I often recommend Dr. Jonice Webb’s books and blogs, because she writes about the important topic of Childhood Emotional Neglect and its impact on emotional development. I thought I’d highlight and expand on the subject of a recent video blog she posted on “4 Subtle Things You Missed Growing Up in an Emotionally Neglectful Family.”
What is childhood emotional neglect (CEN)?
CEN happens in the background and is what your parents fail to do for you rather than what your parents do to you. In other words, parents can love you and provide physical care, but fail to be emotionally available. We tend to remember things that happened to us and — especially as children — we do not recognize what should have happened because we have no other frame of reference than what we experienced in our families. We consider our family dynamics as normal, even if they are abnormal.
I will recognize here that many people feel uncomfortable blaming parents for failures, especially if those failures were not obvious. They say that their parents provided food and shelter and did not physically neglect or abuse them. But we know that this is a minimal bar for parents to achieve. In psychology, it is broadly accepted that the emotional component of human caregiving is also essential. Children raised in orphanages with food but no love often have “failure to thrive.”
We can, especially, take a compassionate approach toward parents, just as we can take this approach with ourselves for our past mistakes. We didn’t know things when we were younger, less informed, and less aware. Your parents may have been raised in CEN households and just did not learn to be warm and empathic in ways that children really need.
Many parents accept the old, mistaken belief that children are unformed, blank slates that have no real intelligence. However, research tells us that children actually are very emotionally aware even from birth. Six-month-old babies can sense another child’s distress and respond with empathy. Yet when a parent views a child as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge and moral education, rather than a wise young being who needs comfort and understanding, this changes how the parent engages with the child, often in negative ways. Parents need to focus on building the relationship with a child in all interactions. This gives a child the experience of being loved and respected in dependable, consistent ways that then translate into a adult who can be loving and respectful to others — and to themself!
Here are the seven ways parents create childhood emotional neglect in the ways that they communicate:
1. Parents don’t ask many questions, especially about the child’s inner experience. Think back to early childhood. Did your parents ask you things like: “You seem angry, are you angry? Are you frustrated that I did ____? Do you think that your friend should have done ____? How do you feel when your teacher criticizes you in front of the class?” These questions are about emotions, inner experience, needs, values, beliefs, wants.
Most importantly, this type of conversation communicates that adults/parents care about the child’s wants, needs and emotions. The underlying experience is that a parent loves and respects the child enough to take the time to attune and be empathic to their experiences. This relational process importantly teaches a child to engage in this process themselves — with themselves. By internalizing a way of relating with warmth and connection, the child learns to pause, reflect and be aware of their own emotions and thoughts, and then learn to engage with empathy, compassion and wisdom to these inner experiences. Once they’ve internalized this process, it also helps them to be empathic toward others — a very important adult skill!
CEN parents, instead, teach avoidance, or even a way of relating to others and to the self that is dismissive, critical or dissociating to the inner experience. CEN children learn to focus outward on the needs of others to an extreme and to be highly self-critical, leading to people pleasing and placating behaviors that are unhealthy in relationships.
Asking questions about the child’s experience also literally teaches a child about their own values and wants, which are important factors in decision making regarding their future lives. I struggled with decision making in my early adulthood, because I was never encouraged, through deeper conversations with my parents, to consider what my real interests were. Did I want to pursue this career or that one? Get married or not? Have children or not? Care about a political or social cause or not? Pick this friend or that one? I just did not learn the skills I needed to engage in this deliberative and reflective process about myself because my parents didn’t engage in these type of conversations with me when I was younger.
2. CEN parents tend to talk AT kids and stay intellectual. I grew up in a home where there was a lot of talking, but it was always about tasks, things, or facts. My parents were very smart, but emotionally avoidant, so they modeled that it was OK to talk about the weather, current events, and scientific trivia, but not OK to talk about inner experiences, fears, or joys. Even philosophical, religious, or spiritual topics were avoided, because these were unsolvable and would have led to possible unresolvable differences of opinion. I think they feared conflict so much that they were uncomfortable if someone couldn’t concretely point to a fact to solve an argument.
3. CEN parents are opinionated. Related to the above, parents often adopt an attitude that “I know best,” leaving little room for children to develop their own thoughts, opinions, values, and beliefs. When I overhear parents talking to children, it is often a steady stream of lectures and lessons AT the child, not WITH the child. When the communication is mostly one-way, kids naturally tune out, meaning the relationship is also diminished in quality. Children learn to pull away from interacting with parents because they, correctly, learn these interactions are unsatisfying and may be even shaming. Certainly parents should offer opinions about subjects to help children learn, but they should also ask children about their thoughts and engage in two-way dialogue.
4. CEN parents do not use emotion words or they may have a very limited vocabulary with emotions. They may only say they are “stressed” or “mad” or “burnt out” but not more subtle and varied words. The result is a child who may lack the ability to be emotionally self-aware and then to communicate this to others. I work with many in couples therapy who struggle to have an awareness of their inner emotional experience and then communicate this to a partner. What happens is they learn to rely on superficial emotions and behaviors, notably withdrawing or anger, which damages the relationship.
