It was rather disorienting the first time I heard myself say to my daughter, “Hey! Knock it off!” I sounded just like my dad, though it had been about 35 years since he fired those words at me. Why is it so easy to repeat what our parents did?
Then again, why wouldn’t we repeat their behaviors? They were our models for parenthood. And while imitating our parents is effortless, we are just as likely to omit the same behaviors they omitted. This is one of parenthood’s little traps: it’s difficult to notice what we’re not doing. That’s what makes Jonice Webb’s Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect an important book.
Webb begins the book by defining childhood emotional neglect. The healthy parent is able to 1) feel an emotional connection with their child, 2) pay attention to the child and view them as a unique and separate person, and 3) use that emotional connection to respond competently to the child’s needs.
The emotionally neglectful parent, for any variety of reasons, struggles to help the child develop effective responses to life’s challenges. Webb has noticed during her 20 years as a psychologist that the neglected child can grow into an adult who has difficulty connecting to others or finding meaning in life. Worse, they can unwittingly pass the neglect onto their own children.
Webb discusses 12 types of parenting styles that can leave a child emotionally disconnected. While she acknowledges that discreet categories have limited utility, they’re a good starting point for any reader who is beginning to identify the childhood patterns that shaped their present selves. Webb discusses, for example, parents whose authoritarianism, permissiveness, or antisocial tendencies led to a deficit in emotional training.
My only recommendation for her second edition would be to expand the discussion of antisocial parents to include a range of personality disorders, any of which can leave a child anxious and challenged in relationships. That’s a minor point, though. Anyone who was emotionally neglected will find plenty of useful case studies and examples to help them better understand themselves.
Webb spends nearly half the book on what I believe to be the most important topic: what to do about the emotional neglect the reader may have experienced, and how to avoid passing it to the next generation. She offers plenty of exercises to help the reader rekindle their emotional development. She also offers some straight talk about self-care and self-discipline—two things she has found adults to struggle with when they were neglected as children.
This book is big on two things that I love. The first is the fine art of noticing what’s missing. The second is repairing problems so that we don’t perpetuate the damage to our own children. It’s bound to be a useful book for anyone who finds themselves struggling in adulthood after their parents—for whatever reason, good or bad—failed to provide the emotional education that every child needs.
(I purchased this book and this is an unbiased review.)
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Shawn Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado
and the author of The Woman's Guide to How Men Think
and The User's Guide to the Human Mind