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How to Know if You Experienced Emotional Abuse or Neglect as a Child

What is Childhood Emotional Abuse?

Jack

Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Sadie

Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away.  “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.

While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.

It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.

But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.

Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.

To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.

Jack

At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.

At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.

Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.

Sadie

At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.

People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time. 

Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect.  Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.

What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.

And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.

5 Tips For Healing the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or Abuse

  1. Accept that your childhood lives within you. There’s a legitimate reason why you’re not happier. It’s your childhood.
  2. The effects of the neglect are subtle and hide beneath the abuse. So it’s hard to see the neglect until you’ve addressed the abuse, which is far more obvious, visible, and memorable. It helps to work on the effects of the abuse first.
  3. If you grew up with emotional abuse, it’s important to work with a trained therapist. Almost everyone who experienced childhood abuse of any kind, in any amount, needs therapy to heal.
  4. If your childhood experience was pure Emotional Neglect, you may also benefit from therapy. But you may also be able to address many aspects of the effects on your own.
  5. Emotionally abused, neglected, or both: a huge step in your recovery involves learning to recognize, own, accept and express your feelings, and realizing why they matter.

And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire.  It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty

**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.

A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.

10 Question Quiz: Do You Need Better Boundaries With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents?

It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to their children.

As much empathy as I have for parents, being one myself, today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is a problem in your life.

There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.

Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.

6 Different Ways You May Feel About Your Parents 

  • You may feel guilty for not wanting to spend more time with them
  • You may feel very loving toward them one minute, and angry the next
  • You may look forward to seeing them, and then feel let down or disappointed when you’re actually with them
  • You may find yourself snapping at them and confused about why you’re doing it
  • You may get physically ill when you see them
  • You may harbor anger at them, and feel there’s no reason for it

How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally? 

Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.

Individuation: The natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.

Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”

Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.

4 Ways Individuation Can Go Awry

  1. The parent does not know that the child’s individuation is natural and healthy, and discourages it. This parent may feel hurt by the child’s separation, or even be angered by it, making the child feel guilty for developing normally.
  2. The parent wants the child to stay close to take care of the parent’s needs, so actively discourages the child from separating.
  3. The parent is uncomfortable with the child’s needs, and so encourages the child to be excessively independent starting from an early age.
  4. The child is held back from healthy individuation by some conflict or issue of his or her own, like anxiety, depression, a physical or medical ailment, or guilt.

When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.

So now the big question. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?

10 Questions About Your Boundaries With Your Parents

  1. Do you feel held back from growing, developing, or moving forward in your life by your parents?
  2. Is your relationship with your parents negatively affecting how you parent your own children?
  3. Are you afraid of surpassing your parents? Would they be hurt or upset if you become more successful in life than they?
  4. Are you plagued with guilt when it comes to your parents?
  5. Are your parents manipulating you in any way?
  6. Are their needs coming before your own (the exception is if they are elderly or ill)?
  7. Were/are your parents abusive to you in any way, however subtle?
  8. Have you tried to talk with them and solve things, to no avail?
  9. Do you feel that your parents don’t really know you?
  10. Do your parents stir up trouble in your life?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.

Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen fully through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.

So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you.

Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong. 

To learn more about the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

Are You An Externalizer Or An Internalizer? 4 Ways Of Handling Blame

As a psychologist, I have worked with many families, teens, adults, and couples. And in this work, I have noticed a very interesting thing. Every family handles blame differently, and every individual person develops his or her own style of handling blame.

Generally, I have noticed 4 specific styles.

4 Ways Of Handling Blame

  1. Externalizers: These are folks who automatically look for someone or something to blame when things go wrong, and it’s almost never themselves. Externalizers are like Teflon when it comes to blame.
  2. Internalizers: Take too much responsibility for problems when they arise, and turn the blame toward themselves, even when they don’t even remotely deserve it.
  3. Balanced: These people recognize and own their own mistakes, while also taking a realistic and balanced account of the contribution of other people and circumstances.
  4. Inconsistent Internalizers: This involves blaming yourself harshly and often, but also flipping over to the extreme opposite at key times, letting yourself off the hook and failing to hold yourself accountable when you should. There is little in-between these two extremes. This style is common in people who grew up with Emotional Neglect.

The best way to become an Externalizer or an Internalizer or an Inconsistent Internalizer is to grow up in a family that handles blame in an unbalanced way. A family’s unbalanced approach to blame sets its children up to be either overly harsh with themselves or to be Teflon. Or to be Category 4, someone who flips.

3 Ways Families Handle Blame

  1. Automatically look for someone to blame when things go wrong and tend toward assigning the blame harshly.
  2. Ignore the concept of blame completely and tend to let each other off the hook for virtually everything. Special Note: most of these families are emotionally neglectful.
  3. Don’t seem to need the concept of blame, and instead hold each other responsible for mistakes while also being kind and reasonable about it.

You may have surmised that Family #3 is the one that handles blame in the healthiest way. But before we get to that, let’s talk about you. How do you deal with blame?

