The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child, and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start
- It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
- In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
- The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
- Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.
Ten Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child
- Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
- Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
- Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
- Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
- If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
- If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
- Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
- Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involved you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
- Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
- Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty. Both can also be useful in helping your child understand Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting her and her relationship with you.