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Emotionally Neglectful Family? How to Cope With Thanksgiving

Unacknowledged, unaddressed emotions lurk. These five tips will help you cope.

Key points

  • In emotionally neglectful families, emotions are treated as problems rather than vital messages.
  • Such families "don't do feelings," so many feelings are swept under the rug or not discussed. This gives them even more power.
  • The unaddressed feelings from a lifetime lurk in the family members and their relationships decades later.
Monkey Business/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock Images

Many families will be celebrating this Thanksgiving holiday with an elephant in the room. They won’t be able to see the elephant, but they will feel it. It will feel like disconnection, loneliness, disappointment, sadness, or letdown.

Some will wonder why they are bored when they’re with their families. Others may wonder why certain family members seem angry, hurt, or sad. Still others will be baffled about why they can’t just suck it up and be happier with what they have. Most of these folks have no way of knowing that emotional neglect lies dormant in their family, quietly sucking the life out of their interactions and undermining the happiness and connection they should be feeling.

Emotional neglect has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving—which should feel welcoming, loving, and warm—fall short.

Childhood emotional neglect continues to linger in a family long after the children are grown. It subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and dilutes the love. Unacknowledged, unshared, unaddressed emotions form the background of a family picture that nobody sees but everyone feels. They are the gray fog that lingers around the family, making it impossible to clearly see each other.

The members of an emotionally neglectful family tend to walk through each holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent at best, and confusing anger, hurt, and sadness at worst.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood emotional neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not "see" the emotions of its members. In an emotionally neglectful family, feelings are generally treated as if they are irrelevant or burdensome.

Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings. They learn how to be ashamed of their emotions and avoid emotional things. They learn that meaningful conversations and demonstrations of emotions, even positive ones, are undesirable or even shameful.

The family that squelches, squashes, or shames the emotions of its members, even if it’s unspoken and unintentional (which it often is) pays a sad and dear price. Like a cake baked without sugar, it may look great, but it doesn’t taste right. Like a baseball game played without the ball, it may look normal from a distance, but when you’re close enough, you realize that everyone is just going through the motions.

If this is your family, you may feel vaguely disappointed and let down by your family on holidays. You may find yourself dreading them. You may feel bored and disconnected, angry, hurt, left out, or sad when with your family but have no idea why.

If you suspect this may be your family, or know that it is, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving?

5 Tips for the Emotionally Neglected at Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Try to have one person with you who understands your situation. It helps if they understand the power of emotional neglect. A spouse, sibling, or trusted friend can give you great strength in the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding. If they can’t be there with you, see if they can be available by phone or text.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in an emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be expecting what you are likely to get. This will help protect you from feeling disappointed and let down.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: Throughout the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger, or loneliness. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strengths: Know that, in some fundamental ways, growing up with emotional neglect has made you remarkably strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your childhood emotional neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, self-reliant, and giving. These are all things to be grateful for.
  5. Focus on self-care: Get some exercise and wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are feeling good enough, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s especially important to put yourself first.

The Takeaway

Emotional neglect passes through the generations of a family unseen and unnoticed. Your parents may have simply done what most humans do: raised you very much in the same way they were raised. That’s why it’s so often no one’s fault.

For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you did not get from your family. On this day, work on accepting both what you didn't get, what you did get, and why.

Try your best to keep in mind that everything your parents couldn’t and can’t give you is possible to give yourself now. You can acknowledge, validate, and accept your feelings and regard them as the expressions of your deepest self that they are.

And on Thanksgiving, as well as every other day of the year, you can honor your deepest, neglected self by taking steps to take care of yourself emotionally. This way, you will stop the generations of emotional neglect in their tracks.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.