Do you know that children have physical needs? OF COURSE, YOU DO! Virtually all parents, and all people, for that matter, understand that children must be fed, clothed, kept warm and sheltered, rested and exercised. Kids need to have all of these needs met in order to physically survive and thrive.
Most people also realize that children have emotional needs. Children need to be loved. But children’s emotional needs actually go far beyond that.
You, when you were a child, needed much more than love from your parents. One of the things you needed the most is something most parents hardly think about if they think about it at all. It’s emotional validation.
Emotional validation happens when your parents see what you are feeling, acknowledge your feelings, and seem to understand why you are having them.
Just like adults, children’s feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are. In order to feel seen, understood, and heard, a child must feel that their feelings are seen, understood, and heard.
What happens when you feel seen, understood, and heard as a child? You grow up to feel like a person who is seeable, understandable, and hearable. You feel knowable. You feel valid.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your parents didn’t have the emotional awareness or emotional skills to see and accept what you were feeling, they may have, perhaps of no fault of their own, failed to validate you.
As a result, you may have grown up to feel unseen, misunderstood, and unheard. You may feel less valid than everyone else.
I call this Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Did you see yourself in any of the examples above?
Whether your emotional threshold was not met as a child or your feelings were invalidated (both constitute Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), I want you to know that it has left its mark on you. The effects are substantial and significant, and they seldom go away on their own.
But they do go away. With your awareness, attention, interest, and commitment, you can reclaim your valuable emotions and learn to listen to their messages. You can learn to understand, trust, and love yourself.
That is the process of validating yourself. It’s never too late to do it.
Let’s get started.
To learn specific ways to emotionally validate and emotionally connect with your child, toddler, teen, or adult see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. You can find helpful resources for understanding and healing Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this website.
What is survivor’s guilt? Google dictionary describes it this way:
A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died. For example, “He escaped with his life but suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
This is the definition most people think of as “survivor’s guilt.” But mental health professionals and therapists know that this concept applies far more widely than this description would suggest. Because we see survivor’s guilt in our offices every single day, but it’s a slightly different type.
The guilt people often experience as they make healthy choices and take steps to heal themselves emotionally, as each step takes them farther away from the dysfunctional people in their lives.
For many hard-working, well-meaning folks, there is no way around it: in order to heal yourself, you must leave someone behind.
Healing from abuse, trauma, or childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is accomplished by taking a series of small steps. As you make healthy changes in yourself and your life, each of these small steps takes you somewhere. You are literally moving forward.
Subtle shifts in your perspective on what happened to you, the sharing of your experience with another person, or the validation of your feelings; as you take these steps, bit by bit, you change.
As you change yourself, you are, in an important way, saving yourself. You may be pulling yourself out of a deep hole that you have shared with some important family or long-time friends. You may be taking steps out of an addiction or a depression or a dysfunctional social system.
Whichever it is, you will probably not be able to save everyone (more on that later in this blog). At some point, you may face a fateful choice. Do I save myself? Is it wrong to do so? What about the people I have shared dysfunction with all these years?
This is the petri dish in which your survivor’s guilt is born.
There are no words for feelings in my family and I have always been astonished when I read what you say about the role of parents in educating children as to emotions–that they’re valid, they have names, they’re normal and they can be appropriately managed without making kids feel bad about themselves.
To this day, bringing up anything emotional–and after all the self-work I’ve done, I’ve gotten bolder and more forthcoming about my feelings–is like shouting at a wall. “There’s no there there.”
My parents have zero words for emotions. No response capability. This stuff does not exist. And at last, I am seeing how it has made me feel: nowadays, pretty darn frustrated! (In childhood, just plain awful.) Learning about CEN and working on it is like finally emerging from the edge of the dark woods and seeing the sun at last, and realizing my entire family is deep in the woods, still. Do I step out, without them? that’s the choice I feel, and it’s painful either way.”
This reader describes what many people feel. And it illustrates, in some very important ways, what an unfair situation survivor’s guilt is. When you have the courage to face your pain and the fortitude to take steps to save yourself, you truly have nothing to feel guilty about.
Is it hard to leave people suffering as you gain perspective, make better choices, and feel stronger? Yes. Should you try to pull your people forward with you? You can try. Will it work? In some cases, it may. But here’s the key question.
Is it your responsibility to pull your people forward with you? Unless they are your dependent children, the answer is NO. It is not.
This will be a very short section because the answer is very simple. It is a straightforward truth that can nevertheless take a lifetime to learn. It is this:
You cannot save another person. You can give them a boost, but ultimately, they must save themselves.
In reality, the best way to bring another person along is to give them the information they may need to have in order to take the steps themselves. Then, save yourself. In doing so, you provide them a role model, and an example of what courage, strength, and healing look like. You show them what they can do if they so choose. You make yourself available for support if they decide to follow.
There. Your job is done. Keep taking steps. Keep making yourself happier, healthier, and stronger. Fight back that survivor’s guilt.
I am having to (and had to) let several relationships go including family (not so easy) and friends (not so easy when you still have other friends (who are worth keeping) in common. Like Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” I would rather not have family or friends if they are toxic and not good for me. What is wonderful is being able to tell the difference and developing the feeling of indifference over past relationships (or even ongoing) that are not worthy of me. At any rate, all worth it.
