26-year-old Michelle sits at the table at her parents’ house for a family dinner. Looking around at her siblings she thinks about how different she is from all of them. Right now, two are laughing and talking with each other while the third sibling is having an involved conversation with her parents. Michelle has been working on her Childhood Emotional Neglect and has been paying closer attention to her family. Watching her family interact at the table she wonders why her siblings don’t seem to be affected by her parents’ lack of emotional awareness. “Maybe I don’t actually have CEN,” she wonders.
James has always been confused by his family. He’s always sensed that it’s dysfunctional, but he could never put his finger on what’s wrong. Until he realized that his family is riddled with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now that he can see his own lack of emotional awareness, connection, and understanding, he also sees the CEN pattern of characteristics in his parents and his younger sister. But strangely, his older brother seems completely unaffected. Baffled, James wonders how he and his sister could be so deeply CEN while their older brother is not. They were all three raised by the same parents, after all.
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
It’s the kind of parenting that pays too little attention to the emotional aspects of the children and the family and life, in general. Children who grow up in this kind of family do not learn how to read, understand, or express their own emotions. In fact, they learn the opposite. They learn that emotions are irrelevant or a burden or a bother. And on top of that, they do not learn the useful emotional awareness or skills that they need to become happy, connected, emotionally thriving adults.
So what were Michelle and James seeing in their parents? They were seeing an emotional void, avoidance of meaningful conversation and a tendency toward superficial interactions. James and Michelle recall feeling very alone in their families as children and they still feel this way now. It is only since discovering CEN that they are able to understand what is wrong and to begin to take the steps of CEN recovery to address it.
Why Don’t My Siblings Also Have Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Of the thousands of people I have met who have CEN, a remarkably large number have expressed confusion about why one or more of their siblings don’t have it.
And I understand. How can two kids grow up in the same family and one grow up to be emotionally attentive, connected, and aware while the other does not? At first glance, it does not make sense.
But there are reasons. Real reasons. Let’s look at what they are.
6 Ways CEN Can Affect Siblings Completely Differently
- Gender. Emotional attention is a complex thing. Some CEN parents may find it easier to empathize with their same-gender child than with their other gender-child; or vice-versa. So, in some families, the daughter may end up receiving more emotional awareness, validation, and attention than the son, for example. All of this usually happens under the radar, of course, with no one realizing the differences.
- Changes in the Family. Some CEN parents may be struggling with a circumstance that takes their emotional energy and attention away from the children. There may be, for example, a divorce or remarriage, a major move, job loss, financial problems, or death that suddenly changes the emotional ambiance and attention available in the family. Perhaps one sibling is able to receive emotional attention for a time, but due to family transition, another is not.
- Personality and Temperament. Before we talk about this one I want to caution you not to view yourself as the cause of the CEN in any way. No child chooses Emotional Neglect or brings it upon himself. But all children are born with innate temperament and personality tendencies that are unique to them. And there is a harsh reality we must address. The more you are similar to your parents the better they will naturally understand you. And the converse is also true. The less you are similar to your parents the more they will need to work at “getting” you. If one sibling is easier to understand and empathize with, it gives them an emotional leg-up, even in an emotionally neglectful family.
- Favored Child. Truly, one of the most damaging things that a parent can do is to have a favored child. It actually usually damages both kids but in very different ways. This is most often narcissistic type parents who find one child reflects better on them than the others. Perhaps the favored child does better in school, has a special talent, or has just one characteristic that the narcissistic parent particularly values; that child receives extra attention and validation which may or may not be actually meaningful to the child or even accurate. If both meaningful and accurate, the favored child may grow up with far less CEN than their siblings; but if neither, the favored child may appear to be confident or even overly so; but if you scratch the surface, they have hidden CEN as well.
- Birth Order. This comes down to what’s going on with your parents when you are born. How many other siblings do you have, and were you born first, last, or in-between? Research shows that firstborn and youngest children receive more attention — (but is it emotionally attuned attention?) — leaving middle children more likely in the lurch. But, for example, the parents may be more tired by the time their third, fourth or fifth child is born, resulting in far less emotional attention than the others got. Many factors can lead to any particular child in any particular birth order in any particular family to be more emotionally neglected than the others.
- Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP). Some children are born with a gene that has been proven by research to make them extra emotionally sensitive. This can be a great strength in life, for sure, if you grow up in a family that teaches how to recognize, understand, and use your incredible emotional resources from within. But if you are born to CEN parents, you will, sadly, probably be affected even more deeply by the absence of emotional awareness and attention you receive.
Trust in Your Own Emotional Truth
Almost every child receives some form of attention from their parents. The question regarding CEN is was it emotional attention? And was it enough? Some siblings who receive a different form of attention can seem to be CEN-free, but their CEN may emerge later. Or perhaps, due to genetic or family factors, they are not affected by it at all.
If you look around at your siblings and you have difficulty seeing any CEN in them, I ask you to not allow that to make you question your own.
Having grown up virtually emotionally unseen, you have been invalidated enough already without continuing to doubt your own emotional truth.
Learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how it plays out plus the steps to heal in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Find the link below.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free and you can find the link below.
Watch for a future article about how to talk to a sibling about CEN