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.
As a psychologist who works with adults and adolescents, I am in a unique position to observe the results of different types of parenting as they play out through adulthood.
Nevertheless, I found myself baffled for an entire decade. Patient after patient sat in my psychotherapy office telling me that they felt that something was wrong with them.
“I am not happy, and there’s no reason for it.”
“Other people’s lives seem rich and colorful, but I feel like I’m living in black and white.”
“I feel empty. Something is missing, and I have no idea what it is.”
“Even when I’m surrounded by people, I feel alone.”
I was baffled not only by the vagueness of their complaints but even further by the lack of an explanation for them. Many of these people insisted that they had been raised by loving parents, and had fine childhoods. They felt there was no reason for their lack of engagement in life; so they blamed it on themselves.
The more I heard these confusing concerns, the more curious I became. After all, how could so many people with fine adult lives who claimed to have had happy childhoods feel so set apart, empty and alone? It simply did not add up.
Until I realized that my clients were not suffering because of anything that was happening in their adult lives, or anything that had happened to them in their childhoods.
The answer was far more elusive than any of that. Their adult discomfort was actually caused by something that had failed to happen for them in their childhoods. Each had been raised by parents who did not respond enough to their emotional needs: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
This subtle failure to act on the part of their parents had left them struggling in adulthood with something which they could not remember or name. So I began to study how it happens, and how it could lead to these particular problems for my patients. I discovered that children whose feelings are not validated or responded to enough receive an unstated but powerful message from their parents. That message is:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who receive this message automatically adapt. They push their own emotions down and away so that they will not trouble their parents, or even themselves.
In this process, they lose access to their own emotions, which are a vital source of connection, guidance, meaning, and joy. Without this resource (their emotions), these children grow into adults who feel rudderless, set apart, disconnected and alone.
CEN is silent, invisible, and powerful. It affects untold numbers of people in today’s world. But CEN can be stopped in its tracks by teaching parents how to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs.
Max is a precocious and active second grader, the youngest of 3 children. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from his teacher stating “Max was disrespectful today.” His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Simpson told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Simpson by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Simpson confiscated his pencil, and sent him home with a note.
How might an emotionally neglectful parent respond to this situation once she sees the note?
CEN Parent #1: Max hands his mother the note. She reads it and says angrily, “How could you do this, Max? Now Ms. Simpson will think I’ve not taught you good manners! Go to your room.”
CEN Parent #2: Max hands his mother the note. A barely perceptible shadow crosses her face but is quickly replaced by a brightening. She picks up a football that Max had left on the kitchen counter earlier, points toward the living room and said, “Go long!” Max runs to catch the ball. “You’re such a tough guy,” she says while mussing his hair. “Rough day though, huh? Would some ice-cream make it better?”
CEN Parent #1 makes Max’s problem about herself and her own embarrassment. CEN Parent #2 seems caring, but she glosses over the problem. Both parents miss an opportunity to teach Max about his emotions, his behavior and himself.
Now let’s see how an Emotionally Attentive Parent might respond.
Mother: “Mrs. Simpson didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Max: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Max relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Simpson’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Max?”
Max: “Yes, Mum.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it’s unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Max’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Max to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it.
I want to give all the parents in the world the skills of Max’s mother. Then all of the children of the world can learn these valuable lessons when they need them: in their childhoods.
Then, as adults, they will not struggle with secret shame and self-blame, or a deeply buried feeling that something is wrong with them. They will not feel set apart, empty, or alone. Instead, they will be aware of their own feelings and be able to put them into words. They will be able to manage their emotions and behavior. They will live their lives in living color, fully, richly connected to themselves, the world, and the people who matter the most.
To learn exactly how to be an emotionally attuned parent to your child, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Before you read the rest of this article please consider this: What do you think is the most personal question you can ask someone?
Yes, those are all very personal questions, for sure. But nevertheless, the answer is, as you may have suspected, NONE OF THE ABOVE.
The most personal question you can ask another person is “What are you feeling?”
Two things make this question so distinctly personal. First, you are asking about the other person’s feelings. And second, our feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who we are.
Asking a person what they are feeling is inquiring about their deepest self. When you ask this question you are trying to understand or know this person’s inner experience. So this question is very personal, but it is so much more!
Because of the reasons outlined above, “What are you feeling?” is also one of the most caring questions you can ask. It’s a way of saying, “I care about the experience of your inner self. I want to know about the real you.”
