Every CEN parent was once a CEN child.
I have noticed that we adults like to think of ourselves as self-made. It’s natural to believe that you are the way you are because of your own choices, decisions, strengths, and weaknesses. But it’s important to recognize another major factor at work: we are also a product of our childhood experiences.
Attachment research has shown, again and again, and without a shadow of a doubt, that we are all, in some very important ways, direct products of the way our parents treated us. And as a psychologist, I have seen that, even more specifically, we are a product of the way our parents treated our emotions.
A clear and direct example: If you are a person whose parents ignored your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you have likely continued on to ignore your own feelings as an adult.
You can indeed get through your whole life essentially pretending that your feelings do not exist. But then, when you become a parent, this can become more and more difficult. Why? Because children are born wired with intense emotions. And your children and their feelings make you feel, whether you are paying attention or not.
As a specialist in Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) I have seen that parents who grew up with Emotional Neglect have a lot of feelings as they raise their children. If you are such a parent, I want you to know that the feelings you’re having are normal and understandable. They do make sense. And they matter.
And many of them stem from the results of your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Just as you could not choose your childhood, you now cannot choose your feelings.
So even though your feelings as a parent matter, none of them are your fault. And the more you are aware of them, the better you can manage them. And the stronger the person, and the better the parent, you will be.
Note: Most of the parents’ feelings described below are condensed from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Common Feelings of the CEN Parent
- Empty, deficient; exhausted; wanting to give to your child, but the well feels dry. These feelings stem from the emptiness that results from growing up emotionally neglected. Having walled off your emotions in your own childhood to cope in your “feelings-free” home, you now suffer a shortage of the rich resource of your own feelings to give your children. As a parent, you should be experiencing your feelings freely, sending emotions back and forth with your child. But you can’t quite do this enough because your feelings are blocked off. As a child of Emotional Neglect, you got the short end of the stick as a child, and now you are supposed to give your child what you never got yourself. This is one of the saddest dilemmas of the CEN parent.
- Guilt and shame. As a child you needed emotional support and help from your parents but, too often, they were not there for you. You learned early that you were essentially on your own. Children who feel alone do a curious thing. They develop a harsh inner “voice” that has high standards for what they should be, know, and do. And it becomes even harsher when they make a mistake. Since parenting is by its very nature a process of trial and error, it is for every parent riddled with mistakes. This sets you up as a parent to suffer the judgments of your own harshest critic. “You’re not loving enough,” or “You’re not strict enough,” or “You didn’t handle that right,” for example. In your own head, you will never be good enough for your parenting role. You could be feeling loving and loved, but instead, you feel guilt and shame.
- Confused and mystified. You, like all humans, were born with intense feelings wired into you. As a child, you needed your parents to teach you about them; how to tolerate, name, listen to and express them. But lacking this education, you had no way to learn these skills. Walling your feelings off helped you get through your childhood, but now, as a parent, you need all those missed skills but you do not have them. So when your children have strong feelings, you may feel helpless and confused. “What’s this now?” “What do I do?” As you try to understand your children, you are operating with a deficit of knowledge. You find yourself wondering why they are behaving a certain way and over-focus on their behavior instead of their feelings. Since it’s difficult to understand your child on a deeply emotional level, you often feel at a loss in terms of directing them and giving them what they need.
Never Fear. There Are Answers
Having worked with hundreds of CEN parents, I can tell you this: no matter how much emptiness, guilt, shame or confusion you have had as a parent, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the intensity, quality or value of your love for your children. The only problem you actually have lies in your own relationship with your emotions.
Does it affect your children? Yes.
Should you feel guilty for it? No.
Can you correct the problem? YES!
To repair your relationship with your own feelings, to make a better life for yourself and a better childhood for your kids, you will have to defy your own parents. You will need to start doing the opposite of what they taught you.
This means that you stop trying to make your feelings go away, and instead start valuing them. When you accept, value, and listen to your feelings, you will find yourself understanding yourself better, and your children too. You will find yourself making better decisions, feeling more confident in yourself and your parenting, and feeling less empty and deficient.
Every CEN parent was once a CEN child. The two go hand in hand. But as you honor your emotions more, you’ll be honoring your truest self more. You will feel it, your children will feel it. And you will be reversing the Emotional Neglect in its tracks. It all starts right here, right now. With you.
To learn about 7 more common feelings of the CEN parent and learn much more about how to repair the CEN in your parenting and other relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More.
CEN can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.