We can all remember moments from childhood when we desperately wanted our parents’ attention, approval, acknowledgment, support, or touch—but just didn’t get it. That’s normal. After all, parents are human and can’t be “there” for their kids all the time. Parents can’t be expected to respond compassionately, empathetically, and appropriately every single time their kids have a need. And sometimes parents simply don’t have the material or emotional resources to do so.
But consider the above statement: We can all remember… Significantly, those moments when we felt disappointed, neglected, or dismissed by our parents stay with us long into adulthood. And if there are many such incidents, we quickly learn as children how to suppress our feelings of need in order to protect ourselves. As a result, when we grow up, we may not even be able to remember having unmet needs, even though we suffer from the emotional consequences.
Psychologist Jonice Webb, PhD has dedicated much of her professional life to studying this invisible phenomenon, which she named Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). CEN is invisible, she says, because it’s about what didn’t happen to us growing up, and it’s about what we don’t remember. Nevertheless, chronic childhood emotional neglect can have a devastating effect on us as adults, disrupting our health, personal life, relationships, and career.
In a new book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (Morgan James Publishing, October 2012), Dr. Webb delves deeply into the subject, revealing the surprisingly serious consequences CEN can have on adults. These include feelings of emptiness, counter-dependence, unrealistic self-appraisal, guilt and shame, self-directed anger and blame, and difficulty nurturing. Feeling compassion for self and others is also affected, as is poor self-discipline, alexithymia (a poor awareness and understanding of emotions), and even suicidal feelings.
In addition to offering helpful insights for those who experienced CEN, Dr. Webb lays out practical solutions and strategies to help repair the damage. Based on more than a decade of research and clinical experience working with people suffering from the aftereffects of CEN, Dr. Webb presents detailed self-care practices and principles that have proven successful with her clients over the years.
She has a fascinating section devoted to the 12 “types” of parents who neglect their children’s needs. If you’re a parent, you may find yourself cringing with self-recognition. It’s easy to think of authoritarian or selfish parents as being neglectful of their children’s emotional needs. But Dr. Webb shows that being too permissive with one’s children is another form of neglect, because children seek guidance, boundaries, and leadership in order to feel safe, secure, and confident. Being a parent who’s too achievement-focused can also lead to CEN. We expect the depressed parent, the narcissistic parent, or the addicted parent to be among the 12 types. But we don’t often remember that parents may neglect their kids’ emotional needs when they’re grieving, or when they’re in a financial or health crisis, and simply don’t have the personal resources to spare.
For parents, Dr. Webb offers some highly effective ways to address children’s emotional needs. They aren’t complicated techniques or major behavioral changes. But they make an enormous difference in a young person’s psyche and emotional well-being.
Dr. Webb addresses the final chapter of her book to therapists, with helpful technical information about the symptoms and causes of Childhood Emotional Neglect, diagnostic and treatment options for CEN, and research and resources for further study.
I highly recommend Running on Empty to anyone who feels that their emotional needs weren’t adequately met growing up. That may cover most of the reading public! This is also a terrific book for parents. I guarantee that all who read this book will walk away with new and stunning revelations about themselves as children, adults, and parents.