Wendy drove away from her parents’ house feeling drained. Her two children were fighting in the backseat, but she barely noticed. She was preoccupied. In her head she was going over and over what just happened, trying to make sense of it.

Wendy had gone to her parents’ house to tell them that she was separating from her husband David. Here’s how that went:

“Where’s David?” Wendy’s mother asked when she walked in the house with her children in tow.

“Hi Mom and Dad, I need to talk with you for a minute,” Wendy replied heavily as she sat in a chair to convey that there was some gravity to the topic. 

“What’s up? ”Wendy’s father said gruffly as he sat down, picked up the newspaper and began to peruse it. Wendy’s mother said, “Oh! My goodness, I was just in the process of starting the laundry. I’ll be back.”

As Wendy waited for her mother to return and pay attention, 37 miserable minutes passed. During that time, she continued to feel increasingly awkward about talking about this serious issue with her parents. Sitting in the kitchen making dull chitchat with her grumpy father, she also continued to feel more and more uncared for, and more and more alone.

***

It would be so much easier if emotionally neglectful parents wore a sign around their necks. And although many emotionally neglectful parents, if they are more obvious, like narcissistic, authoritarian or addicted parents, may be far easier to identify than Wendy’s, most emotionally neglectful parents are generally well-meaning. They want to be good parents, but they simply do not know what to do. They do not know that they need to validate their children’s emotions, or how to do it.

Here’s the most important point: it does not matter whether your parents are well-intentioned or not. The effect of CEN is the same. You were still emotionally neglected. And most likely, you still are.

3 Signs You Have Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  1. You feel awkward when anything related to emotion arises between you. Some CEN parents are only awkward about certain feelings. For example, they may be perfectly fine with anything happy or upbeat, but fidget or change the subject if anything painful or sad, warm or tender, or conflictual comes up. The converse may also be true: your parents are only comfortable with anger, and positive feelings are banned. But in many CEN homes, any expression of emotion feels simply, plainly wrong.
  2. You feel vaguely disappointed, or let down, (perhaps mixed with other emotions) after most interactions with them. A very natural, normal part of your human brain needs to feel seen, known, and validated by your parents, but this is mostly outside of your awareness. When your parents fail to do any one of those three vital things: see, know, or validate you, that part of your brain feels it. If you do not realize this process is happening, you may even feel guilty for feeling disappointed in your parents.
  3. Your parents regularly do small things that show they do not really know you. They may say something they want for you, but it seems completely out of line with who you are; they give you gifts that you do not want or need, or cards that are vacant or “off.” They still don’t have a grasp of your job, or other important aspects of your life; they mis-predict what you will do, or what you want, or how you’ll feel about things.

Why it Helps to Know

  • It’s Not Your Fault After All. I have never seen folks more prone to self-blame than those who grew up with CEN.  I think it’s because when the explanation for your feelings is so elusive and unknown, you naturally assume that you are wrong. When you are unaware of the CEN in your relationship with your parents, you are at risk for blaming yourself for feeling disappointed, for avoiding your parents, or even for not being happier or more grateful to them.
  • Validation. Once you understand what’s been missing in your relationship with your parents all these years, and you finally realize that it’s not your choice or your fault, you feel instantly validated. This problem is real. Your feelings do matter. And it is normal and natural for you to miss what you didn’t get: enough true emotional connection and attunement from your parents. Now you can begin to treat yourself and your emotions as valid. You are no longer invisible.
  • The Door to Recovery is Opened. You may now be able to talk with your parents about what’s really wrong. But even if you can’t, it’s okay. You can begin to walk the path to heal yourself. By directing your attention inward, instead of outside to everyone and everything else; by valuing and listening to your most vital feedback system, your emotions; by purposely taking risks to deepen your relationship. Now you can see that it is time to heal.

Often, Childhood Emotional Neglect is no one’s fault. It’s an emotional blind spot that’s passed silently from one generation to the next.

If you, like Wendy above, were raised by emotionally neglectful parents, then you know all too well how it feels to be invisible. Now it is time to find out how it feels to be seen. Now you will learn how it feels to be fully, deeply alive and, at the same time fully, deeply, yourself.

The effects of CEN can be difficult to see in yourself. I invite you to Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

Watch for my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, available in November. It’s loaded with information about how to change (or deal with) your relationship with your emotionally neglectful parents.

Photo by michaelarrington