No child is perfectly prepared for adulthood.
The three types of emotionally neglectful parents and how to recognize them
Being a father or mother is perhaps the most complicated and demanding task we will ever face. It goes without saying that as adults we sometimes have a very complicated relationship with our parents. Do you have a very complicated relationship with your parents? In the paragraphs below, you will find three types of emotionally neglectful parents. As you read the information about these three categories, think of your own parents and try to distinguish which category or elements from each category fit best. The types mentioned are not set in stone!
Type 1: Well-meaning but self-neglected parents
There are many different ways in which well-meaning but self-neglected parents neutralize their children’s emotions. Maybe they don’t set enough boundaries or sanctions (indulgent), maybe they work a lot and unconsciously see material wealth as a form of parental love (workaholic) or they place too much emphasis on their child’s achievements and success, at least at the expense of his happiness (achievement/perfection).
The parents in this category think they are doing what is best for their children. They act out of love, not self-interest. Most are just raising their children the way they were raised.
Children often grow up with huge doses of three things: all the symptoms of childhood emotional neglect, a huge confusion about where those symptoms come from, and a whole load of self-blame. That’s because when you look back to your childhood as an adult for an explanation of your problems, you often see a good-natured parent. Everything you can remember may seem perfectly normal and fine.
‘It will be up to me. There’s something wrong with me,’ you decide. You blame yourself for what’s wrong with your adult life. You may struggle with a lack of emotional skills unless you’ve learned them yourself throughout your life. After all, you didn’t get the chance to learn them in your childhood.
Type 2: parents who are having a hard time
- A family member with special needs
- Grieving: divorced or widow/widower
- A child as a parent
Difficult parents themselves emotionally neglect their children because they are so absorbed in their own concerns that there is little time, attention, or energy left to notice what the child is feeling or struggling with.
Children of struggling parents often become extremely self-sufficient. If you are the child of parents who is having a hard time themselves, you learn very well early on that you have to take care of yourself, and that you have to fix things up for those around you who are having a hard time.
Because you grow up with an excess of adult responsibility and little appreciation for your own emotions or your innermost self, chances are that as an adult you are overly caring for others. You may also tend to ignore yourself and your own needs. Your parents worked, they suffered, they tried so hard, it wasn’t their fault, that might give them hero status in your head.
It is extra difficult to hold your parents with their ‘hero status’ responsible for their shortcomings towards you. So you run the risk of directing your natural anger (the result of your unmet needs) on yourself. You run the risk of self-blame, excessive caring for others and poor self-care. You also struggle with a lack of emotional skills, because no one ever taught you those.
Type 3: Parents who are completely self-centered
This category is different from the first two for two main reasons:
- Parents who are completely self-centered are not necessarily motivated by what is best for their child. Instead, they are motivated by their own needs.
- Many parents in this category can be quite harsh, so much so that the child is not only emotionally neglected but also damaged by it.
The narcissistic parent wants his child to help him feel special. The authoritarian parent wants respect, at any cost. The addicted parent may not be selfish deep down, but as a result of her addiction, she is driven by a need for what she is addicted to. The sociopathic parent only wants two things: power and control.
This type is the most difficult type for most children to see or accept. Nobody wants to believe that his own parents didn’t want the best for him in his upbringing, but unfortunately, that is the case with many people. Even if many of these parents wanted to raise their children well, they would face enormous obstacles: inside and outside themselves.
In addition to neglecting yourself emotionally throughout your adult life, you also suffer from the effects of being over-controlled, perhaps even abused, and perhaps even physically neglected. You suffer from the effects of your lack of emotional skills, you feel selfish because you are taking care of yourself or because you are trying to set limits on your parents and you may have trouble taking care of yourself. On top of that, you can still feel a whole lot of completely justified anger about your childhood, and you don’t really know what to do with it.
What can you feel in your relationship with your parents?
Growing up without being seen, known, understood and appreciated by your parents leaves great traces.
In the human brain, there is an intense need for attention and understanding from our parents from birth. You do not choose that need and you cannot choose to get rid of that need. That need is powerful and true and drives you throughout your life. I’ve found that many people with childhood emotional neglect try to downplay this essential condition by seeing it as a weakness, or by declaring that they are somehow free of it.
But growing up frustrated this way doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be damaged. For example, instead of denying it, you may well accept that your need is natural and genuine so that you can purposefully deal with it. In this way you can heal the wounds caused by growing up unseen or misunderstood: love alternated with anger, appreciation with hardship, tenderness with guilt. And you didn’t understand a word of it.
Do you feel obligated to go to traditional family gatherings just because you always did and because your parents expect you to? Would you feel terribly guilty if you decided to do something else that is healthier and better for you? You would probably say ‘yes’ to that.
It is important to realize that guilt is not helpful in such situations. Guilt feelings are meant to stop you from harming or harming others unnecessarily. They are not meant to stop you from protecting yourself. All you need is to take care of yourself and stop letting yourself be hurt or ignored (or both). You’re the last person to feel guilty!
The feelings of guilt that arise in you and prevent you from making healthy changes need to be countered.
Learn how to deal with guilt in four steps
Use this technique to stop feeling guilty about the feelings you have toward your parents and to prevent your guilt from influencing the boundaries you should set on your parents:
- Rate your guilt on a scale of 1-10, where 1 represents almost no guilt and 10 represents the maximum amount.
- Attribute your guilt to the real sources. You do this by asking yourself the following useful questions and writing down the answers.
- What exactly do I feel guilty about?
- How much of my guilt comes from something I’ve done or wants to do, and how much comes from a feeling I have (such as anger, disgust, irritation, or disgust)?
- Can I somehow get a useful message from my guilt?
- Is someone (my parents or my husband, for example) trying to make me feel guilty?
- Make decisions based on your guilt score and its sources.
If the guilt doesn’t send you a meaningful message, try to deal with it in a way that doesn’t interfere with setting boundaries with your parents. That’s easy when the score is low. If your score falls in the middle, you may need to stop often to remind yourself that your guilt is not meaningful. Consciously put it aside. If the score is high, I advise you to talk to someone about it. You may benefit greatly from the support of a trained counselor. I’ve seen guilt paralyze very strong people and prevent them from making much-needed changes in how they interact with their parents.
- Use the following mnemonics for dealing with your guilt.
- Your negative, mixed, and painful feelings toward your parents definitely make sense. You have it for a reason.
- You can’t choose your feelings.
- Feelings themselves are not bad or wrong. Only deeds can be judged that way.
- No matter how much your parents gave you, that didn’t erase the damage caused by their failure to appreciate you emotionally.
- It is your responsibility to set boundaries with your parents that will protect you, your spouse, and your children from emotional exhaustion and harm, even if it feels bad to do so.