“What are you feeling?” has other versions like:
How do you feel? (Emotionally not physically)
What do you feel about that?
What do you feel?
What are your feelings?
Despite the enormous value and power of all these questions, they are, each and every one, drastically underused in today’s world. Jokes and cartoons abound depicting harassed husbands dreading these questions from their wives.
Many people think of emotion as a weakness that is not to be talked about. Others believe that asking someone about their feelings is a violation of their privacy. But neither of these assumptions is actually true or valid in any way.
Of course, the questions can be applied in the wrong way, to the wrong person or at the wrong time. But most people, fearing any of that, refrain from asking it to the right person at the right time, potentially missing multiple opportunities to express interest and care on a deeply meaningful level.
Use it on yourself.
Yes, that is right. Use it on yourself.
As seldom as you pose this question to others, I’m willing to bet that you pose it even less often to yourself. But this is a very, very important question for you to ask yourself multiple times, every single day.
In my experience as a psychologist, and in my study of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have found that this question prevents Childhood Emotional Neglect in children when they are asked it by their parents. I have also seen that it cures Childhood Emotional Neglect when adults ask it of themselves.
Asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” accomplishes multiple healthy aims.
If your parents failed to notice or respond to your feelings enough as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect), they set you up to believe that your feelings do not matter. Perhaps you’ve always felt it best to ignore them.
But sadly, living this way is blocking you from feeling all the joy, warmth, connection, excitement, anticipation, and love that you should be experiencing each and every day. Living with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a little like having a cloud hanging over your head through your entire adult life. It affects your inner life, your decisions, and virtually all of your relationships.
Amazingly, all of these adult struggles can be overcome by a combination of self-focus, self-knowledge and emotion training. And all can be accomplished by the simple act of asking yourself what you are feeling.
When you shift your approach to “feelings” from avoidance to acceptance, a truly remarkable change happens in your life. You begin to become aware of a part of yourself you never saw before, and a level of connection with others that you never knew existed before.
So ask. Ask the people who matter, and especially ask yourself.
What are you feeling? What am I feeling?
And reap the rewards of daring to ask the most personal question of all.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to deepen and strengthen your relationships by paying more attention to emotions, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
Adults who were emotionally neglected in childhood can be quite perfectionistic and hard on themselves. But for many, it does not stop there.
Why? Because the messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect run deep. They go to the heart of the child and stay there for a lifetime. They not only damage your ability to understand and trust your own feelings, but they also damage your ability to understand and trust yourself.
The messages of CEN are like invisible infusions of guilt and shame that happen every day in the life of the child.
When, because of emotional neglect, children receive the message from their parents that their feelings are a burden, excessive, or simply wrong, they take a highly effective, adaptive action. They naturally push their emotions down, under the surface so that they will trouble no one.
Believe it or not, this brilliant strategy usually works quite well. As a child, you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely.
As a child of CEN, you are set up to feel, on some deep level for your entire life, that you are a burden, excessive, or somehow wrong.
Because Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects your relationship with your own feelings, it sets you up to feel guilty and ashamed for the very personal, inescapable human experience of having feelings.
It feels wrong to feel your feelings, and wrong to let others see your feelings. And it feels right to hide your feelings. You may even try not to have feelings at all. Yet your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of your true self. They will not be denied.
Trying to deny your feelings is like the classic little Dutch boy trying to block the hole in the dike with his finger. It may feel like it works temporarily, but those feelings just keep coming and growing and pressurizing, like the water behind the dike. Being unable to control them and stop them altogether makes you feel weak and incompetent. And ashamed.
Since many emotionally neglected adults were not actively mistreated in childhood, they may remember their childhoods as fairly happy and carefree. When they look back on their childhoods for an explanation for their issues and struggles in their adult lives, they can’t pinpoint any incidents or factors to explain their current problems.
Between a “happy childhood” and inexplicable emotions, they are left with the assumption that some deep part of themselves is seriously amiss. “It’s my own fault. Something is wrong with me,” is a natural conclusion.
I hope that as you read the Guilt/Shame messages above, you realized one glaring fact about them: THEY ARE ALL FALSE!
Now please read the three vital and true remedies below. If you absorb them and own them and follow them, they will change how you feel about yourself and your life.
You can learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect leads to excess guilt and shame in adulthood in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.
