The Emotionally Neglected Child
Connor, Age 6
It is 7:00 in the morning and 6-year-old Connor is getting ready for his very first day of first grade after a long, fun summer. As he struggles to pull his socks on, his little head and body are swirling with feelings and thoughts.
“I get to meet my new teacher! What if she’s mean. What if I get yelled at. I bet she’s nice. I hope Rachel’s in my class! What if she’s not!” Along with all these mixed thoughts, Connor feels a buzzing in his chest that’s making him feel like running. So he runs into the kitchen intending to grab his mom and receive a big hug to make the buzzing go away.
But as Connor rounds the corner he sees his mother standing at the sink holding his little brother. She looks at him blandly and then looks back at the baby in her arms. Something about the look on her face causes him to stop in his tracks. Turning around, he runs back upstairs and around and around inside his room alone as the thoughts and feelings continue to swirl and buzz.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when parents fail to notice and respond enough to your feelings and emotional needs as they raise you.
In the small glimpse that we took into the life of Connor above, I hope you were able to feel, for just a moment, what it’s like to grow up emotionally neglected.
In this story, you may notice that Connor is not abused or actively mistreated. In fact, Connor’s mother may have good reasons for not responding to him in the way he needed at that moment. She may be exhausted from caring for Connor’s baby brother or worried about her husband, her finances or her job. She is a human being, after all, with concerns, issues, worries, and problems.
And most definitely this one incident, while indeed emotionally neglectful, is not enough to cause Connor to grow up with the full syndrome of Childhood Emotional Neglect. To have its harmful effects, CEN incidents like this one must happen often enough to Connor that his child mind learns the painful lessons of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
The Lessons of CEN
- Don’t show too much feeling.
- Don’t ask for too much emotional support or solace.
- Don’t appear needy.
- Don’t expect too much help.
- Don’t take up too much space.
Connor, Age 16
Driving alone for the first time in his life, Connor heads home after passing his driving test. As he experiences the responsibility of being in complete charge of a car, he feels a sense of freedom and elation that he’s never known before.
Then Connor thinks about the moment he will walk through the door of his house, and how his mom will want to know all the details about his driving test. As he imagines this moment, he starts struggling to dial his happy feelings down in preparation for that conversation.
As predicted, as he walks through the door and his mother says, “Did you pass your driving test?”
Connor sits down dutifully and begins to relay the story of his test. As he does so, he thinks he glimpses some pride in his mom’s eyes and he feels a jab of pride in response to it. But almost before he can register the feeling, it’s replaced by a feeling of shame. Quickly, he shoves it down and continues answering his mother’s questions in a somewhat robotic fashion.
Then, the second he’s provided enough of the story, he escapes to his room, and he stays there all afternoon.
In this brief glimpse into Connor’s teen life, he mostly, from the outside, looks like a typical teen. After all, adolescents are often silent and moody and away in their rooms. But actually, much more is going on for Connor.
At this moment he is following all of the edicts of CEN. When he was a young child, he had too many experiences like the 6-year-old one you read above.
Connor learned, way back then, to never show too much emotion because there is a 70% chance that it will bounce off his mother or make her uncomfortable. The times that this happened to him were so painful, and felt so rejecting, that he stopped taking the chance of being hurt. Now, strong feelings of any kind feel somehow wrong or a sign of weakness. Shameful.
A bright and sensitive kid, teen Connor now knows just what to do. And just what not to do. And he has grown to be quite good at both.
Connor, Age 46
“I’m here!” Connor yelled as he walked into the house for a visit to his parents, his own two teenagers following him in. As his parents walk toward him and his family, Connor feels a dimness creep over him.
Inside, he feels a combination of boredom, emptiness and dread, all mixed up with love and tinged with guilt. He is wondering how long they have to stay here to do his duty as a son. And he feels guilty that he feels this way about his parents.
Emotionally neglected children often grow up to have painful, inexplicable relationships with their parents. That’s because it’s hard to see or remember how your parents failed to respond to you and failed to give you what you needed. Since the emotional connection with them is lacking or bland, even if you know they love you, you can’t feel that love. This makes your interactions with your parents feel lonely, empty, and burdensome.
The Painful Lessons of Childhood Emotional Neglect
The lessons our parents teach us in childhood become the lessons we apply to the wider world. So every child, if she experiences CEN enough, will continue to hide her emotions as an adult. Like Connor, she will assume that her feelings are a bother and should be kept under wraps. She will go through her adult life unable to feel her feelings in the way she is meant to feel them. She will go through her adult life feeling out of sorts, out of place, disconnected, and alone. The painful lessons of CEN become your unconscious guide to life.
Do Not Worry, There is Hope!
Just as Connor learned how to hide and deny his feelings and have few needs, he can, at any point in his life, learn the opposite.
The painful lessons of Childhood Emotional Neglect are reversible, and the harm they caused can be fully healed. As an emotionally neglected child grown up, you can defy those lessons, begin to feel and share your feelings and emotional needs, and change your life forever.
Then, you will no more be unconsciously following false rules. Instead, you will be living according to your own heart, listening to your own internal compass, the most deeply personal expression of who you are: Your feelings.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out visit EmotionalNeglect.com (link below) and Take the Emotional Neglect Test.
For links to the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, and lots of free resources, see my biography under this article.