As I became more determined to heal from childhood emotional neglect, I learned that telling the truth was essential. To my surprise and grief, telling the truth has cost me virtually all my friendships. It finally struck me that all of my friendships had grown out of my dysfunction. As I gained a clearer picture of myself, CEN, and dysfunctional coping strategies, I realized all of my “friends” were severely disturbed individuals (“misery loves company”). I was the only one facing the challenge of finding healthy ways of relating. Sick people run from healthy behaviors. When we turn and face the truth, and begin to choose different behaviors, our relationships begin to look very different too. I see this as evolution but it’s hard to let go of old ways and old relationships that keep you from functioning. I now have several solid friendships that feel very, very different from the old ones. I’m trying to get used to it!
To find many more resources about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the author’s Bio below this article.
This article was originally published in psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the
permission of the author and psychcentral.
James has always been confused by his family. He’s always sensed that it’s dysfunctional, but he could never put his finger on what’s wrong. Until he realized that his family is riddled with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now that he can see his own lack of emotional awareness, connection, and understanding, he also sees the CEN pattern of traits in his parents and his younger sister. But strangely, his older brother seems completely unaffected. Baffled, James wonders how he and his sister could be so deeply affected by CEN while their older brother is not. They were all three raised by the same parents, after all.
26-year-old Michelle sits at the table at her parents’ house for a family dinner. Looking around at her siblings she thinks about how different she is from all of them. Right now, two are laughing and talking with each other while the third sibling is having an involved conversation with her parents. Michelle has been working on her Childhood Emotional Neglect and has been paying closer attention to her family. Watching her family interact at the table she wonders why her siblings don’t seem to be affected by her parents’ lack of emotional awareness. “Maybe I don’t actually have CEN,” she wonders.
It’s the kind of parenting that pays too little attention to the feelings of the children. Kids who grow up in this kind of family do not learn how to read, understand, or express their own emotions. In fact, they learn the opposite. They learn that their emotions are irrelevant, a burden, or a bother. And on top of that, they do not learn the useful emotional skills that they need to become happy, connected, emotionally thriving adults.
So what were Michelle and James seeing in their parents? They were seeing an emotional void, avoidance of meaningful conversation, and a tendency toward superficial interactions. James and Michelle recall feeling very alone in their families as children and they still feel this way now. It is only after discovering CEN that they are able to understand what is wrong and begin to take the steps of CEN recovery to address it.
Of the thousands of CEN people I have met, a remarkably large number have expressed confusion about why one or more of their siblings don’t have it.
And I understand. How can two kids who grew up in the same family end up experiencing their adult emotional lives so differently? At first glance, it does not make sense.
But there are reasons. Real reasons. Let’s look at what they are.
Almost every child receives some form of attention from their parents. The questions that define CEN are: Was it emotional attention? And was it enough?
Some siblings who receive a different form of attention can seem to be CEN-free, but their CEN may emerge later. Or perhaps, due to genetic or family factors, they may not be affected at all.
If you look around at your siblings and you have difficulty seeing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in them, do not allow that to make you question your own.
Having grown up virtually emotionally unseen, you have been invalidated enough already without continuing to doubt your own emotional truth.
Learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it plays out plus the steps to heal in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Find the link below.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free and you can find the link below.
Watch for a future article about how to talk to a sibling about CEN.
The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
In research that has gone on since the late 1990s, psychologists and neuroscientists have found that a fraction of the population is simply “wired” differently than most (Aron, E. & Aron, A., 1997).
In 1997, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. wrote The Highly Sensitive Person. She describes the HSP as more sensitive to sounds, textures, and essentially all outside stimulation than average.
HSPs also think more about decisions and actions, and naturally process more deeply. This is thought to be an adaptive, survival mechanism. It has also been found in animal species, like fruit flies, fish, and almost 100 other species.
According to Aron and her research, some of the signs that you may be an HSP are being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, and loud noises. You may get rattled when rushed, avoid violent TV shows, and withdraw into bed or a dark room when you get stressed. As children, HSPs also have a rich, complex inner life, and are often seen as shy by adults.
A very important thing to know about highly sensitive people is that they are born this way. In the classic question of nature vs. nurture, scientific evidence shows us that the HSP falls soundly in the Nature camp.
So we know that your parents do not cause you to be highly sensitive by the way they raise you. But it does beg another kind of question:
Is the highly sensitive child affected differently by emotionally neglectful parenting than a non-sensitive child might be?
Based on the thousands of emotionally neglected adults who I have had the privilege to know and/or work with, I would have to answer that question with a resounding yes. In my experience Childhood Emotional Neglect affects HSP children differently than non-HSP.
What is the experience of a child growing up in an emotionally neglectful home? It is a feeling of growing up deeply alone, even if surrounded by people. It is a process of having your emotions ignored, or even thwarted. It is what happens when you are not asked often enough:
What do you want?
What do you need?
What do you prefer?
What are you feeling?
Do you need help?
