How to Know if You Were an Overly Needy Child (Spoiler Alert: You Weren’t)

The Question

(Posted on my CEN Sharing Page by Anonymous)

My mother has complained about my behavior as a child for YEARS. When I was little, she says I “always wanted to be held,” and was “so dramatic” as a teen, acting out to get attention. I was nearly held back in Kindergarten for lack of social skills; I hadn’t been around children my age regularly until then. In occasional situations with peers, she reports that I clung to the wall.

She was faithful to pass along my father’s criticisms because he rarely spoke. He had no friends and didn’t participate in social activities. He was hospitalized this January, and my mother didn’t even tell me! He passed away 3 weeks after I found out he was sick. I have no tears; I barely knew him. He hasn’t been gone 6 months and the house I grew up in is already on the market.

Perhaps they assumed that if their kids were fed, clothed, sheltered, and in school, their work was done. My mother said once that it never occurred to her that she should be teaching her children to take care of themselves. We were her job.

I’ve struggled for over 50 years to find my strengths, and am scared and frustrated to be without a career (or job) at an age when most people are preparing for retirement.

The Answer

Dear Anon,

Reading your mother’s description of you as a child breaks my heart. She thought you were excessively needy. I can, without even knowing you, say with 100% certainty, that you were not needy or poorly behaved.

You were emotionally starving.

In reality, there is no such thing as a needy child simply because there is no such thing as an un-needy child. All children are emotionally needy by definition. It is the parents’ responsibility to try their best to understand what their child needs and to try their best to provide it. Whether it be structure, limits, freedom of expression, emotional validation or social skills, it’s all part of the job.

Growing up emotionally ignored results in growing up with a tendency to ignore yourself. When you ignore yourself, you don’t have a chance to truly know yourself. What career should you be in? What kind of job would you excel at and enjoy? Not knowing yourself makes you feel lost, alone and at sea. The answers are there inside of you, but you were not taught how to find them.

Many parents (yours included) don’t realize that their job is not simply to provide for their children and raise them; they’re also supposed to respond to their children’s emotions. Wanting to be held is a healthy and normal requirement that all children have. “Drama” is nothing other than a judgmental word for emotions. Teenagers act out when they’re either over-controlled or under-attended to by their parents.

How can you know yourself when your parents never knew you? How can you feel that you’re lovable when you didn’t experience enough feeling of love from those who brought you into this world and are supposed to love you first and best?

Fortunately, dear Anon, you can still get where you want to be! Accept that you are worth knowing, and start giving yourself the attention you didn’t get as a child. Notice what you like, love, hate, enjoy, prefer, and need. Start noticing what you feel, and start using those feelings to guide and connect you.

If you haven’t yet read the book Running on Empty, please do so as soon as you can. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider finding one. The social and emotional skills you missed can be learned. You are a classic example of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you can heal.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Jonice

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Derek - August 15, 2019 Reply

