No one asks a child, “What do you want?”
A child’s feisty nature goes unnoticed and unchecked by his parents.
Most likely, there is not a child in the history of the world who has not experienced some or all of these here and there. But what happens when a child experiences all of the above, and more, and often?
None of these incidents are abusive acts. None involves parental mistreatment or malice. None leaves the child hungry or cold. None fits the definition of “trauma.” Even a loving parent might fail his child in these ways. And yet I have discovered that when a child goes through enough of these types of parental failures, she will experience tremendous effects years later in adulthood.
A child whose feelings are too often unnoticed, ignored, or misinterpreted by her parents receives a powerful, even if unintended, message from them: “Your feelings don’t matter," “Your feelings are wrong," or even “Your feelings are unacceptable."
Children are adaptive little beings who respond deeply to their parents’ reactions. A child who receives any of these messages enough from his parents will naturally adapt by pushing his feelings down and away so that they are not visible to others. He may push them so far away that they are not visible even to himself.
I have given a name to this process: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when a parent fails to notice or respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
Notice that a parent’s failure to respond is not an event that happens to a child. Instead, it’s something that fails to happen for a child. Because CEN is not an event, it’s invisible, intangible, and unmemorable. It goes virtually unnoticed by both child and parent. A hundred people could be watching an instance of CEN and not one of them would notice.
Because of this, I have seen that the vast majority of people who grew up with CEN have no memory of it. As adults, they are baffled by the source of their struggles. They may look back upon a childhood in which they were loved, and in which all of their material needs were met, and see nothing wrong.
Yet CEN has a profound effect upon how a child will feel and function in adulthood. As a therapist, I have noticed a particular, identifiable pattern of struggles in adults who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) as a child. I have identified 10, which fall into two main categories:
1. Self-care: People who did not receive enough emotional nurturance, discipline, soothing or compassion when they were growing up have great difficulty providing all of these things for themselves as adults. People with CEN struggle with prioritizing their own needs (and sometimes have difficulty knowing what their own needs are), making themselves do things they don’t want to do (self-discipline), and forgiving themselves for their own mistakes or challenges (self-compassion). Indeed, I have seen that people with CEN are typically far harder on themselves than they are on others.
2. Emotional awareness and knowledge: When you grow up with your emotions pushed away, you have little opportunity to learn how to tolerate, recognize, cope with, interpret, manage and express your emotions. So CEN folks tend to struggle with all of these things. In addition, I have seen that they often actually feel the absence of the feelings they’ve pushed away. Since emotion is the glue that binds us to others and the spice of life, CEN folks often express feelings of emptiness, disconnection, meaninglessness and aloneness.
If you see yourself reflected in any of this description, do not despair. It is entirely possible to heal from CEN. Each of the challenges above can be overcome in adulthood.
Here are examples of some exercises to get you on the track to becoming more connected, emotionally fulfilled, nurtured and self-disciplined.
1. SELF-MONITOR YOUR EMOTIONS: Three times a day, take a moment to yourself. Pause, close your eyes, and turn your attention inward. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Try your hardest to identify and name any feelings that you might have in that moment. Record them on a sheet of paper or in your Smartphone. It may be difficult and take some time to be able to identify any feelings at all, but just the process of trying will move you closer and closer to success. Over time, you will become more in touch with your feelings. You will gradually gain more access to this vital source of richness, connection and fulfillment.
2. IDENTIFY YOUR UNIQUE STRUGGLES WITH SELF-CARE, AND THEN ATTACK THEM: Look through the list below, and jot down any areas of self-care that are difficult for you.
- Having compassion for yourself when you make a mistake
- Putting yourself first
- Eating healthy and the right amount
- Getting regular exercise
- Asking others for help when you need it
- Prioritizing your own enjoyment
- Asserting your own likes and dislikes with others
- Getting a healthy amount of rest
- Saying “no”
Choose the one item that you would like to attack first. On a sheet of paper or in your smartphone, start recording EACH DAY the number of times you are able to do the right thing for yourself. Set a goal to gradually increase the number-per-day by the end of 30 days. Then start on the next month. Keep working daily until you are satisfied that you are doing better, and then start on the next area.
Yes, overcoming CEN can be a good deal of work. CEN can flow into many areas of a person’s adult life. But if you are a silent CEN sufferer, it is vital that you recognize it and begin to address it. Since CEN is so invisible, it is insidiously and automatically passed down from parents to children. Even loving, caring parents who were themselves emotionally neglected can inadvertently emotionally neglect their own children.
Identifying something that is not memorable or visible can be quite difficult. If you question whether it applies to you, you can visit my website to take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and learn more about CEN. For more in-depth information about how CEN happens, the types of parents who are most likely to emotionally neglect their children, and how to heal, you may want to see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
If your CEN feels like too much, you may find it easier to work with a therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Dr. Webb currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. She resides in the Boston area with her husband and two teenage children. You can reach her at:
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