If you had to choose between being passively ignored or actively invalidated, which would you pick?
Assume that you cannot choose, “Neither.”
And now, assume that you are a child and that this is happening in your family every single day of your life.
Assume that you are not consciously aware of what’s going on because your brain cannot process it so, to you, it’s normal.
Many thousands of people have, during the last few years, come to the realization that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Some have felt incredible relief at this monumental discovery. Many have marked this remarkable epiphany as a turning point in their adult lives, even as they may also feel sad about the emotional validation they did not receive as children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fall short in the area of acknowledging, validating, and responding to your feelings as they raise you.
So CEN is, in its purest form, a type of emotional absence. It’s a passive lack of response to a child’s emotions that, nevertheless, sends a powerful message and leaves a deep imprint on the child. We will talk more about that later.
Emotional Neglect does not always happen in its purest form. So, in this article, we will take a look at the difference between passive and active CEN. They look very different when they happen, they feel different to the child who experiences them and they leave different imprints on the child.
You may have experienced one or the other, or both.
5 Examples of Passive Emotional Neglect & the Lessons the Child Learns
- A teen who is struggling with bullying at school senses that telling his parents about the problem would yield no helpful response so he keeps it to himself. This child learns that he is alone in the world.
- A small child’s sadness and tears too often go unnoticed by her parents. This child learns that her feelings are irrelevant or invisible and don’t matter.
- A child’s parents become extremely uncomfortable each time he feels and acts angry, either appearing disapproving, disappointed, or leaving the room altogether. This child learns that angry feelings are bad and will drive people away from him.
- A family avoids discussion of any topic that could involve discomfort, conflict, disagreement, or feelings in general. Instead, the conversation is generally superficial and impersonal. The children in this family learn how to avoid meaningful conversations. They do not learn the communication skills needed to deal with the interpersonal issues that will inevitably come up in their adult lives.
- A child’s parents ignore his natural mistakes and poor choices assuming he’ll figure it out on his own. This child does not have the opportunity to learn enough from their mistakes. They cannot learn how to talk themselves through their poor choices, learn from them, and then move forward. (I call this “compassionate accountability”). The child is also at risk for developing a harsh, critical voice in his own head that attacks him for his mistakes throughout his life.
So, this is what passive CEN looks like. Basically, it looks like nothing. It’s not something your parents do to you. Instead, it’s what they fail to do for you. This is what makes it so invisible, so difficult to remember, and so very insidious.
Sadly, all of these lessons persist throughout your adult life. You may find yourself living by them, and feeling confusingly empty.
5 Examples of Active Invalidation & The Lessons the Child Learns
- A child is sent to their room each time they exhibit a negative emotion. This child learns that their own negative emotions are intolerable and bad.
- A child’s feelings are frequently belittled; “Stop being a baby,” “You’re too sensitive,” or “You’re so over-the-top,” for example. This child learns that feelings are a sign of weakness and must be hidden in order to appear strong.
- A child is actively punished for showing anger. This child learns that their angry feelings are a danger and an unacceptable offense against others.
- A family rejects any expression of emotional needs, labeling the child “needy,” or perhaps even “pathetic,” for their natural needs for help, support or guidance. This child learns that having needs is painful and should be avoided at all costs. And they also learn to be ashamed of their own feelings, despite the fact that their emotions are the deepest, most personal expression of who they are.
- The child’s feelings are too often immediately overshadowed and buried by the parent’s stronger expressions of emotion. This parent conveys, “So you’re upset? I’m even more upset!” “You’re hurt? I’m hurt more!” “You have no idea what real anger looks like.” The child learns that their own feelings are not only distressing to others but also a danger, as they may elicit grave pain and anguish from other people.
What This Means For You
No matter which kind of Childhood Emotional Neglect happened to you, the effects are still at work in your life, I assure you.
If you grew up with pure, passive CEN, you may find it hard to pinpoint exact examples or events when it happened. This may cause you to doubt yourself, and wonder if it’s real. You may be prone to blame yourself for your struggles and hide your own pain, even from yourself.
If you were raised with active invalidation, then you may have an even harsher way of treating yourself. You may tend to turn your anger inward, targeting yourself. You may be quick to blame and criticize yourself. You may feel deeply ashamed of any feeling that manages to leak across your self-built protective wall.
While reading the examples above, perhaps you were wondering how these two kinds of CEN may have affected you and whether they are affecting you now.
Unless you have been aware of the CEN you grew up with, unless you have made efforts to pay attention to your feelings and use them in the way they are meant to be used, unless you have worked to learn the emotion skills and practice them in your relationships, then I’m sorry to inform you that the answers to both questions are, “Yes.”
But no matter how blocked off your feelings may be, no matter what skills you did not get to learn, no matter how hard you may be on yourself, there are answers and a way out.
As a child, you did not have a choice. As an adult, you cannot run away. But here’s the amazing thing: although CEN has affected you deeply, you can heal.
Wondering about the difference between Emotional Neglect and Emotional Deprivation? I explained it all in this post: Emotional Neglect and Emotional Deprivation are Not the Same.
You can find lots of helpful resources to learn more about CEN, exactly how it affects you, and how to heal it below, in the Author’s Bio.