Chances are high that your way of dealing with blame as an adult is rooted in the way your family dealt with it while you were growing up. Even if you wouldn’t classify yourself as a clear Externalizer or Internalizer, you probably have a general tendency to go more in one direction than the other.

As long as your way of dealing with blame is close enough to the balanced Family #3 description above, you will probably manage okay. But if it’s too close to Option 1 or 2, you may be experiencing some negative effects on your life. And since this is the way you grew up, you are probably unaware that it’s a problem.

The Effects

Extreme Externalizers tend to be personality disordered in some way. When you are virtually unable to take responsibility for your mistakes and choices, it is very hard to learn from them. This can lead you to repeat your mistakes and to take paths in your life that continue to harm you.

Extreme Internalizers often find themselves depressed or anxious, or both. You become drained by the internal voice in your head accusing you, blaming you and perhaps even criticizing you. It’s also easy to become stuck in your life when you are taking too much responsibility for everything that has, is, or may go wrong and direct mistakes, mishaps, and problems harshly against yourself.

Inconsistent Internalizers flip back and forth between the two extremes described above. So you suffer the drain and pain of the harsh self-judgments and self-criticism, but you also have another disadvantage. Since you are busy attacking yourself or letting yourself off the hook, you also have a hard time learning from your mistakes. And you may end up feeling stuck in your life as a result.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

A harsh, un-compassionate, externalizing family is almost definitely emotionally neglectful. But so is the family that skirts responsibility among its members, allowing the children’s errors and poor decisions to go unchecked.

As we have discussed in many other previous blogs, growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a recipe for self-blame and shame. And these two types of families do little toward teaching you how to allow yourself to be human, own your mistakes and problems without harshness, and approach them in a balanced way.

How To Teach Your Children — And Yourself — The Balanced Way: Practice Compassionate Accountability

Practicing Compassionate Accountability protects you from all of the negative effects of over-externalizing and over-internalizing. It involves these steps:

  • Acknowledging that something went wrong and that you may have made a mistake that’s caused a problem for yourself and perhaps others too.
  • Thinking through how this went wrong. How much was someone else’s contribution? How much was due to external circumstances? And what was my own contribution to this problem?
  • Asking yourself: What can I learn from this? How can I prevent this from happening again in the future?
  • Taking forth some new knowledge or growth from this unfortunate experience. Then putting it behind you.

In Compassionate Accountability there is freedom. Freedom from attack, freedom from harm, and freedom from getting stuck.

By acknowledging, owning, considering and learning, you are taking accountability, but also showing yourself compassion. You are treating yourself the way you wish your parents had treated you as a child.

No Emotional Neglect, no harshness. Just you, being human. Making mistakes and learning from them, exactly as we all are meant to do.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. it’s free.

To learn more about how to raise your children with Compassionate Accountability, and practice it for yourself, see the book  Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Adult Friendships

I have lots of acquaintances, but not enough close friends.

I’m always there for my friends when they need me, but then when I need them they seem to let me down.

My friendships seem to gradually drift apart.

I usually feel drained after spending time with my friends.

I feel like people take me for granted.

I have heard the statements above, in various forms and combinations, expressed by hundreds of people. Those people all share one primary trait. They all grew up in emotionally neglectful homes.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents do not notice or respond enough to your feelings as they raise you.

CEN happens under the radar in many, many otherwise loving families. It also happens in obvious ways in many dysfunctional families, but since it’s subtle and essentially a “failure to act,” it usually gets upstaged by the more apparent dysfunctional events and actions in those families.

The result? We have legions of people walking through their lives being good friends to others while deeply mystified about why their friendship is not returned in kind.

How Growing Up With CEN Affects Your Friendships Now

As a child, day after day you received a subtle message from your parents: your feelings don’t matter.

Growing up with the most important people in your life (your family) ignoring or squelching the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are (your emotions), you have no choice but to adapt.

As a child, your brain walled off your feelings to “protect” you and your parents from them. This childhood coping mechanism, which was remarkably adaptive at the time, set up a cascade of future struggles for you.

That childhood wall is still there now. But instead of protecting you, it is isolating you. It is blocking off the one ingredient most vital to having rich, mutually rewarding friendships. Yes, it’s your feelings.

Contrary to those CEN messages from your parents, your feelings are not your enemies. They are, in fact, your best friends. They will connect, enrich and deepen your friendships if only you begin to allow it to happen.

The 3 Most Impactful Effects of CEN On Your Friendships

  • Along with undervaluing your feelings comes undervaluing yourself. You are giving too much, and asking for too little. This makes your friendships weighted in the favor of the other person.
  • Your lack of access to your own emotions makes you seem somehow unknowable to others. Your friends can’t connect with the deepest, most authentic part of you: your feelings.
  • You didn’t get to learn some vital emotion skills in your childhood that your parents should have been teaching you. This makes it hard to accurately interpret and respond to your own and your friends’ feelings, behaviors, and needs.

