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.