Do you look forward to family holiday gatherings, but then often end up feeling disappointed?
Do you dread family holiday dinners, but feel confused about the reasons why?
Do you feel guilty for avoiding or snapping at your parents at holiday gatherings, but just can’t stop yourself?
Do you feel strangely uncomfortable when you’re with your family as if you don’t belong there?
In my experience as a psychologist, I have come to realize that for every irritable, out-of-place, or disappointed person at a family gathering, there is a valid explanation for how that person feels.
I have also found that the explanation is often something rooted in childhood. Something that as an adult you can’t see or remember but is likely still happening to this day: Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate or respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. Adults whose parents failed them in this way in childhood typically have no awareness that this failure happened. A failure to validate or respond is not an action or an event. It’s a failure to act and a non-event. Therefore, your eyes don’t see it and your brain can’t record it. As an adult, you will likely have no memory of it.
Yet CEN has a tremendous impact on your ability to achieve happiness and fulfillment in adulthood. Growing up with your feelings unaddressed in your family plays out in your own adult life in some very important ways. But it also wreaks havoc with your relationships with your parents and family in adulthood.
Once you’re grown up, Emotional Neglect from childhood can make you resent your parents and feel uncomfortable with your family without you even realizing it. On top of all that, CEN can leave you feeling empty, disconnected, and different; as if you don’t actually belong anywhere.
There is no situation that immerses you in all of your CEN symptoms more than being at a family gathering. And this is especially true when it happens under the pressure-cooker of the holidays.
Chelsea fastened her necklace while simultaneously calling up the stairs for her 3 children to find their shoes and put them on. “We don’t want to be late to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for holiday brunch!” she yelled. As she gathered up the pie she’d made and the bottle of wine she was taking, she was confused by her own mood. She was definitely excited about the holiday and looking forward to the day, but there was also a feeling of darkness lurking in the pit of her stomach. “What is wrong with me? I’m 43 years old and I’m all over the place. This makes no sense,” she thought, angry at herself. She closed her eyes and commanded herself to just be happy and enjoy the day.
28-year-old Jack sat in his parents’ family room surrounded by his niece and nephew, siblings and dad. It’s their annual New Years Day family dinner. As everyone watches the children play, Jack is sitting very uncomfortably in his comfortable chair. Knowing he should be feeling happy and warm and loved, he’s never felt less so. He feels deeply uneasy and out of place as if he is among strangers. He feels unknown, invisible, and deeply bored. “What is my problem?” he agonizes.
Chelsea and Jack don’t know it, but they are both struggling to identify something in themselves that’s very hard to see. Their confusion and contradictory feelings do all make sense, and they have them for a reason. But in looking for answers they are both doing what people with emotional neglect usually do: they are getting angry at themselves for having the feelings they have because they can’t see what’s wrong. They are blaming the pain and deprivation from their childhoods on themselves.
The CEN adult feels so uncomfortable and empty with family not because of what’s there, but because of what’s missing. What’s missing could be best described as three things:
- The feeling that people are genuinely interested in you
- Questions about yourself and your life
- Meaningful conversations about interpersonal issues and the feelings involved.
So when Chelsea and Jack see their families now, it’s a sad continuation of their childhoods. Their parents do not ask them genuine questions about themselves or their lives, no one shows interest in their problems or genuine life experience or feelings. And no one talks about anything that really matters, like problems or conflicts or feelings.
What’s missing is what’s failing to happen, which is something Chelsea and Jack may never see because it’s been their reality from childhood. They can feel it but they cannot see it unless they stop blaming themselves for having negative feelings and acknowledge how their parents failed them.
What To Do Differently
- Learn as much as you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) before your holiday event. This will help you see that this problem is real as well as understand how it’s affected you.
- Instead of trying to ban your negative feelings (like Chelsea did), do the opposite. Pay attention to them as important messages from your body trying to alert you to a real problem in your experience of your family.
- Think about how to protect yourself this year. For example, you may limit your time present at the event or bring a support person who understands CEN and your situation. You might lower your expectations or stick close to someone you’re most comfortable with.
Now here’s the thing. The power of Childhood Emotional Neglect comes from your lack of awareness of it. Once you see it, you can beat it. You can treat yourself differently than your family ever treated you. By caring about your own feelings and validating your own experience you can start protecting yourself.
And when you do you will experience your holidays in a very different way. And then you will see that it makes all the difference in the world.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and for help deciding whether you can change your relationship with your parents now, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.