These 3 challenges may seem insurmountable as you read them, but I assure you they are not. I have seen many CEN people change their friendships from sparse and anemic to rich and rewarding.

And if they can do it, you can do it too!

3 Ways to Improve Your Friendships

3 Ways to Improve Your Friendships

  1. Force yourself to take up more space with your friends. Start by assessing each friendship for the amount of time you talk when you’re together vs. the amount they talk. Are you sharing enough? Start talking more until it’s 50/50.
  2. Focus on using the words “I feel,” “I want,” and “I think” at least once per day each. Using these words forces you to assert yourself in a way that you probably do not do naturally.
  3. Feel. This one may seem to be the least direct solution, but it is actually the most effective one overall. It involves beginning the first step of healing the effects of the Emotional Neglect you grew up with. It’s the simplest, yet most powerful thing you can do for your friendships. Begin to pay attention to your own feelings. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Download the free Feelings Sheet from my website here: http://drjonicewebb.com/the-book/.

Step 2: Choose a time of day when you reliably have a few minutes alone; for example in the morning right before you go to work or school; on your drive home in the afternoon; or right before you go to bed in the evening. Commit to doing the following exercise every single day at that time.

Step 3: At the designated time every day, while alone, sit comfortably and close your eyes if you can. Turn your attention inward and ask yourself what you are feeling. If you come up with anything, write down the word for the feeling(s) on your sheet. If you’re not feeling anything, write that down too.

The Takeaway

These 3 ways and 3 steps are all so very important. They will help you not only with your friendships, but they will also help you in so many other ways too. When you treat yourself as if you matter you begin to feel as if you matter.

Now here is a key point. The way you feel about yourself and treat yourself shows. Other people will start to see and feel that you are a person who matters. They will naturally treat you differently.

You will begin to draw people closer. You will realize that you are talking about substantial things that previously you would have avoided. You will find yourself getting what you want and need far more often. Gradually, you will notice that you are energized by your friendships, and supported by them.

By doing the direct opposite of those emotionally neglectful messages from your childhood, you may be surprised how very different you feel.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how to repair Emotional Neglect with your partner, your parents, and your children, see the new book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Relationships

Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.

The Lingering Effects Of CEN

  • A lack of awareness of your own feelings, wishes, and needs.
  • A feeling that you are less important than everyone else.
  • A massive struggle to talk about and share your own feelings.
  • Difficulty asking for help and accepting help from others.
  • A lack of understanding of how feelings work in yourself and others.

Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.

But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.

The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.

I know this because I see it in my office every single day.

Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.

But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!

5 Important Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Challenges Your Relationships

  1. It makes them one-sided. Generally, CEN people are not able to be fully present in their relationships. The first two Lingering Effects of CEN all contribute to this result. When you’re not aware of your own feelings, wishes and needs enough, how can you share them with your husband, wife, partner or friend? How can you take up your fair share of space in your relationships when you view other people and their needs as more important than your own? Many of your relationships become too much about the other person, and not enough about you.
  2. Your relationships seem fewer and feel less rewarding than other people seem to have. This is partly because they’re one-sided, just as we discussed above. Since you’re not fully emotionally present in your relationships, they are naturally limited in depth and resilience. They may break apart more easily, and may not reach their full potential. You offer up so very much in your relationships, but you’re holding back the most valuable gift you can give someone: your emotional vulnerability.
  3. It makes social time more tiring than it should be. Spending time with people you care about should be rewarding, energizing and enriching. But you often find it draining instead. That’s because your relationships are one-sided (you give too much and don’t take enough for yourself), and also because you spend so much energy trying to be the person you think others want or expect you to be — instead of just being yourself. That takes a lot of energy.
  4. You feel alone, even with people who love you. All of us humans share a common bond, and that bond is largely based on our feelings. When your emotions are too blocked off, you may not have enough access to your own deep font of warm emotional energy; the source of relationship “glue” that should be connecting you. Since you are unaware of the problem, you’re left feeling, on some level, emotionally isolated at key times. Even though you are actually not!
  5. It holds your relationships back from becoming as rich and deep as they should be. Just as emotion is the glue that binds you to others, it’s also the fire that lights your passion, and the stick that should be poking you saying, “Speak up!” Without full access to this vital resource, your relationships are missing an important vital ingredient: You.

Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.

3 Answers Taken From Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

  1. Your Emotional Awareness: This involves being aware of what you are feeling and what the other person is feeling. It’s being able to observe your own behaviors and responses to things and understand the emotions involved.
  2. Emotion Skills: Learning to identify what you feel, accept your feelings, tolerate your feelings, manage them, and put them into words. You can learn all of them!
  3. Communication Skills: How do you tell someone they hurt your feelings? Or that you are angry at them? How do you ask someone for what you need or want? Once you get better at emotional awareness and emotion skills, you’ll have the foundation to learn how to communicate far more effectively.

You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!

Do You Have Alexithymia?

Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.

Identifying & Naming Exercise

Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.

It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem. Continue reading