There is an old saying about how there are a million ways to parent wrong and only one way to do it right.
Although this is a massive oversimplification, it does hold a certain basic truth. The vast majority of parents struggle to do right by their child. It is natural for most to love their children and want to give them everything possible to ensure that they grow up happy and healthy.
But what exactly differentiates an emotionally good enough parent from one who is not?
The reality is that many fine people who love their children are good enough parents in every area except for one: they fail to respond to their children’s emotions in a validating and educative way. They fail to communicate to their child that his emotions are real, that his emotions matter, and that they can be managed and used in many valuable ways.
Is it the fault of the parent? No. At least not unless there is cruelty or abuse, or massive negligence in other areas too. In fact, most emotionally neglectful parents appear, to those both inside and outside the family, to be doing everything right.
**Special Note to Parents: If you see yourself in this article, do not despair or feel guilty. Emotional Neglect was automatically passed down from your parents. There are answers, and it’s never too late to change your way of parenting. It is never too late to begin emotionally validating your children. Now read on, no guilt allowed.
So now, decades later, how can you tell if you were raised by emotionally healthy parents or emotionally neglectful ones?
Childhood Emotional Neglect never disappears. If you were emotionally neglected as a child, then you are emotionally neglected now. First, we will talk about how to see Emotional Neglect in your relationship with your parents now that you are an adult.
Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Your Relationship With Your Parents
- You are surprised by the anger you sometimes feel toward your parents because you love them.
- You are confused about what exactly are your feelings toward your parents.
- You feel guilty about your anger at your parents.
- You are often bored when you spend time with your parents.
- You don’t feel like your parents see — or know — the real you, as you are today.
- You know that your parents love you, but you don’t necessarily feel the love from them.
- You feel a strong responsibility to help or take care of your parents that is a distraction from the needs of yourself, your spouse and/or your children.
- You are grateful for all your parents have done for you, and feel guilty for the negativity you also have toward them.
- You tend to focus too much on taking care of other people’s needs, often to your own detriment.
- Even though your parents are not harsh or hurtful toward you, you feel distant from them.
- You often get anxious or sad when you know you’re going to interact with your parents.
- You often find yourself feeling hurt or upset when you are with your parents.
- You notice that you have a tendency to feel physically ill right before, during, or after interacting with your parents.
- You feel a lot of anger toward your parents.
- Your relationship with your parents often feels false, or fake.
- Sometimes you find it hard to know whether your parents will love you or reject you from one moment to the next.
- Sometimes your parents seem to be playing games with you or manipulating you, or maybe even trying to purposely hurt you.
Emotionally neglectful parents may be loving and well-intentioned but they still, perhaps through no fault of their own, fail to notice your feelings and respond to them enough. And by failing you in this way, emotionally neglectful parents fail to teach you the emotion skills you will need for your lifetime.
Now, as an adult looking back, you may readily recall all that your parents gave you, but it is far more difficult to see the vital ingredient they failed to give you: emotional validation, attention and attunement, emotion skills, and emotional intelligence.
The Emotionally Neglected Child, All Grown Up
The emotionally neglected child grows up puzzled, wondering why he has issues when his childhood seemed pretty good. He lacks emotion skills that would enable him to understand his own feelings and the feelings of others. Disconnected from his own emotions, he struggles to identify exactly what he wants, feels and needs. It’s hard to form deep and resilient relationships so he often feels deeply, inexplicably, alone.
The Emotionally Healthy Parent
Many people with Childhood Emotional Neglect have asked me what an emotionally healthy parent looks like. You may have thought for years, or even decades, that your parents were these. Perhaps it’s only now, in hindsight, that you may be wondering if they may have failed you.
Signs That You Were Raised By Emotionally Healthy Parents
- You look forward to seeing your parents and sometimes find yourself feeling good, or even restored, afterward.
- The emotions you feel toward your parents are much like the feelings you have in the rest of your relationships: varied and usually understandable.
- You feel that your parents know and understand you. If this feeling is disrupted occasionally during conflicts, it does return afterward.
- You not only know that your parents love you, you feel that love from them.
- If your parents hurt your feelings, you generally feel okay about telling them about it.
- Your parents apologize when they make a mistake and take accountability for it.
- You have a good general sense of how your parents will respond to things: they are consistent in their choices and actions.
- Guilt is not an emotion that you feel often in the relationship.
- You feel free to ask your parents for help and you know that they will feel free to say no, if necessary, in return.
- You feel your parents see the real you, including strengths and weaknesses. And despite your shortcomings, they love you and are proud of you.
What does an emotionally healthy parent look like? First of all, she pays attention to her child. She generally is aware of what her child is doing. She is reasonably emotionally healthy and has good emotion skills.
What does this mean? Since he’s able to identify emotions in other people, he’s able to identify what his child is feeling well. Because he has empathy, he is also able to feel his child’s feelings. This gives him a remarkable ability to put himself in his child’s shoes, imagine being the child, and give her what she needs.
The emotionally healthy parent does make mistake and does fail her child at times, for sure. But she is there for him, and he feels it. Because of this he never feels the deep sense of aloneness that the emotionally neglected child experiences.
The Emotionally Validated Child, All Grown Up
The child of the emotionally healthy parent grows up with emotion skills which allow him to connect with others. He also has a deep sense of support, plenty of self-knowledge, self-compassion, and perhaps most importantly, access to the most valuable resource of all: his own emotions.
What To Do Now
If you are realizing you may have grown up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) do not despair. There are answers and a clear path forward to learn the skills you missed and heal. If you are realizing that you may be an emotionally neglectful parent, you can absolutely learn all the skills you need to change your parenting.
Below this article, you can find links to many resources, including the free Emotional Neglect Test on EmotionalNeglect.com. Learn much more about how to deal with your parents in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships (also linked below).