was told I am diabetic. I am having all KINDS of feelings about that–not good ones! Finally, after several days I went against my better judgement and told my mom first. She said “Oh really? That’s too bad” then went on talking about her stuff. Later, (a few days later) i told my sister. She’s a medical asst. I thought SHE would get it. Granted, not deadly immediately anyway but serious enough. She too brushed it off. Even my well meaning therapist. I told her and she said that my blood sugar isn’t as high as she has seen with some people and that I could work on it. I know that to be true. But that wasn’t what I needed/wanted.
Thanks.

Val - February 8, 2021 Reply

thank you for these words of wisdom. Recognised myself as invisible for whole of childhood (and most of my adult life). I’m still recovering (at 73), but grateful to have lived this long to see my life improving almost every day. Thank you for your work exposing some of the untruths and lies that children grow up with.

    Jonice - February 8, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful, Val. Take care.

Vivien - February 8, 2021 Reply

As the eldest of five children, I became aware as a child that with each additional sibling I was getting more side-lined. It was only much later, after many emotional traumas and some in-depth psychiatric exploration that I realised how much this impacted me in my early years. I wish parents could understand that no matter how much you love your children, you still only have 24 hrs in a day. The more children you have the more difficult it becomes to meet their needs adequately. I recall my mother being almost permanently stressed, and it was important that we were all ‘good’ children because if we weren’t it just increased her burden…something we were raised to be aware of, and to feel badly about if we misbehaved. We were never hit as children, but all it took was a look or a word to ensure we knew we’d made her life more difficult. Conversations were one-way, and when I was molested, as a 5 yr old, and again when I was 11 (both times by strangers in public places) I never ever told my parents. Didn’t know if it was my fault, but also didn’t want to cause them any problems. Anything to keep the peace….well, theirs anyway. Certainly not mine. It makes me incredibly sad to have my memories of them coloured by this knowledge.

    Jonice - February 8, 2021 Reply

    Dear Vivien, I’m sorry you grew up so sidelined and that you were abused by strangers. You must have felt very alone as a child and I hope you are working on your CEN now. You deserve much more and better.

Patrick - February 7, 2021 Reply

In my case I wasn’t silent about the bullies, or my needs and my parent rarely if ever responded to it no mater how outspoken I was. The point is there are acceptations to these rules and even outspoken kids are neglected and that leaves you with a sharp awareness of the neglect and acted outwards (not internally) with the resulting resentment. I feel very angry when I feel ignored and felt unimportant. Only through spiritual means (with the help of others) have I discovered my true value as a human. The past will always shape me but awareness of my over interpretation of other’s reactions (or more accurately their perceived under reaction) as an adult help me better respond to others in a more caring balanced way. The neglected individuals, with their sometimes childhood narcissistic injury, can become neglectful of their children as well and repeat the cycle.

    Jonice - February 8, 2021 Reply

    Dear Patrick, few children start out silent. They learn to be silent when their outspoken requests aren’t acknowledged and their feelings are ignored. Narcissistic injury is not a part of CEN itself, that term applies to the vulnerability of people with narcissistic personality types to become deeply hurt by any kind of small diminishment of their high self-regard.

Mary - February 7, 2021 Reply

Dr. Webb,
Like so many of your readers I saw myself when reading “Running on Empty”. My CEN was the very ‘subtle, invisible, and unmemorable’. I know my parents were doing the best they could considering how they were raised. I am on my way to becoming more visible but what I want to know is if there is anything I can do to help my adult kids (33 and 35 years old)? I know they are both living with CEN because I had no understanding of CEN until they were both grown and starting their own families. I don’t want them to wait until they are in their 50s to understand how to start becoming visible to themselves.

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Mary, you may be able to bring up the topic with your adult children and talk with them about how you are working on your own CEN. You could share a copy of Running On Empty with them or send them one of my articles. You can learn much more about how to talk with your kids and heal CEN with children of all ages, including adults in my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Siobhan - February 7, 2021 Reply

I am on Dr Jonices panel of counsellors ready to help CEN thrivers. Once you have read her book, you may decide to reach out for online help and I’ll be there.
Love Siobhan
Email: siobhanteresafoley@gmail.com

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Siobhan, thanks for all you do to guide CEN people through the recovery steps.

