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Coming between a child and his feelings should not be an easy thing to do.
After all, every child’s feelings are literally neurologically and biologically wired into them. Every child’s feelings are a crucial expression of their deepest selves. Every child’s feelings are a vital resource for connection, direction, stimulation, and motivation for a lifetime.
And yet, it happens all the time. Lovable, adorable children grow up in homes where their parents are simply not able to fully see, know, or adore them. Sweet, healthy children reach out to their moms and dads for emotional support and too often find it lacking. Excited, energetic children just want to share their pure joy with their parents and too often end up being tamped down instead.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when your parents fail to respond to your emotions enough. Believe it or not, that is all they need to do to separate you from your feelings for a lifetime
Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common in this world than any of us would care to believe. Every household is different and every child is different. But every time Childhood Emotional Neglect happens in the life of a child, no matter what form it takes, it leaves its indelible footprint there.
This simple definition says a lot about what CEN is, but the reality is that not all Childhood Emotional Neglect is the same. It can be quite a complicated thing and it can happen in many different ways. Keep in mind that you may have experienced just one of these versions of CEN or even all of them.
5 Varieties of Childhood Emotional Neglect
1. Physical Presence
Was one or both of your parents physically present enough as they raised you to meet your needs for supervision, attention, and response? When most people first hear the term, “Childhood Emotional Neglect,” this is the kind they think of. They assume it refers to a latch-key kid who sat home alone, unattended, too much, or too young. This version of CEN is the easiest to see and remember because it’s concrete. You are likely to recall whether your parents were home or not.
CEN Effects: You learn to be very independent and perhaps, hyper-competent. You have learned not to need anyone, and asking for help or accepting it is a challenge.
2. Structure and Consequences
Did your parents enforce rules and responsibilities in your home? This may involve homework, household chores, mealtimes, and bedtimes. Did they give you rewards and consequences based on your behaviors and choices? If your household was too unstructured, too unpredictable, or too inattentive you may have been left to your own devices to figure things out on your own. But children’s brains are not prepared or able to effectively process this.
CEN Effects: Having received too little discipline from your parents, you now struggle to discipline yourself. It’s hard for you to organize yourself and make yourself do what you know you should do, and you may also have a hard time stopping yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. Chances are high that you blame all of this on yourself, assuming that you are weak or defective in some way.
3. Observation and Feedback
Did your parents see you? Did they notice who you are and then share their observations with you? Children are not self-aware. They learn who they are by looking into their parents’ eyes and seeing themselves reflected there. Your preferences, abilities, weaknesses, challenges, talents, and needs are all important information for you to have about yourself. What happens if you are launched into adulthood without enough of it?
CEN Effects: Not knowing yourself well enough, you have difficulty making good choices for yourself. You may marry wrong, choose the wrong field or trade, or end up simply going with the flow instead of making choices for yourself. When people ask you what you want it may be hard for you to know. Unaware of what you’re good at, what you like or what you want makes it difficult for you to pursue it.
4. Quality of Love
What were the true depth and quality of your parents’ love for you? This one is difficult to write about because I know it may be painful for you to read about. The reality is that even though emotionally neglectful love can be real, honest, and earnestly delivered, it does not deliver the full package of parental love that every child needs. How can you feel fully and deeply loved by your parents if you don’t feel fully and deeply seen and known by them? Sadly, what seems like real quality love in the CEN family is, actually, not.
CEN Effects: You are set up to feel most comfortable when people don’t fully see or know you because it feels familiar and somehow right. You have internalized emotionally neglectful love as the gold standard for love because all children’s brains naturally do this with the type of love they receive from their parents. You may be attracted to other CEN people or tend to keep your friendships and relationships focused more on the other person. Deep down, you’re not sure you deserve to be loved the way you see other people loved.
Did your parents respond enough to your feelings? Did they act like your emotions mattered? This form of Emotional Neglect envelopes all the others because emotions underly everything in your childhood home. A major parental responsibility is to emotionally validate and educate the child. Your parents need to teach you what you are feeling and why you are feeling it and that it’s OK to feel it. They are meant to help you navigate the world of emotions, both your own and others’ so that you will understand people and how to navigate relationships in every area of life.
CEN Effects: You grow up under-valuing and under-attending to your own feelings. You may even feel ashamed for having them. You may be blind to the world of emotions (as your parents likely were) and focus too much on facts or plans or concrete things. You may be deeply uncomfortable with intense feelings whether your own or another person’s and wall yourself off when you are challenged to deal with feelings. You may feel empty or numb at times and this may cause you to question whether you are somehow different or flawed. Since you’re unschooled in the world of feeling, you may find relationships with others somewhat confusing and perplexing.
Whether you grew up with one or all of these forms of Emotional Neglect or somewhere in-between you can be sure that it has left its mark on you. But the imprint of CEN has a silver lining that’s meaningful and real and important for you to know about.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is not an illness or disease, nor is it a life sentence. All of its effects are rooted in the way you had to cope as a child. Think about it. If your parents acted consistently as if your left arm was a useless, unpleasant burden for the family you would, eventually, learn how to hide it. The same applies to your emotions.
So now, just as your arm is still there, so are your feelings. You can reclaim them now and you will see that the vital aspects of life that you have been denied thus far will be within your reach.
Coming between a child and his feelings should not be an easy thing to do, it’s true. The amazing thing is that rejoining that adult with their feelings is remarkably well possible and has a deep and lasting impact on the quality of your life. And there is a well-worn path to take you there.
Learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it plays out plus the steps to heal it in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Find the link below.
