- Many emotionally neglectful parents are good people trying their best. This can make it hard to identify the problem.
- There are three different types of emotionally neglectful parents: well-meaning, struggling, and self-involved.
- Becoming aware of the emotional neglect you grew up with and understanding the type of parents you have can help you heal.
What does it take for a parent to emotionally neglect their child? Surprisingly, it takes literally nothing. Emotional neglect in families tends to happen organically, as it’s passed down silently and invisibly from one generation to the next.
To become emotionally neglectful, parents only need to grow up in a family that doesn’t understand the importance of feelings and emotional support. When they become parents, they cannot give their children the emotional validation and care that they never received themselves.
Many people naturally assume that emotionally neglectful parents must be abusive or mean in some way, and some are.
But one of the most surprising things about childhood emotional neglect is that the parents are often good and loving people. Many are trying their very best to raise their children well.
But they cannot give their children what they never received themselves: emotional awareness, emotional education, and emotional validation.
Since the picture of emotionally neglectful parents can be so mixed and confusing, it can be difficult to see the traits in your own parents. To help, I am sharing an excerpt from my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Type 1: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves Parents (WMBNT)
There are a variety of different ways that well-meaning parents can accidentally neutralize their children’s emotions. They can fail to set enough limits or deliver enough consequences (permissive); they can work long hours, inadvertently viewing material wealth as a form of parental love (workaholic); or they can overemphasize their children’s accomplishments and success at the cost of their happiness (achievement/perfection).
What makes these parents qualify for well-meaning status? They think they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised.
As an adult, you remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall what they failed to give you.
So you blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills, unless you have taught them to yourself.
5 Signs to Look For
- You feel confused about your feelings about your parents.
- You feel guilty for being angry at them.
- Being with your parents is boring.
- Your parents don’t see or know the real you, as you are today.
- You know that your parents love you, but you don’t necessarily feel it.
Type 2: Struggling Parents
Struggling parents emotionally neglect their child because they are so taken up with coping that there is little time, attention, or energy left over to notice what their child is feeling or struggling with. Whether bereaved, hurting, depressed, or ill, these parents would likely parent much more attentively if only they had the bandwidth to do so.
But these parents couldn’t, so they didn’t. They didn’t notice your feelings enough, and they didn’t respond to your feelings enough. Although the reasons for their failure are actually irrelevant, you have not yet realized this yet. You look back and see a struggling parent who loved you and tried hard, and you find it impossible to hold them accountable.
Children of struggling parents often grow up to be self-sufficient to the extreme and to blame themselves for their adult struggles.
4 Signs to Look For
- You have great empathy toward your parents, and a strong wish to help or take care of them.
- You are grateful for all that your parents have done for you, and can’t understand why you sometimes feel inexplicable anger toward them.
- You have an excessive focus on taking care of other people’s needs, often to your own detriment.
- Your parents are not harsh or emotionally injurious toward you.
Type 3: Self-Involved Parents
This category stands out from the others for two important reasons. First, self-involved parents are not necessarily motivated by what is best for their child. They are, instead, motivated to gain something for themselves. The second is that many parents in this category can be quite harsh in ways that do damage to the child on top of the emotional neglect.
The narcissistic parent wants his child to help him feel special. The authoritarian parent wants respect at all costs. The addicted parent may not be selfish at heart, but due to their addiction, is driven by a need for their substance of choice. The sociopathic parent wants only two things: power and control.
Not surprisingly, Category 3 is the most difficult one for most children to see or accept. No one wants to believe that their parents were, and are, out for themselves.
7 Signs to Look For
- You often feel anxious before seeing your parents.
- You often find yourself hurt when you’re with your parents.
- It’s not unusual for you to get physically sick right before, during, or after seeing your parents.
- You have significant anger at your parents.
- Your relationship with them feels false.
- It’s hard to predict whether your parents will behave in a loving or rejecting way toward you from one moment to the next.
- Sometimes your parents seem to be playing games with you or manipulating you, or maybe even trying to purposely hurt you.
What to Do
If you have Types 1 or 2 parents, you may be able to talk with them about emotional neglect.
But no matter which type you have, the key to healing is to focus on yourself, not your parents. Your feelings, your needs, your wants, and your voice. After a lifetime of wondering what's wrong, now you can go forward and repair.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
A version of this post appeared on Psychcentral.com.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.
Webb, Jonice (2018) Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. New York: Morgan James Publishing.