On “Back to School Night” at our high school, all of the students’ parents have the opportunity to walk through their child’s school day in their children’s shoes. The parents shuffle from one classroom to another, recreating their child’s full day’s schedule in ten-minute increments.

One of the most interesting aspects of Back to School Night is passing the other parents in the hallways, who are also rushing hurriedly to their child’s classes, and seeing parents you know sitting in class with you. 

It feels a little like my own high school experience.  There’s a feeling of anonymity when facing a sea of people in the hallway that you have no connection with, and a feeling of comfort when you pass someone you know, or find that a friend is in class with you.

Here is a story from the Back to School Night of my daughter’s junior year:

My husband and I shuffled hurriedly into our daughter’s health class and collapsed into our chairs.  We were immediately captivated by the teacher, who started talking about how all of the teenagers had the opportunity to try on “drunk goggles” in class that day.

Then, she really got my attention. She pointed to a huge, full-wall bulletin board that was covered with scraps of colored papers.  On each paper was printed a different message. 

“I asked your children to anonymously answer the question:

If you really knew me, you’d know___________,” the health teacher explained.  

Each teen wrote his or her own personal answer to that question, and anonymously handed it in. The teacher then posted them on the board. Here are some of the answers I saw on that board:

If you really knew me, you’d know____________

That I’m in love with my best friend.

That I was chased out of my last school because I was gay.

That I have depression.

That my parents hate each other.

That my mom loves my brother more than me.

That I’m ashamed of my house.

That I hate my body.

As my eyes started to tear up from reading the raw and candid pain of these teenagers, I saw the answer that affected me the most. It said:

That my parents will give me anything, but they have no idea who I am.

With the clear vision that can only be found in a 16-year-old, this teen had put into words the exact experience of Emotional Neglect. This kid’s parents probably love him or her very much. They are probably good people who want their child to have everything and to be happy. 

But the truth is: It’s not enough to love your child, or to give him everything.  It must be accompanied by deeply knowing your child. Because love can only feel real when it comes from someone who truly knows whom they are loving, and why. Any other love feels empty to the recipient.

In my experience as a psychologist, I have realized that many, many people have been raised in loving households that were lacking this key ingredient: feeling known. It’s almost imperceptible when it’s missing. You grow up knowing that you’re loved, but not fully feeling loved.

In your adulthood this type of childhood “love” leaves its mark. You are left feeling an emptiness inside that you’re at a loss to explain. You look back on your childhood and see your loving parents, but you can’t see what wasn’t there. You cannot see what you did not get: the feeling of being known, and loved for who you really are: strengths, weaknesses, skills and deficits, nuances, quirks, and all.

The high school hallway is a perfect representation of our paths through life. We are all traveling anonymously, singular and alone through a sea of people. We feel a sense of emptiness until we run into someone who has taken the time and energy to truly get to know us. Then we are filled with the feeling of belonging; the feeling of being known.

Unless the first people to do that for us are our parents in childhood, we float, untethered, through the hallway of life, wondering what is wrong with us.

This is the experience of the emotionally neglected.

How to Make Sure Your Child Feels Known 

  1. Watch. Notice your child’s unique personality. Is he impulsive, kind, honest, loyal or fair? Is she motivated, calm, excitable, friendly, introverted? What does he like? What does she avoid? What are her preferences? What are his quirks?
  2. Share. Feed your observations back to your child in a loving, uncritical, accepting way. For example, “I’ve noticed that being around other people is fun for you, but it makes you tired. That’s OK, it just means it’s good to plan some downtime after you’re with your friends.”
  3. Ask. Ask your child questions about what he thinks about different topics, how he feels, what he wants. Listen carefully, and remember.

Since CEN is so subliminal and unmemorable, it can be hard to know if you have it. Yet it automatically transmits, unseen, from one generation to the next. To find out if CEN may be getting in the way of your happiness, health, well-being, or parenting, Sign Up to Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by jasonwoodhead23