Even though I’ve come to understand this was true for me long before I found this, reading it is validating. The problem really belongs to other people, but one thing I’ve learned is that the vast majority of others on the planet are incapable of seeing the byproducts of CEN, people would rather blame and shame you for this “flaw”. I heard all of this kind of stuff for years in my family, until it hit me how truly horrible my family were in neglecting my emotional needs. I got 17/20 on your quiz. My mother, father and sister, incapable and unwilling to meet the most basic of my emotional needs, full stop. Given how my own family taught me to view myself as completely and utterly without value it makes perfect sense how this set me up for similar future relationships – friends who didn’t give a whit about me who would only use me for what they could take, a wife who demanded attention and affection from me but who openly and dismissively refused giving me the same, a job – in child protection social work no less – crammed to the brim with fraudulent, fake people, people who want to be seen as caring but underneath the carefully manicured paper thin exterior were driven to fill their own narcissistic needs that do not care about others on a heart level at all, and certainly not a whit about me, and Psychologist after Psychologist who sought to pathologize me, jam me into a dsm category I didn’t fit into, and ignore what I was telling them about myself and tell me I was something else when they weren’t subtly shaming me for struggling in the ways I was. i havent found a psychologist who understands this issue, they try to jam me into some other wild goose chase type category, I’ve given up with these people. What you say Jonice about psychologists from my experience is just not true – they may very well care about others feelings but not about mine and I’m done kissing that frog, there’s no prince or princess in there. It’s just been an absolutely awful experience dealing with this issue – needing emotional validation and support from others and being denied it at almost every turn. I dont blame myself for struggling anymore as who would find this easy? Finding someone who cares about my feelings even when im prepared to pay them $180 / hr has been beyond difficult. But how can I heal any other way? For me, acknowledging the serious, destructive character flaws in what seems to be most of humanity has helped alot as at the end of the day i know this isn’t my fault. But its just so hard to get past all the destruction it has caused. It’s like being born with the skill to be a masterful baseball player and everyone around you seemingly conspiring to keep you from ever playing the game. The only reasonable explanation i can come up with that takes the edge off all the pain brought into my life by these people is that there is evil in the world and this type of stuff goes beyond ignorance or a whoops type mistake that’s easily righted, it is the result of deep seated and irreversible character flaws in these people’s hearts, minds and souls. They are the real failures as human beings, not me. I can be grateful that now that i can identify them I can keep them as far away from me as possible. As i work thru the pain now that i am no longer in denial about it – no wonder i used this as my primary coping mechanism for 40 years, who wants to look at something so astoundingly ugly? – and come to terms with the destruction others behavior has caused I still struggle with the lack of justice piece, that there will be no recompense from those who have harmed me either intentionally or via their own cluelessness/stupidity. I’ve gotten a lot better coming to terms with my anger about it, but that’s no thanks to anyone but me – i dont talk about anger with others because I’ve been pathologized and judged way too many times, it’s just not safe to talk about it – but it’s still there, I’m not sure it will ever completely go away. Anyways thanks for listening to us and understanding our issues, you are a real gem. Thanks!

    Jonice - August 18, 2019 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your experience Derek. I’m thinking perhaps you did not see a CEN-trained therapist before. I hope you will do so now. It makes a difference.

Cynthia - July 6, 2019 Reply

I am so tired of feeling unloved and unwanted. I just don’t know what to do anymore. Tonight I sit here alone crying because of the horrible things happening at work. No friends or family to talk to. No one cares. I so badly want someone to care about me but there’s no one. I don’t have money to pay for a therapist to listen to me whine. I feel really hopeless right now.

    Jonice - July 7, 2019 Reply

    Dear Cynthia, you can access a therapist at a local hospital or community health center. Please make sure you find someone. Or see your primary care doctor to be evaluated for depression. It’s important to keep trying, no matter what!

arlene - July 3, 2019 Reply

every word has been my entire life i am 54 and only recently found out what has been happening to me, what is being done to me. resident901@gmail.com if you would like to talk and maybe get some added help in understanding contact me. dr. Webb i would love to talk to you.

Tom - July 2, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice. I can identify with every word I read. It is so painful to read it, It is so difficult to let it go, I have done a lot of work on it, 12 step program, Counseling (ect). I feel Lares and Lares of numbness, Anger, Range, hostility, suicide at 12years old, A uncle of mine spent all is life in Mental Hospital, and so did I on a couple ccassions, It has been taking years and years ki let go of the Stigams of the Mentalist Italy’s and my Uncle, was to much for me, Thank you so much, The most difficult problems are, is to receive the the love, the good,the kindness, the Numbness, very low Self Esteem, the suicide thinking, My Dad’s be haver had a devastating effect on me, God bless ye Tom Connaughton

Lori - July 2, 2019 Reply

Hello Jonice,
I’ve commented on a few of your articles before–on the Psych Central website. They are always very informative and helpful!
When I read the title of this article I was drawn to it–simply because I KNOW I wasn’t emotionally needy as a child. Or at least, that was my FIRST thought! But after thinking a few minutes more, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t need, it was more that I was afraid to SHOW or acknowledge any need because to do so I somehow knew that I risked: being shamed or ignored or having to “pay” in a hurtful way for that need later. NOT by my mom–although she was working a lot from around age 8 or 9, thru my teen years so she didn’t notice emotional neediness and would not have ever harmed me if she had. But she overlooked a lot–including my fear around my then stepfather. That was bad enough I guess.
One of the first things I told my therapist when she told me I could depend on her was “I don’t like depending or especially needing ANYONE because once someone knows you need them, then they have a way to hurt you later for it.” Sounds pretty childish seeing that in writing actually.
Anyway, ty for the article!
Lori

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lori, I’m sure this is a lesson you learned in your childhood home. I’m glad you can see how it really is, once you wrote it.

