Understanding a legacy of hidden wounding
9th January 2019
“The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child”
We are now seeing a long overdue conversation happening about the devastating impact of child abuse and the long term mental health consequences of trauma and less is spoken about childhood emotional neglect. (CEN) (Gibson 2015, Webb 2014) It would be easy to assume that CEN is experienced by children who are left alone far too young, the children of those who suffer with addiction or young people who have to care for a sick parent but it is also experienced today and historically by a high percentage of the population in the form of poor emotional attunement. If you go back in time parenting was more about providing physical support and far less concerned with the inner emotional world of the child.
What is attunement?
All children and young people need to feel safe and secure and that the full spectrum of their emotions are allowed and to feel ‘seen’ for their uniqueness. Being a good parent is not just about pouring on the love - although that is a fantastic start. Failures with attunement happen when the parent is emotionally immature and may not have the internal skills to respond in an empathic, loving and supportive way to their child. Of course all parents make mistakes but adults who are internally like children and who may have experienced neglect in their own childhoods have no idea that their repeated ‘mis-attunements’ with their children will have devastating long term consequences. I think this is far more common than many people realise. As CEN is more about what you didn’t get as a child, interactions may have left you 'feeling shut down, shut up or shut out.' (Gibson, 2015, p51)
How do the parents of neglected children behave?
In her book ‘Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents’ (2015) Lindsay Gibson describes four kinds of immature parents:
- Emotional parents who are run by their feelings, swinging between over involvement and abrupt withdrawal. They may be prone to frightening instability and unpredictability. They are often overwhelmed by anxiety and rely on others to help them stabilise their moods.
- Driven parents are compulsively goal orientated and super busy. They are constantly perfecting everything including other people and are controlling in their children’s lives.
- Passive parents avoid dealing with anything upsetting and they may even look the other way when abuse is happening.
- Rejecting parents who engage in a range of behaviours that make you wonder why they have family in the first place - they don’t want to be bothered by children.
The result of having any of the above or simply regular mis-attunements during childhood or adolescence causes a flaw to the foundations of the personality.
What’s it like growing up with this?
Growing up in a family with emotionally immature parents is a lonely experience. These parents may look completely normal, caring for their child’s physical needs but something arguably more important is missing - a safe emotional connection. The loneliness of feeling unseen causes a deep psychological wounding to occur which is not easy to see or describe. You might call it a feeling of emptiness or being alone in the world.
Children have no way of identifying a lack of emotional intimacy with a parent or caregiver. These children may learn to put other peoples’ needs first and instead of expecting others to provide support or show interest in them, they may take on the role of helping others, convincing others that they have few emotional needs of their own. They often decide that growing up fast is the only solution, becoming competent beyond their years, but lonely at their core. Often they jump into adulthood way ahead of their time concluding that since they have to look after themselves they may as well get the benefits of growing up fast. They look forward to the freedom of adulthood, sacrificing their childhood believing that their salvation will be in greater freedom and a chance to belong outside the family.
Adults who experienced ‘too much too soon’ can be high functioning but deeply troubled and confused inside. They often say ‘Why can’t I be happy?’ or ‘Why do I feel so miserable all the time?’ They can’t shake the feeling of being fundamentally alone in the world and they feel a lot of guilt and shame for feeling the way they do. If they were parentified or they became a parent to their parents they may feel burdened and older than their years. Emotional connection is a basic human need and those who experienced CEN believe that to get connection they need to play a role that puts the needs of others first. This can be the beginning of co-dependent relationships and painful self-rejection or they may go the opposite way and perceive romantic relationships as a trap that leads to feeling burdened and ultimately abandonment.
How can you tell whether you were neglected?
When dealing with emotional neglect there are some common themes arising in the adults who grew up this way. They are:
- Feelings of emptiness that can be experienced as numbness. You may have a general sense that something just isn’t right but it’s hard to name
- Counter-dependence or the drive to need nobody or the fear of being dependent
- Unrealistic self-appraisal
- No compassion for self but plenty for others
- Guilt and shame and a general feeling of ‘what’s wrong with me?’
- Self-directed anger, self-blame
- The fatal flaw - if people really knew me they won’t like me
- Difficulty nurturing self and others
- Poor or challenges with self-discipline
- Alexithymia: Poor awareness and understanding of emotions (Webb 2014)
What can you do about it?
The road to self-compassion and recovery for anyone who has suffered CEN is a long one. The first step is to find yourself a really good integrative/body psychotherapist, someone who attunes to you and with whom you feel an emotional connection. This is going to be crucial for your recovery. I think that relationship needs to be sustained over a long period of time for the healing to occur. I mention body psychotherapy because people who have suffered CEN sometimes struggle to feel and so approaches such as ‘Somatic Experiencing’ (Levine 2010) or body psychotherapy tools are a valuable way of sensing and feeling into the grief for the childhood that was sacrificed.
The journey back to connection and healing your relationships may take time but it is totally worth it. I would also highly recommend taking an online course such as ‘Healing the Mother Wound’ by Bethany Webster so that you are supported in a structured process. Everyone’s needs are unique and so an experienced therapist will be able to help you explore the relational wounds and your formula for healing.
How can I be sure not to neglect my children?
Here are some ideas to help provide your child with emotional nurturance:
- Spontaneously give your child a hug when you notice she/he looks sad
- Ask if she/he’s OK if you think she/he might be upset
- Spend extra time with your child when you think she/he needs it
- If you child is going through a transition, or any difficult phase, e.g. school starting or ending, a move, change of friends etc - talk about it with her/him and do something special for her/him to show that you notice what she/he is going through
- Be aware as best you can of what she/he is feeling. Help her/him become aware of her/his feelings and put words to them. Accept and validate those feelings (Webb 2014)
A high percentage of adults experienced pockets of neglect or CEN in their childhoods and healing from it is possible with long term psychotherapy.
Now is the time for us to really become emotionally educated and break the chain of CEN that may run in our family lineages. As a therapist I believe the very first responsibility is to ourselves - to develop the ‘inner mother’ and heal from our childhood wounds through self-care and nurturance.
Adults who have suffered CEN often don’t realise that this is ‘a thing’ and so go for years living with deep feelings of isolation, emptiness and disconnection. Emotional connection is key to feeling alive and expressing one’s full potential and purpose in the world. It is also opposite of addiction and so through healing CEN you are also transforming the roots of addiction.
In society we need an extensive emotional vocabulary and to help ourselves and children to explore and express their feelings and emotions freely and safely. We also need therapy to be accessible for all so that mental health is considered as important as physical health.
Please don't hesitate to reach out to me to share your experience or to discuss working together. I run sessions in person or online.
Webb, J., 2014, Running on Empty - Overcoming your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Morgan James, New York
Gibson, L.C., 2015, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Gibson, CA
Levine, P., 2010, In an Unspoken Voice, North Atlantic Books, CA
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