Dorothy - February 7, 2021 Reply

I was left to be care giver to an emotional, and mentally unstable sister. I was neglected. My needs never met. I never even knew my needs. Still don’t.

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, then start now. Pay attention to your feelings, wants and needs. There are some amazing things for you to learn about yourself!

Ally - April 13, 2019 Reply

Dear Doctor Webb, I am new to the concept of CEN and have just read Running on Empty. So much of what I have read resonates with me and I’m so grateful to you for highlighting the invisible curse that has sadly taken its toll on my mental health. Now, after years of depression and anxiety, Postnatal Depression, episodes of time off work, feelings of inadequacy, I now have a starting point to allow myself to live my life unshackled from guilt and most importantly to enjoy my life. There’s way too much to explain about my experiences here but I feel some sense of relief to know that my numbness and detachment from the world over the years has a potential root cause. There is , however, a deep sense of disloyalty to my parents, who did what they thought was right. Raised in a Methodist home, I am the only daughter with four older brothers and one younger. I always felt safe growing up and was well educated, provided for practically but as a family, we never spoke emotionally about anything. It just didn’t happen. It was a very quiet house despite the number of us. Thank you, I could talk forever about my experiences but this is not the place to do it. I’m seeing a psychiatrist here in the UK and have explained how your book has given me a starting point for recovery. With grateful thanks for finally lifting the lid on CEN.

Laura - March 21, 2019 Reply

I have emotional scars from being neglected, but also physical. Once I had a deep scratch from our cat that I know must have needed stitches. Blood was streaming down my leg and I ran to my mom and told her I needed help, but she wouldn’t get out of bed to help me (she was too depressed). To this day I have an ugly scar on my leg to remind me of the consequences of CEN, but sometimes I wonder if the scars you can’t see are even uglier b/c they robbed me of my self esteem and created my binge eating disorder – a healthy way to cope when you are a child in the midst of it all, but not at all helpful when you are an adult.

I’m really thankful for finding your blogs, Dr. Jonice Webb. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I will save this article and keep reviewing the 3 steps you outlined. I want to be visible and validated. I want to be whole.

    Jonice - March 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Laura, I agree the inside scars are the ones that stay with us the most and have the power to continue to harm us. I hope you will put yourself first and give yourself the effort to heal.

Ava - March 17, 2019 Reply

Thank you for shedding more light onto the feeling of being invisible. For my own parents, I don’t think they were struggling. I think that they just thought that providing a roof, food and schooling was their entire role in parenting children. Even now, my elderly parents praise themselves for turning out such great kids. They have no idea. I think their beliefs are so deeply entrenched that even if I were to try and explain it to them now that they would not understand how their behavior set me up for this battle. They would not take any ownership.

I have felt invisible for a very large part of my life and even now I continue to feel that way when I spend time with my parents. They will never learn, acknowledge or take responsibility for their actions.

“Knowing, without a doubt, that you were not born to be invisible, not at all. You were, in fact, born to be seen”.

Thank you, Dr. Webb.

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Ava, the fact that your parents were likely parenting the way they themselves were parented does not take away from the effect on you. I’m so glad you’re seeing this.

    Catherine - March 18, 2019 Reply

    I agree with Ava. My mum thought that her parenting duties stopped when I was 18. Click! Just like that, and I was a fully formed adult then. So when I had a nervous breakdown aged 22 she was disgusted and wouldn’t help me.
    I expect she parented me the same way as she was parented, as Ava said.

      Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

      Dear Catherine, I’m sorry that you and Ava were so alone at such a young age. I hope you will both keep taking steps to heal.

GWOR - March 17, 2019 Reply

“ is this you” the examples you give , many can identify & lived badly until they ran away from home or got into trade schools, college and maybe University a huge expense in the 1960s requiring a sponsor to borrow money to finance one’s education. There were no credit cards. Banks demanded security especially when coming from a broken family or a family identified as poor without any savings or collateral. Bad news travel fast and banks and lending institutions have powerful connections who as money and who has not.

However I was blessed in 1966 one family all passed away now, signed their names I would pay the money back And I did all of it by 1980.