Sabrina Horton - July 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you! I had a similar experience growing up and at the age of 41 I am still healing from it.

Chris - July 1, 2019 Reply

I was taken to endless therapy as a child, the clinician being tasked to “fix her” because she is “sassy”. All I ever wanted was someone to talk with. Someone to listen to me. I was sent to my room to “become appreciative of all I had been given”. This article is soothing— thank you again, Dr Webb.

JENNIFER - July 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this, Jonice. It is good to feel validated by your response to the above post. Boy were you right when you said in an earlier article that we CEN’s need a lot of validation! More and more I am realizing, through self-referencing my feelings, how good it feels to be validated and how awful and even terribly confusing it can feel to actually be contradicted in one’s belief about oneself. I have been noticing with painful clarity that when a person you care about dismisses a feeling or belief you have asserted about yourself, often more than once, it is almost as if that person is saying: What you think about yourself doesn’t matter. What I think about you is what matters. As a result of recent exchanges with someone important to me I have noticed that there is almost a feeling of being erased or annihilated that can experienced in such a situation. There is the frustration and confusion of: How many times do I have to tell you something about me before you will acknowledge that it is true and important for me? And the perplexing question of: Why is it so very, very important for you to fiercely cling to your (inaccurate in my eyes) view of me? And worse, impart it to others in front of me. The inherent message seems to be: You don’t matter. And I can’t, or won’t, see you.

I am 70 years old and I am still struggling to understand aspects of my life both internally and in relationships. I was that child described above who wanted to be held more and maybe was ‘too needy’. I can recall an instant from early childhood and feel myself standing in all my smallness and need before my seated mother yearning to be in the comfort of her lap. I don’t think that need was filled.

At some point in my early history I overheard my mother say that I was driving her nuts with my desire to be with her. I guess it was too much for her to handle and kept her from doing more important things like keeping the house in a state of spotless perfection. I eventually learned ‘not to be a nuisance’ and have had great difficulty asserting myself in my life. I am only really now coming to terms with the reality of how this affected my self-image. And this happened along with her not validating my concerns about a bullying brother’s behavior towards me. One who then moved on to later sexually assault me.

From this one grows as I did: to feel (potentially) invisible, insignificant, not really there. And only acceptable if one is being quiet and thoroughly self-contained with no emotional needs. It wasn’t until somewhere in my late 40’s that I realized one of my greatest unacknowledged and thoroughly buried fears was that something was really wrong with me. That maybe I was deeply and irredeemably flawed. And that it would be terrible if anyone found out this awful truth about me.

So I thank you again Jonice for your work and many insights in the field of CEN and for sharing them on your website. It is extraordinarily valuable knowledge to have. Being able to recognize our own deep emotional wounds also allows us a depth of understanding so that we may show compassion to others who may be suffering from the same neglect.

Janice Blum - July 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you for sharing your story, Anon. I, too, am recovering from CEN, and am a late bloomer, becoming an RN at age 50. Thank you for your hopeful and healing response, Dr. Webb.

Coco - July 1, 2019 Reply

I identify with Anon. My mother didn’t like touching unless it was to dig her fingernails into my arm. I recall asking my grandmother to rock me when I was about 9. “OK,” she said, “but this is the last time.” My toes almost touched the floor. I still remember the glorious feeling of having her arms around me.

I have chosen to remain in a virtually touchless marriage. I was cold, one morning last winter, and thought how nice it would be to crawl into bed with my warm husband — but he is corpulent and smells bad. The “needy” feeling is the same as it was when I was a child. I revisit the emotional and physical feelings of lying in the arms of an earlier husband — and the “loved” feeling I had on my grandma’s lap.

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear Coco, you deserve to feel held and loved and warmed by someone who cares. Perhaps you don’t have to settle for so much less. Please do think about it, and thanks for sharing.