The Achievement/Perfection Parent can be difficult to satisfy. If his child comes home with all A’s, he will say (or almost worse, convey through body language), “Next time I’ll expect to see A+.”
This parent has a few things in common with the narcissistic parent. In fact, many of her behaviors can seem similar. Many narcissistic parents are perfection-focused because they want their child to reflect well on them. In other words, “If my child is the best skater on the team, it makes me look really good.”
This narcissistic mirror effect is part of what motivates many Achievement/Perfection parents (we’ll call them AP parents for short), but for many, it is not. AP parents can be driven by a number of different factors.
Some AP parents pressure their children to achieve because they desperately want opportunities for their children that they did not have in their own childhoods. Many are acting out of their own feeling that they themselves must be perfect. Some are trying to live their own life through their child. Still other AP parents may be simply raising their child the way they themselves were raised because it is all they know.
To understand the different motivations of different AP parents, let’s visit 8-year-old Mandy, who is having a bad day. We’ll see the different reactions of different kinds of AP parents.
Mandy’s Achievement/Perfection Mom
Soccer practice just ended, and Mandy walks slowly toward the car while catching glimpses of her mom and coach speaking intensely. She knows her coach is telling her mother that she goofed around at practice today, distracted her teammates, and at one point actually smarted off to the coach.
AP Mom 1
“Mandy, how could you behave that way today? Now Coach Simpson might change her mind about recommending you for the Ivy League-Bound A team next year. Are you serious about soccer or not?! You need to write an apology note right now, and we need to fix this immediately!”
AP Mom 2
“Mandy, you know better than to act up in soccer practice. Your coaches see your potential, but if you don’t behave yourself you won’t keep improving your skills!”
AP Mom 3
“Mandy, I’m terribly disappointed in you. I’ve made many sacrifices so that you can go to this expensive school that really promotes its soccer team. If Coach Simpson starts to see you as a problem child you may ruin everything I’ve done for you. And every time you act up, it makes me look bad!”
Notice that all three of these reactions seem to, in some ways, have Mandy’s best interests in mind. These AP mothers are clearly concerned about their child and want the best for her. The problem is that all three moms are emotionally neglecting Mandy with their responses.
None of these responses addresses Mandy’s need to learn to control her impulses. None addresses the reasons for Mandy’s uncharacteristic acting-up behavior. Only Mandy knows that she has lately been excluded by her two best friends on the team, and has been dreading soccer practice for the entire last week.
None of these mother’s responses talks to Mandy about anything that matters to her. All of the responses address the parent’s needs, not Mandy’s. They address Mandy’s future, which she is too young to care about or even understand. They all miss a valuable opportunity for Mandy to learn something about herself, her nature, her feelings, and how to get along with friends, teammates and authority figures.
Over time, Mandy will absorb the simplistic message, “Be good so that you can be successful.” To comply, Mandy will have to squelch many of her own needs and feelings. This may work reasonably okay in childhood, but she will enter adolescence and adulthood with something missing inside; self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and self-love.
So now to answer our main question. Are all AP parents emotionally neglectful? Not necessarily.
Many parents of high-achieving kids, such as Olympic athletes, concert pianists or pro-league bound baseball players could be considered AP because they are driven and they support their child to be the best. But they may be doing so because their child is driven to accomplish. So the difference between a non-neglectful AP parent and a neglectful one is this: support.
A healthy AP parent is supporting her child to achieve what the child wants. An emotionally neglectful AP parent is pressuring her child to achieve what the parent wants.
When a child is treated by her AP parents as if her feelings and emotional needs don’t matter, a deeply personal part of herself is being denied. That part of her becomes like the elephant in the room. No one wants to see or hear from it, yet it’s the part of her which is most her.
The only way that children can adapt in these circumstances is to participate in the denial, and pretend that their emotional self doesn’t exist. No wonder emotionally neglected children grow up with an empty space in their sense of themselves, their love for themselves, and their ability to emotionally connect with others.
If you see yourself in this description of AP parents or child, I hope you will pause and think. Consider what you want, what you feel, and what is motivating you now.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), now is your time to heal. If you are an AP parent, there are some powerful things you can do to make sure you stay connected and invested in supporting what your child wants.
To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire. To learn more about healing yourself and parenting your children free from emotional neglect, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Everyone knows what the word “dependent” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “determined or conditioned by another; relying on another for support.”
