There’s nothing quite like the pain of being overlooked. It is a special kind of heartache. I often write and talk about how it affects children to grow up in a home that ignores their feelings, which is, by definition, Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
When your parents act as if feelings are nothing you, as a child, receive a message that you are nothing. This is because your feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are. So if your deepest self does not matter, how can you believe that you matter?
Today we are going to take “overlooked” one step further. What happens if in your childhood home, you are not only overlooked, you are also actively excluded?
Some emotionally neglectful families do take the CEN to an even more harmful level. Some parents choose one child to especially ignore, essentially setting that child up to be treated as less important by their siblings too.
Other CEN parents use ignoring as a way to punish a child that has fallen into disfavor for whatever reason. Still others enjoy excluding one or another child as a power play, simply because he or she finds it rewarding.
When CEN Becomes Exclusionary
First, a word about exclusion and how it affects people, in general. Then, we will apply that to a child growing up in a family that either constantly or occasionally excludes him.
Research shows that exclusion can increase negative mood (Blackhart, et al., 2009) whether it happens in person, by text message, or through social media (Smith, 2004; Schneider 2017; Covert and Stefanone, 2018; Hales, 2018). Other research shows that social exclusion can make people feel that they don’t belong and that they do not have control. It can also reduce their self-esteem (Gerber and Wheeler, 2009).
Still, other studies have found that feeling excluded actually lights up areas of the brain involved in physical pain, and that excluding an employee in the workplace is more harmful than workplace harassment.
Interestingly, there is an increasing amount of research on exclusion in the workplace, which is a very important topic, of course.
But what happens if the exclusion you experience is in your own family? What happens if it starts when you are a child, while your brain is in the process of maturing? Surely, this must be even worse. And as a psychologist who has treated many parents, families and emotionally neglected adults, I can state clearly, without a doubt, that it is.
4 Forms of Exclusion in a CEN Family
- Taking care to plan around the needs and wishes of certain family members while simultaneously ignoring one person’s needs and wishes.
- Sharing criticisms or negative observations among family members about one family member. This is often done as in confidence, prefaced with things like, “I wouldn’t say this to anyone else, but your sister…..,” for example.
- Leaving one family member out of family activities or family jokes or stories.
- Responding less to one family member. This can even be subtle and not noticeable by most members of the family. Only the excluded one may be aware of or affected by it.
The Exclusionary Family: Why Does It Happen?
What would cause these kinds of family dynamics? Since families are complicated, so must the answer to this question be.
Some parents develop a misguided preference for one child over another, have more in common with some of their children and so inadvertently overlook the one that is different from themselves (even if that child is actually better than themselves in many ways).
Sometimes it is a matter of manipulation; one of the parents or siblings learns that they can make themselves feel more important or powerful by diminishing or excluding a member of the family, all to make themselves feel more “on the inside,” and therefore more central.
In other cases, this can be a natural result of the particular psychology of one of the parents. Some parents use their love as a spotlight, illuminating a momentarily favored child with their warmth when they are pleased, and then banishing that same child to the dark corners as soon as they do something displeasing. These parents are typically narcissistic personalities.
The Excluded Child, All Grown Up
Growing up feeling excluded in your family sets you up for some unique and significant challenges throughout your adult life. They are challenges that are painful, yes. But they are also challenges that you can take control of, once you understand why you have them. And why you do not deserve them.
- You expect others to exclude you. Being in a group can be uncomfortable because it’s hard to believe that someone won’t, at some point, push you out in some way.
- You tend to feel you don’t belong. The excluded child, as an adult, finds it hard to feel a sense of membership and comfort among people; even if those people love and want her.
- You feel inherently flawed. This is what I call The Fatal Flaw in the book Running On Empty. An excluded child naturally assumes the exclusion is about him, not an artifact of parental or sibling weakness or personality disorder. He then grows up to assume there’s something wrong with him, and he takes that feeling with him everywhere he goes.
There Is Hope!
When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family of any variety, complete with active exclusion or simply being emotionally ignored or overlooked, there is hope. Childhood Emotional Neglect can be healed.
Once you are aware of the source of the exclusion that happened to you and can hold those responsible accountable in your own mind, you are freed up to realize that you are actually not flawed at all. You are not deserving of the harm that has been done you. And the people in your life are not about to reject you after all.
You deserve now the attention you did not get as a child. By accepting yourself as you are, by valuing what you now feel, need, think, and want; by realizing that you deserve to included; by taking the steps to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect, you will finally know, once and for all, that you belong.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test (link below). It’s free.
To learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link below).
To learn how to address the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your family, connect with your spouse and parents, and emotionally validate your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships (also link below).