Basically the bully etc…re: your examples won. If I or others under the CEN umbrella fought back in any way in the small town as labelled we were the ones the authorities or bully’s parents took measures to cause us problems in school and activities and even in clubs, scouts etc.and could bad mouth us and did when we desperately needed valued references for summer employment. especially within that community during as their children were looking for summer work as more favoured and responsible.
Somehow it all worked out we took the jobs we could find on farms ,factory, processing or drove every day to another town to work. No matter the hours.

Small towns can breed get even. So we had to take the punches, the demeaning comments , the girls thinking we were losers, and realize at this age getting a record would be for life. We seldom got invited to teen high school parties, never went to proms as let’s face it who would go out with us and many upon arrival at a house party would ask “ what’s the loser here for” Food probably, ha,ha!

Once labeled the CEN the child is toast because usually being put down he/she can only turn to self .

Fighting back in small town communities was a no no as “ it just allowed the community to caste the expression “ We told you so he is a loser and bad too, jerk”.

My friends now that we were on summer break from trade, college,university many of those played college heavy demand sports and when we sat together in the draft room the bullies scurried away like hot air. and the wimps they were while others did reach out their hands in apology and accepted . Who needs this trade war in one’s home town? The reality is the reality.

And even others who had some minimal academic standing as CEN got respectable factory work and we would all get together just like that after work for a beer here and there and wonder how we made it . We did ! And we over the years became their back up going into uncharted pathways when adversity hits all of us at some point. On our journey the destination having too many land mines at once.
But together by phone etc….we did it by caring and helping each other out of the dark hole .

To summarize while away at school we learned the law was applied equally because I was now equal financially and had graduated into the professional technical category and as my parents both sick one sick of his own compulsive doing the other because of the horrible fallout from it and now finally separated started to live to their own lives and eventually passing away with competent caring.

No one likes this way of being brought up but over the years I was able to help others in my vocation now entering the workforce meaningful and into satisfying jobs.

So they too had problems in their upbringing and one can sense it takes one to sense another CEN is hurting and needs a break out and a pathway to a bridge to get across the river to a new life. Sometimes we just do not know why we are being called into service?

So in conclusion the reality is the reality and facing that reality instead of masking it with pills and booze and whatever allowed many of us to go away make something of ourselves to be able to return home for the many funerals not in shame but just being there for the purposes served to finality and leave each other in peace eventhough others in attendance probably were our adversaries but peace is peace and go to peace even if it hurts like hell and back peacefully.

And just move forward ……there is nothing worth looking at in the rear view mirror at this point in aging.

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Gwor, it sounds like you left your CEN home and went out and made things happen for yourself. You are right, the world was very different back then. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

Catherine - March 17, 2019 Reply

This is so useful, thank you. I have long thought that if I wrote an autobiography, it would be called The Invisible Woman.
I don’t seem to register in people’s lives, I feel like an observer- watching as everyone goes about their business, enjoying life, sharing connections and emotions with others.
I don’t know how to break through that glass wall, because growing up, whenever I showed any strong emotions, my widowed mother would be angry and criticise me. Anything I did wrong was a disaster and ruined her life. So I learned not to show emotions, to just be cold and unemotional at all times, never to make mistakes or go against her wishes. Or at least on the surface. Inside was full of turmoil, grief, anger and hurt.
Lately though I’ve been doing what you suggest in number 2. Thinking what *I* want. What *I* need. What *my* choice is. It feels so soothing and enjoyable.

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Catherine, the way to become visible to others is to start seeing yourself. They go together. So the fact that you are doing #2 means you are on the right track. Keep it up! There’s a reason it feels soothing and enjoyable. You are being seen by the most important person of all: you.

      Catherine - March 17, 2019 Reply

      Thank you! It’s such a simple answer (obviously difficult for me) but doesn’t involve complicated techniques and vast amounts of money!

        Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

        Yes, it seems simple and in many ways it is. It’s important to keep at it, as your old ways will always be calling you backward.

          Catherine - March 17, 2019 Reply

          It’s just something that we didn’t get taught as children, somehow. I am glad I’m learning it now, even if it is late! 🙂

          Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

          Dear Catherine, it is indeed never too late. It will make a difference in your life!

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