    Deana - July 4, 2019 Reply

    Coco,
    I can relate to the relationship you had with your Grandmother. My Grandmother was more of a mother to me than my mother was.

    As a child I was neither seen or heard and I was a very lonely child. My younger brother, the golden child, loved to torment me and we frequently fought. Mother could not deal with this, her way of dealing with the problem was to scream SHUT UP! My Grandmother was the only one to notice the abuse I was dealing with and she always gave me extra love and attention. I loved her dearly.

    I am now in my 60’s and still dealing with the abuse from a narcissistic family. I have been scapegoated all my life and recently went no contact with my immediate family of origin. The disrespectful treatment became more than I could tolerate and I had to separate from family to save myself.

    It has been a tough road as I was brainwashed for many many years to never voice an opinion or complain. I have come a long way in these last 9 months, but I still have cognitive dissonance as a result of the brainwashing.

    I miss my Grandmother so much. She made me feel loved and OK. We can be thankful for our Grandmas

    Love yourself, you deserve it.

Brad Robertson - July 1, 2019 Reply

Hi,

I was never a needy child growing-up.

I just needed approval, recognition or even acknowledgement from either of my two parents from 1954 through every year thereafter until I finally forgave them about 2016. This forgiveness has added to MY LIFE! Please know, it changes your life for the better!
– Brad

Gail Sargeant - July 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you. So needed

Dominic Wayda - June 30, 2019 Reply

Wow, this literally described me to a ‘tee’; but I also would like to point out that we are each given the parents and siblings we had no control over choosing. It is important to understand this and display humility and forgiveness to those who hurt us, because in many ways we can’t fault our parents for what we believe they failed to do. This has been tough for me to learn, and I had to learn it the hard way.

We have to understand that they themselves may have suffered in a similar way with their parents, and simply know no other way to behave.

My parents lacked emotional capacity, but I still honor and respect them for what they did give me, because they could have just aborted me instead when they found I was on the way into their lives.

Catherine - June 30, 2019 Reply

Thank you so much for posting this. It describes my situation perfectly, on each count. Your response was VERY helpful. Sometimes I feel like I need permission to feel what I do. I feel so to blame and at fault for everything! But it’s more like you said. I will keep this AND reread it often. It is a lot to let sink in but it feels soothing to do so.
I am encouraged and appreciative! Thanks Anon for writing in.

Lisa - June 30, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb,

Your work on CEN is on point and relatable to my childhood experiences. I respect and admire your insight and ability to explain a subject that has affected me and society in such a pervasive way.

I enjoyed this article and found it helpful, but the title was a major trigger for me. I’m still sitting here shaking. I will walk you through the process. I read the title and I was immediately transported to childhood. Here we go again. I’m overly, needy, sensitive, no one can ever provide enough emotional support for me…Signaling I am the problem. My adult self and Wise mind knows this is not true. I had parents who loved me but were not equipped to handle the emotional needs of a child.

I almost didn’t read the article. That’s how upsetting the title was to me….but I did and it makes sense. But as a CEN adult in recovery it was a major trigger.

Thank you for your time. Your work has made a difference in my life.

Respectfully,

Lisa

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Hi Lisa, I’m sorry to trigger you but sometimes that vulnerable feeling can open one up for growth. I hope you’ll keep on taking one step after another to heal.