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The Corona pandemic is putting us all in front of new challenges. There are economic challenges, because entire businesses can no longer operate, putting millions of people out of work. And there are health challenges – not only due to Corona itself, but because the pandemic strains the resources of our healthcare system, leading to the illness and death of people who otherwise would have received proper treatment.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we also face mental health challenges. Because of Corona, going outside is no longer “just going outside”. Instead, every trip to the supermarket is now a calculated risk, where we try to avoid contact with other people as much as possible. Meanwhile, we also need to make sure we do not accidentally touch our own face. Leaving the house thus means having to be constantly alert.
We not only fear getting infected ourselves, but that our loved ones get infected, and that we end up losing someone close to us. In fact, it is very realistic that we will experience some form of loss due to Corona, and it is important that we prepare ourselves for loss. The constant stress paired with the uncertainty of the future creates a harmful context, where psychological ailments thrive. For this reason, now more than before, we need to be attentive to our mental health. In the following, I’ve compiled six psychological steps you can do to effectively deal with the challenge of Corona. Let’s begin.
Step #1 Connect With Feelings
When we are entangled in difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or even panic, life becomes hard. Every little step becomes a chore, and our entire focus then revolves around stopping “bad” feelings. Meanwhile, we also stop doing things that would actually help us (e.g. like proper eating and exercise), and put our lives on hold.
In the middle of this pandemic, it’s important to not let our emotions run the show. This does not mean pushing bad emotions away – this has never worked well in my experience – but allowing ourselves to feel emotions, without having to act on them. Do not attempt to force “good” feelings, but try staying with your emotions in an open and compassionate manner. Hold them, like you would hold a small, anxious child. Be kind. Listen to your body. Then see if they actually contain information you can use in the next steps. For example, fear or sadness might be a good way to support connecting with others or taking steps to protect their safety.
#2 Connect With Focus
When the future is uncertain (as it is right now – more than before), our minds like to run wild. We imagine the wildest scenarios of what will happen, and how the pandemic is going to affect us. For instance, many people worry about supermarkets closing, and thus resorted to panic-buying products in bulk, like toilet paper, wine, and even condoms (yes, really). Incidentally, many of those same people are now realizing that this didn’t happen and some are even trying to get their purchases refunded (condoms, anyone?).
When your mind runs wild about all the ways of how things can go wrong, slow down and plant your feet in the now. Literally! Stand up, take a breath, and then notice your feet and how they hold you. Now that you are “grounded,” focus your attention here it matters. This is not about pushing unhelpful thoughts away. The thoughts are here, and that is alright. But instead of letting them take over, let unhelpful mental chatter pass, and focus on what is there to be done, here and now. There are many additional techniques for this, and they are worth checking out.
#3 Connect With Others
Social distancing is no fun. Due to Corona, we can no longer see our friends and families in the same way that we used to, which creates a big challenge. We are social animals after all, and the importance of physical touch for our well-being has been well documented. For the time being, we need to give up (or at least limit) touching others.
However, just because we limit contact, does not mean we need to give up connection. The New Zealand Minister of Health, Dr. David Clark, made an important distinction in a public address, where he emphasized the need for physical distancing, not social distancing. We need to maintain physical distance, while staying connected socially. Through the internet and telephones, we can do this more easily than ever before. Call your loved ones, make time to attend to them, while maintaining six feet of distance.
#4 Connect With Presence
It is astounding how much the world has changed over the past weeks and months. Just two months ago, everything still seemed like it has always been. And you might even find yourself longing for the days when you could mindlessly scratch your nose, and carelessly shake hands. Naturally this is no longer possible. And it is unclear how long this last, and how much longer we will need to continue to adapt to Corona.
Right now it’s easy to wander off with your mind – to romanticize the past, or to paint grim pictures of the future. And when you caught yourself wandering like this, make sure to gently guide yourself back. You are needed right here and right now. Life is happening right in front of you, and the better you can attend to your life right now, the better off you – and everyone you come in contact with – will be. Ground yourself in the presence, and gently guide yourself back whenever your mind has wandered off.
#5 Connect With Values
The Corona situation has forced us all to restructure our days. The morning coffee at McDonalds? No longer possible. The daily commute to work? Not a good idea with public transportation. In short, a big chunk of our lives is out of order, and many of our habits that once filled us with pleasure and meaning are suddenly no longer an option.
This creates a problem. Many people can no longer do what is truly important to them, and for some, it is like taking their purpose, their lifeblood. In this stressful time, it is crucial that we reconnect with our goals and values, and with whatever lies closest to our hearts. Again, there are many techniques to do this, my favorite you can find here.
#6 Connect With Action
Many people have now more free time than ever before, because they are working less, and spend less time visiting their friends and family. Naturally, this opens a big window to finally do the things we always wanted to do, but never quite found the time for. And yet, most people do not tackle their goals.
Instead, they resort to just functioning, going through the motions, and continue putting things off. There is no strict schedule that they would need to stick to, and no colleague or friend to hold them accountable. And so a day in pyjamas on the couch it is.
I get it. It’s hard. And this is exactly why we need to create accountability by choice and start taking action. Move towards your goals in tiny, small steps – bit by bit. This is not just about achieving a specific outcome, but merely taking steps with purpose can do wonders for our sense of competence and self-efficacy. Corona is posing a challenge to us all, and we can come out stronger than ever if we are willing to show up as whole human beings, connected to our feelings and to others, focused on the now and the possibilities it contains for values-based action, and then moving forward in a way that reflects who and how we want to be.
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