As those who follow my work know, I focus on the master emotion of shame — an emotion that many people do not acknowledge or express. Lacking awareness of moral emotions, such as shame, guilt and regret, can severely limit a person’s ability to manage imperfection, inadequacy, unworthiness and failure in healthy ways. A parent needs to both handle their own feelings of unworthiness with grace, but then also teach a child how to manage failures and embarrassments as well.
5. CEN parents have limited emotional expression. For some parents, limited emotional expression may mean they are what psychologists call “low in affect.” Their facial expression may be flat and their tone of voice may be cold or disinterested. Children need parents to have (at least some of the time!) a warm look to their face, to light up with joy when they see the child, and to use a melodic voice. Of course, parents who do not say “I love you” to a child at least occasionally can also cause harm to a child’s self-esteem.
Limited emotional expression can also mean parents who avoid difficult or painful topics. If there is a death in the family, the family just avoids talking about it. Therefore, children learn that is the pattern: We don’t talk about difficult subjects. This leaves them at a loss in emotional development, because when we as humans talk about emotional subjects, it opens us up vulnerably to others and brings closeness and connection. When we can be vulnerable, others generally respond warmly and with comfort and compassion. If we are guarded, then we lose this opportunity to connect.
Some families engage in “cold war” tactics where avoidance is used as a manipulation tactic to communicate displeasure or get the other person to give in. This tension in the home, even if not directed at the child, teaches a child that withdrawal in relationships is something to be feared, leading to insecure attachment patterns.
In my family, we never discussed my mother’s health issues, leaving us to get information from neighbors (which at times was erroneous!). The more serious the issue, the less likely CEN parents are to talk about it. This leaves children feeling alone with difficult thoughts: “What is happening to mom? Will she be OK? Will she die?” I recall many times in childhood feeling deeply lonely, even though I was living in a busy, active family of five and had friends. I think my loneliness was due to feeling unseen, unheard and unable to communicate my concerns to anyone else. I was left alone to process big issues without any adult guidance. No surprise that I grew up to be emotionally avoidant and ultra-independent.
An inability to talk openly also fails to teach children how to have difficult conversations, a significant lack when they grow to adulthood. For me, it meant that I never learned how to express my needs on important subjects with partners. When my then-husband began working and drinking far too much, I spoke up far too late and far too unassertively.
I also find most CEN families have no awareness of the moral emotions related to shame and so the parents model unhealthy Other-Blamer, Self-Blamer or Blame Avoider behaviors to children, who then adopt these as well.
6. CEN parents over-express emotions. The opposite of the above, is parents who are dramatic and overly emotional in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate times. This might be getting angry over minor problems, such as dinner not being on the table exactly when demanded. Or a parent expressing excessive worry, so that they child also assumes this anxious approach to life, leading to over-thinking, anxiety and OCD in adulthood. A very toxic emotional neglect pattern is when the parent’s narcissistic need for emotional support is dumped onto the child, who then feels responsible to manage or fix the “big emotions” of the parent. This inverts the family structure, so the child is acting as more of an adult than the parent. A narcissistic parent is not emotionally available to attune to and care for the child. Instead the parent’s needs come first, leaving the child feeling lonely, unimportant and unloved, in addition to feeling over-stressed.
Healthy parents use wisdom to moderate how, why and when they communicate with children, being especially mindful of regulating their own anger and of how difficult subjects are handled.
7. CEN children lose the ability to see themselves reflected in their parents’ eyes. Children need their personalities and, especially, character traits to be mirrored by parents. Parents need to attune to, see, and speak about things like: “You’re very hard working. You’re kind hearted. You’re very loyal to your friends.” Even negative character traits can be helpful for children to hear, so they learn to be accountable and self-aware: “You can be hard working, but also sometimes lazy when it comes to household chores.” “You are kind to many people, but not to your sister.” These honest reflections teach children that we can talk to each other honestly and calmly about faults without escalating to defensive arguing.
Many adults with CEN childhoods are uncomfortable giving or accepting compliments and I believe it comes from this experience of not getting compliments and honest feedback from parents. They grow up to search for validation from others and may struggle to generate self-validation.
I recommend parents read my Reflective Listening skill builder and implement this regularly in the home.
SOLUTIONS TO IMPLEMENT AS AN ADULT WITH A CEN CHILDHOOD:
- Tune in to your inner emotional experience regularly every day: What do I want? What am I feeling? What are my energy levels today? How did this situation make me feel and why?
- Tune in to your physical experiences. Be aware of all your senses: What am I smelling, touching, seeing, hearing, tasting? How am I reacting to these experiences?
- Don’t judge these emotional and physical experiences, but meet them with compassion. If you are angry, don’t criticize yourself for being angry. Accept and honor this emotion. Then engage with your rational mind to regulate the emotion and respond with wisdom.
- Engage in self-compassion practices to build an ability to tune in to yourself, respond warmly and be kind to yourself — the biggest thing that you probably failed to get in your CEN childhood. As adults who want to heal from CEN, you must learn to give yourself what you did not get in childhood from parents who just did not have the skills you needed at that time.