Not many people have heard the term “counter-dependence.” It’s not a term that is in common use. In fact, it’s used mostly by mental health professionals.
Counter-dependence is the extreme opposite of dependence. It refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need. In fact, the word “needy” may set your teeth on edge.
Counter-dependence is one of the main results of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s an example of how an emotionally neglected child grew up to be counter-dependent.
When James first came to see me for therapy, he was a successful 40-something businessman with a wife and three children. He had done very well financially, and his children were all young adults who would be leaving home soon. James came seeking help for longstanding depression. He initially described his childhood as happy and free. But as he told me his story, it became evident that he had been greatly affected by the absence of a vital ingredient.
James grew up the youngest of seven children. He was a surprise, born nine years after his next youngest sibling. When James was born, his mother was 47 and his father 52. James’s parents were good, hard-working people who meant well, and he always knew they loved him. But by the time James was born, they were tired of raising children, so James essentially raised himself.
As a child, James’s parents did not ask to see his report cards (all A’s), and he didn’t show them. If he had a problem at school, he didn’t tell his parents; he knew he must handle it himself.
James had complete freedom to do anything he wished after school because his parents seldom asked him where he was. They knew he was a good kid, so they didn’t worry. Even though James enjoyed this extensive freedom from rules and structure, he grew up feeling deep within himself that he was alone.
The message James internalized from all this freedom was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He understood from a very early age that his accomplishments were not to be shared, nor his failures, difficulties or needs. Even though he couldn’t recall his parents ever actually telling him such a thing, he absorbed it into the very fiber of his being that this was life for him. It became a part of his identity.
When I first met James, he seemed somewhat emotionless and self-contained. His wife, after 15 years of marriage, was at the end of her rope. She felt that James was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. He told her he loved her often, but seldom showed her any emotion, positive or negative. She pointed out that he was a wonderful provider, but described their relationship as empty and meaningless. James described himself as feeling empty inside. He revealed that the one person in the world he actually felt emotional about was his teenage daughter, and that he sometimes resented her for being important to him.
James’s frequent fantasy was of running away to live alone on a deserted tropical island. All his life he experienced periodic wishes to be dead. He was mystified about why he would feel this way since he knew that he had such a great life.
Can you guess the ingredient that was missing from James’s childhood? It was emotional connection. Emotions were treated as non-existent in his family. There was little interaction of any kind between James and his parents. No positives, but none of the important negatives, either.
He didn’t get to see joy in his parents’ eyes as they looked at his report card, or experience their anxiety or anger when he came home from school long after dark. James’s relationship with his parents could be summed up by one word: cordial.
The message James’s parents unwittingly taught him, completely outside of his own and their awareness, was “don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.”
James’s fantasies about being dead or running off to a tropical island were the best ways he could imagine to accomplish that mandate. He was a good boy who learned his lesson well.
If you see yourself in my description of James or in the 7 Signs above, do not despair because there is hope for you! Your counter-dependence is likely caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And one very good thing about CEN is that it can be healed.
You can correct what went wrong in your childhood by giving yourself the emotional interest and validation that you missed as a child. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realize that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.
When it happens, Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. To learn whether it’s negatively impacting your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to repair the effects of CEN on your relationships, see the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Can well-meaning, loving parents fail their child emotionally? Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.
It is possible for even the most caring and well-intentioned parents to be emotionally neglectful. In fact, the largest subset of emotionally neglectful parents genuinely do love their children and want the best for them. I have encountered so many such parents over the years that I assigned them a name: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves parents — or WMBNTs.
Those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents are literally set up to under-respond to their own children’s feelings once they become parents. No matter how well-meaning they are as parents, it becomes not only vital but necessary for them to make a special, conscious effort to attend to the feeling side of life with their own children.
The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child. For healthy development, loving a child just isn’t enough. Parents must also be in tune with their child.
For a parent to be in tune, he must be a person who is aware of and understands emotions in general. He must be observant so that he can see what his child can and can’t do as he develops. And he must be willing and able to put in the effort and energy required to deeply know his child. A well-meaning parent who lacks in any one of these areas is at risk of emotionally failing his child.