In the emotionally neglectful home, it’s not so much what your parents do to you that’s a problem. It’s just the opposite. The problem comes from what your parents fail to do for you: validate and respond to your emotional needs enough.
This can be very confusing for the child since from the outside (and sometimes even from the inside too), for many emotionally neglected children their family appears perfectly normal in every way.
Children who grow up in an emotionally neglectful home learn some powerful lessons very early and well:
Your feelings are invisible, a burden, or don’t matter.
Your wishes and needs are not important.
Help is not usually an option.
As we talked about above, the HSP child is born with some special sensitivities. Deep thinkers, thoughtful and responsive by nature, HSPs are greatly affected and more easily overwhelmed by external stimulation. HSPs also have greater emotional reactions and more empathy for others.
Imagine being a deeply thoughtful, intensely feeling child growing up in a family that is neither. Imagine your intense feelings being ignored or discouraged. Imagine that your thoughtfulness is viewed as a weakness. Imagine if it seems the people around you are operating at a different speed, and living on a different plane than you.
What do you do with your powerful anger, sadness, hurt or confusion? How do you try to fit in?
Many HSP adults have shared with me the words they heard often in their childhood homes, from parents and siblings alike:
“You are overly emotional.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You are over-sensitive.”
Some HSPs are actively made a joke of in their families. Some can be chided and derided or identified as “the weak one,” “the slow one,” because of the more thoughtful processing, or “the dreamer” because of the rich and complex inner life.
Most emotionally neglectful families are not only unaware that emotions are important, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the feelings of their members, typically either passively or actively discouraging the show of any feelings.
What if one particular child feels more deeply than the rest? What will he learn about his feelings in this family? How will he learn how to value, tolerate, understand, and express his feelings?
The HSP child in the emotionally neglectful family learns that she is excessively emotional. And since our emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who we are, that HSP child learns that she is different, damaged, weak and wrong. She may grow up to be ashamed of her deepest self.
Do not worry, there are plenty of answers for you!
From the many posts on this blog, or by visiting my website (also linked below), you can learn much more about the Emotional Neglect you grew up with, the messages you received, and how to heal. You can also learn about what it means to be an HSP by visiting the website of Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
Understanding is a good start. After that, there are clear steps to take to fight those messages and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It is only by clearing the Emotional Neglect from your life that your HSP qualities will be allowed to shine. Only then will you be able to allow your intense emotional energy to empower you, and your deep processing abilities to guide you.
Only then will you be able to celebrate the unique qualities that make you different, and see that being set apart from birth, and again in your childhood, does not need to keep you set apart for life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Practicing Compassionate Accountability protects you from all of the negative effects of over-externalizing and over-internalizing. It involves these steps:
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.
Legions of good people live through decades of their lives harboring a painful secret. They guard it as if their life depends on it, not realizing it’s not even real.
It’s a secret that is buried deep inside them, surrounded and protected by a shield of shame. A secret that harms no one, but does great damage to themselves. A secret with immense power and endurance.
It’s their Fatal Flaw.
A Fatal Flaw is a deep-seated, entrenched feeling/belief that you are somehow different from other people; that something is wrong with you.
Your Fatal Flaw resides beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Outside of your awareness, it drives you to do things you don’t want to do and it also stops you from doing things you should do.
Rooted in your childhood, it’s like a weed. Over time it grows. Bit by bit, drop by drop, it quietly, invisibly erodes away your happiness and well-being. All the while you are unaware.
The power of your Fatal Flaw comes partially from the fact that it is unknown to you. You have likely never purposely put yours into words in your own mind. But if you listen, from time to time you may hear yourself expressing your Fatal Flaw internally to yourself or out loud to someone else.
I’m not as fun as other people.
I don’t have anything interesting to say.
When people get to know me they don’t like me.
I know that I’m not attractive.
No one wants to hear what I have to say.
I’m not worthy.
I’m not lovable.
Your Fatal Flaw could be anything. And your Fatal Flaw is unique to you.
Where did your Fatal Flaw come from, and why do you have it? Its seed was planted by some messages your family conveyed to you, most likely in invisible and unspoken ways.
The Flaw The Roots
|I’m not as fun as other people.||Your parents seldom seemed to want to be with you very much.|
|I don’t have anything interesting to say.||Your parents didn’t really listen when you talked.|
|If people get to know me they won’t like me.||You were ignored or rejected as a child by someone who was supposed to love you.|
|I’m not attractive.||As a child, you were not treated as attractive by the people who matter – your family.|
|No one wants to hear what I have to say.||You were seldom asked questions or encouraged to express yourself in your childhood home.|
|I’m not lovable.||As a child, you did not feel deeply seen, known, and loved for who you truly are.|
Yes, there is some good news. Your Fatal Flaw is a belief, not a fact. A fact cannot be changed, but a belief most certainly can.
I am fun to be with. I am interesting. People like me more as they get to know me. I am attractive, and I have important things to say. I am just as lovable as anyone else.
Your Fatal Flaw is actually neither fatal nor a flaw. It’s not even real.
It’s powered only by your supercharged belief that it is both.
To learn much more about Fatal Flaws, how they happen, and how to defeat yours, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.