Lorina - June 30, 2019 Reply

Hi,
I am in therapy a few times a week for CPTSD.
The thing is that I made lots of poor choices as a young adult but as a 50 yr old my life looks pretty good. No alcohol etc, eating disorder so to my therapist I look pretty together. I am a single mom to an adopted child and have never married.
My abuse took place by family but not in my home.
Unlike the story I just read my parents to this day say how I never wanted to be held or close for more than a second unless I was very sick and even then short lived. Good Christian parents. They gave me a nice home, food, clothing and all that but I had adhd
(Still a problem all these yrs later). When I finally got the courage to tell mom something happened she seemed to believe me and freaked out crying and all that. At first felt an initial relief because I felt it was finally out and I did it and now things will be different…….not! After that nothing was ever said, no questions no support or hug, no nothing.
I was a very angry child and highly emotional and was always in trouble for basically being myself or maybe acting out due to all that was happening to me. I have spent time hospitalized when younger
And when I turned 21 worked at a children’s home for kids 5 to 18 from abuse, parents incarcerated and behavioral problems. This place saved my life as I worked there for about 8 yrs. I then went into a Christian discipleship program for a year then training and then worked at a residential program for about 10 yrs foe woman 18-50.
Now, I live with just my child, struggling with depression and PTSD and
to people who don’t know I look perfectly normal but I am not. There were several very physically abusive times with my dad
as far as punishment to me. I relate so much to everything you say and even spoke to my therapist who I love about feelings of attachment to her but she doesn’t see it as an issue but normal as I am talking to her about things I have never told before but I don’t like that feeling.
I have a fine relationship with my parent who I am going to visit with my child And although everything will be fine on the outside I feel like this emotionally screwed up stupid child has woken inside of me and feeling things I haven’t since I was a kid. I sure hope this makes since to you.

VS - June 30, 2019 Reply

My mother used to say the opposite of me, that I was a good small child as I wasn’t demanding of attention , unlike my brother who needed entertaining when he was little. Apparently I would keep myself quietly occupied when I was very small, I remember being very lonely as a child. When I did express feelings I was told not to make a fuss, like the time we went for a walk and I had a hole in my wellies and my feet got very cold and wet, or when I broke my arm when I was two years old. I know now I learnt to keep myself apart from my mother as she didn’t much like having me around when there was a problem.

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear VS, you knew what to do, and you did it well: Don’t need anything. That is Emotional Neglect.

Michelle - June 30, 2019 Reply

I really enjoy your articles. You ALWAYS talk to me! About my childhood! It feels great to know I’m not alone

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad, Michelle. You are indeed NOT alone.

Catherine - June 30, 2019 Reply

That could be my story, especially the last bit: ‘I’ve struggled for over 50 years to find my strengths, and am scared and frustrated to be without a career (or job) at an age when most people are preparing for retirement.’
My mum even had a go at me recently for not choosing or working in a steady career like she and my husband have. So not only was I emotionally neglected, I’m now being blamed for it too!

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Emotional neglect is never the child’s fault. Fight hard against the blame and do not absorb one drop of it.

    Derek - August 15, 2019 Reply

    Catherine twenty years ago a friend who understood the dynamic better than I did described what my parents did to me in the exact manner you are talking about as “giving you the drug and blaming you for getting hooked on it”. It took me years to understand what he meant but he was talking about the very dynamic you speak of. In many of our cases parental narcissism is a factor in creating CEN, and this is part of the extraordinarily disordered dynamic going on in families like ours.

Lesley - June 30, 2019 Reply

My mother always described me as a “drama queen”! My childhood hero was Mr Spock! I learned that not showing how I felt was the only way to be “acceptable”. Luckily, I was also smart – but of course, that wasn’t anything to be proud of either – because, to quote my mother, ” nobody likes a smart arse”. In fact, I was lonely, unhappy and confused for most of my childhood. I’m adopted – and felt rejected, not only by my birth mother, but also by my adoptive mother, who clearly favoured my brother, who was only a few months younger than me, but could do no wrong. It is to his credit that I do not recall him as a bully.

Denise - June 30, 2019 Reply

Oh, my goodness. The last paragraph in Anonymous’ description of the lifetime struggles resounded so strongly with me. With Anon’s details aside, I identified with that ‘needy’ kid who never had that emotional cup filled. It is profoundly sad to me that my parents really never knew me, and I wondered most of my life what the flaw was that I was born with.
Not too long ago I discovered that by nature I am highly sensitive and a true introvert which answered some of my questions in context of those growing up years. Then, after reading this article, I was able to place the ‘capstone’ in my understanding of what makes me tick. There is still the conundrum of ‘not knowing what I want to be when I grow up’ at my age of 68 and trying to find my niche, but the information in this article gave me a little more peace in my journey.

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    I am glad this was helpful Denise. Please keep working on accepting that it’s okay to have needs and that the flaw lay with your parents, not you.

Susan Finney - June 30, 2019 Reply

thanks for the messages. I can’t afford one of the retreats, but I’ve read both books and they’ve helped a lot.

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