No good parent sets out to neglect their child’s emotional needs, and most parents—even the best ones—can fall into this damaging pattern without knowing it. They parent their children the way they were parented, all the while generation after generation are raised with this invisible message whispered through their childhood years: “Your feelings don’t matter.” “You are oversensitive.” “Don’t be so dramatic.” “Calm down.” “Chin up.” “Come on toughen up.” “Life isn’t that bad.” “Your situation could be worse.” “You’re not sad.” Doctors have attributed this kind of experience to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
According to Dr. Jonice Webb PhD, CEN is: “A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”
For example, did you ever wish for an invisible cloak as a child? A fun make-believe game where you could disappear and reappear—usually in order to get one up on your siblings or sneak some candy out of the pantry? Unfortunately, for some people, feeling invisible in their family have had huge repercussions as adults. They didn’t know it consciously at the time, but they grew up not feeling seen. Like there was an absence of something they couldn’t quite put their finger on.
Nothing as obvious as physical neglect or abuse. In fact, they often had parents who did their best by providing for them, caring for them, clothing them, feeding them and went to their ball games. They were the children in the proverbial “happy family.” They knew they were loved in their heads. However, as adults, they live with a strange sense that something isn’t quite right with them, something is missing. They experience a disconnection between them and the world in some way. They feel like there is an “invisible force” or wall holding them back from truly connecting to others.
This is more common than you would think. It’s so common in fact that Dr. Jonice Webb says that there are 8 distinct signs to identify CEN and has made a free 14 point questionnaire on Dr. Webb’s website for you to learn more about whether you suffer from CEN.
- You take pride in not relying on others and have trouble asking for help.
- Your friends and family tell you that you are aloof or distant.
- You judge yourself more harshly than you judge others.
- You secretly feel like there is something wrong with you.
- You have trouble knowing what you are feeling.
- Sometimes you feel like you don’t belong with your family or friends.
- You often just want to be left alone.
- You find it easier to love animals than people.
The reason this response to a child’s feelings is so damaging is because our emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who we are. When our own parents dismiss our feelings, our perceptions, our struggles no matter how ‘small’—we hear this message as, “You don’t matter.”
In our heads, we know that we matter to our parents, but in our hearts, our experience is very different.
Children adapt by learning to squash their “negative” feelings down to avoid annoying or burdening their parents. They will learn to ignore their feelings in small invisible increments day by day, month by month, year by year until those behaviors become absolutely normal. You learn to not want to bother anyone with your inner “drama.” This is a workable approach for a child, but if these patterns continue into adulthood, the effects can be painful and destructive. Adults who ignore their emotions are not easily able to identify their emotions or the emotions of others. They tend to misread people and struggle to trust them. Consequently, they live their lives feeling lonely, disconnected, numb or empty.
The good news is that CEN is not a mental illness or a disease and with the right therapeutic intervention you can heal and overcome it.
The first step is awareness and you have just taken that first step.