To get a better idea of how Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) parenting works, I’m going to share a vignette from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Jack walks home from school with a worry on his mind. He knows that his teacher, Ms. Simpson, sent an email to his mother about his disrespectful behavior in class today. When Jack walks into the house, his Mother is in the living room watching her favorite show. “Hi, Jack, how was school?” she says absent-mindedly. Jack stands next to his mother on the couch and nervously stammers, “Well, actually Ms. Simpson…”
“Hang on one sec, Jack. This is the very end of the show,” Jack’s mom says, interrupting him. Jack stands awkwardly next to the sofa for a moment, but after a minute or so he gets bored and distracted. Retreating to his bedroom to play video games, Jack forgets all about the email. The next day his mother sees Ms. Simpson’s email, which says, “Jack was disrespectful to me in class today. He continued to laugh and talk with his friend after I’d asked him several times to stop.” As Jack’s mom reads the message, she is momentarily bothered. But she thinks to herself, “Wow, Ms. Simpson sure overreacts to things,” and puts the note, and the problem, behind her.
In this example, Jack’s mom, although a loving mother, is not attending to the feeling level of life. She didn’t sense Jack’s anxiety about the problem at school. She does not see a reason to be concerned about his disrespect toward his teacher because she’s blind to the connection between behavior, feelings, and relationships — in this case, the relationship between Jack and Mrs. Simpson. She places no value on Mrs. Simpson’s feelings, dismissing them as an “overreaction.” These are all sure signs of a person who is not aware or in touch with the world of emotion, and who lives mostly on the surface of life.
The world is full of WMBNT Parents. And probably almost none of these well-meaning people have any idea that they are not providing their children with the fuel that they would need for a happy, connected life. They are each simply recreating what they experienced in their own childhoods.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot to emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and just like Jack’s mom, they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, the circle continues.
As a WMBNT parent, it is never too late. Whether your child is a toddler, tween, teen or adult, there are specific things you can do to prevent or heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect that was passed down to you, and never your choice.
You are making a difference that will change your child’s life forever. To learn much more about how to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect with the people you care about the most, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?
How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?
I feel sad or disappointed every time I see my parents. Then I end up feeling guilty because I know that I should feel happy to see them. How do I handle that?
If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, then you have likely lived your life feeling vaguely (or maybe even clearly) uncomfortable around the two people with whom you are supposed to be the most comfortable. Your parents.
One of the hardest things about being raised by emotionally neglectful parents is that they seldom change. They continue to emotionally neglect you all the way into and through your adulthood. So you have probably experienced the pain of your parents’ failure to see and respond to you over and over throughout the years.
This is one of the greatest complications of recovering from CEN. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.
So back to the questions at the top of this article. What should an emotionally malnourished adult child do? What can be done to protect yourself in this most important relationship?
4 Tips For Dealing With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents
IN SUMMARY: It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal yourself without ever involving them. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them.
To learn whether CEN is a part of your life, and how it has affected you, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Yes, you matter.
To learn much more about healing the Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is the silent scourge that hangs like a cloud over countless people’s lives, robbing them of the zest, the warmth, and the connection they should be feeling each and every day.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents (perhaps unintentionally) fail to respond to your emotional needs enough when they are raising you.
Yes, that’s all it takes.
When your parents don’t respond to your emotions enough, they send you the powerful, subliminal message that your feelings don’t matter enough. This never-stated-out-loud message in your childhood has an incredible ability to disrupt your adult life in immeasurable ways.
As a child, when you receive the subliminal CEN message over and over, your brain somehow understands the unspoken request to hide your feelings, and somehow, surprisingly, knows just what to do.
It walls off your emotions so that they will not bother your parents — or you. Tucked away on the other side, your emotions almost seem to go away. This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but as an adult, your walled-off emotions may become a great problem for you.
**Important: Before you read about these problems, I want to tell you that there are answers to all of them. The one good thing about CEN is that all 3 of these effects can be healed.
A subliminal message gains its power from lurking in the shadows. As long as you remain unaware, your belief that your feelings are useless silently, invisibly runs your life. But fortunately for us, the opposite is also true. When you shine a light on that shadow, and see this buried belief for what it is, you can redefine it as simply this: a false belief from your childhood that is now a problem.
Once you have done this, you have taken control. You can begin to actively take it on and change it. You can replace your old, false, harmful belief with a new, healthy strategy:
My emotions are important, and I will begin to welcome them and learn to work with them.
If you work on these steps repeatedly, consistently and persistently, over time it will make a tremendous difference in your life. You will drive away that cloud that’s been hanging over you, and you will experience the zest, the warmth and the connection you’ve been watching others enjoy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to heal the effects of Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.