Healing Emotional Neglect In the Age of Conditional Love

Dr. Jonice Webb describes nurturance as a combination of love, care and help. Dr. Webb is the author of a book titled, “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect”. It is about what was left out of our childhood versus what happened, and how it affects our adult relationships. I highly recommend the book. I had MANY aha! moments while reading it.

In “Running on Empty”, Dr. Webb gives the three most important emotional skills for parents based on Dr. John Bowlby’s theories and years of study on attachment.

The essential skills are:

  • The parent feels an emotional connection to the child.
  • The parent pays attention to the child and sees him as a unique and separate person, and not an extension of themselves, a possession or a burden.
  • Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional need. 

Children who did not receive the above nurturing skills, grow up emotionally challenged. As adults, they may look “normal” and even successful on the outside, but inside there is an emptiness. As adults, they may have a hard time being dependent on others (counter-dependence) and fight consistently to maintain a level of independence (avoidant attachment theory, yes?). They may have a harsh inner critic but lots of compassion for others. They may have poor self-discipline and a poor awareness and understanding of emotions.

We all experience some of the characteristics of the emotionally neglected, but those who struggle significantly and/or chronically have the most to gain from awareness and healing.

Awareness

In occupational therapist, Victoria Prooday’s article, “Why Are Our Children So Bored at School, Cannot Wait, Get Easily Frustrated and Have No Real Friends?”, she mentions how in her ten years of working with teachers, parents and children she sees a definite decline in children’s social, emotional and academic abilities. One of the culprits, in her opinion, is a lack of emotional availability from the parents. She primarily blames technology for this occurrence. We are all so busy with our eyes on different technological screens that we don’t make eye-contact or give our undivided attention to each other. Devices serve as caregivers and boredom killers. Devices don’t provide warmth. Devices don’t teach how to care for each other and use manners.

In “The Road to Character”, a book by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, writes about how our current culture is one based on résumé virtues versus eulogy virtues. In other words, we focus on our external capabilities more than our inner morals. It is more important to be tenacious, assertive, charismatic and outwardly successful than honest, self-less, grateful and inwardly strong. He calls this current cultural arena a meritocracy. Everything is based on how outwardly successful you are. What will propel you to the top?

One of the biggest losing relationships in a meritocracy is the parent/child relationship. Within it, particularly in the more educated, affluent classes, parents hone children for success to an incredibly high degree. Parents groom, invest in skills, drive to every practice and manage schedules more than ever.

Children feel loved by involved parents, but it is not a simple affection or unconditional love. It is conditional. The goal is the child’s success. The affection is shown in a directive or removed form of help, i.e. “You need to start on your homework” and “I’ll drive you to your practice. We’ll eat on the way.”

Kids earn love by performing to the parents’ and society’s expectation. Affection is merit-based. What happens when the child does not hit the targets? The fear love could be withdrawn looms over children’s heads and hearts. The child learns there is no safe place to make mistakes and just be themselves. There is an empty space waiting for warm nurturance.

This is emotional neglect.

Healing

Healing for children and adults who experience(d) emotional neglect, comes through nurturing — applying love, care and help.

Tips for Healing or Preventing Emotional Neglect

  • If symptoms are debilitating seek help from a licensed therapist. Be aware emotional neglect is a relatively new term and area of study, so not all practitioners will be familiar with it. Most therapists will be familiar with its results though, such as anxiety, depression, marital strife, etc.
  • Counter-the counter dependence. Find and take opportunities to depend on other people. If you are helping someone else avoid or heal emotional neglect, find out why they believe it is not OK to need others. Ask how they feel when they need someone. Provide opportunities for them to rely on you.
  • Slowly build tolerance for emotion. The language of emotion will be foreign and the experience of it uncomfortable, but with slow and steady desensitization witnessing and feeling emotions will become more natural. Point out emotions and give them names when working with someone struggling with emotional awareness. Naming emotions shifts our feelings of control. It neurologically gets us out of our primitive reactive brain to our more evolved, more in control, pre-frontal cortex. Ask your child or partner how they feel about certain occurrences or when they recall a past experience. Let them know you see the emotions they are feeling by putting them into words.
  • Ask children or significant others about themselves. Help them get a clearer picture of who they are, what they want and what they can and can’t do. Help them learn their preferences, learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, relational style, etc. If you are working to heal yourself, consider writing down your preferences. Take time to reflect on yourself. Find a quiet space and time to really go deep into learning about who you are. Try to get past surface identity and roles. Who are you on the inside?
  • Find or provide a balanced parental voice. We all need to know our mistakes are OK and they can be worked through. An unrealistic self-view is not healthy —either an overly positive one or an overly critical one. Do not let yourself or your loved one off the hook too easily but don’t be too harsh either. The goal is an honest self-view with an intact self-esteem.

Proactive help

While researching emotional neglect, it was very easy to analyze my parents and myself as a parent. I definitely know I have areas to work on. One area I’ve put extra effort into over the last year is my level of responsiveness. In everything from replying to text messages to helping with household tasks, I’ve tried to not put others off. I realize it is not a good idea to give away all of our own energy, therefore it has been a learning curve trying to find the proper balance between other and self-nurturing. I find myself offering to help my kids with homework versus just telling them to do it. I try not to complain too much when they need an overnight bag dropped off at ten o’clock at night for a last minute sleepover, but I also make it known that the respectful thing would have been to let me know earlier in the evening. I stop working when my kids get home from school and meet them in the kitchen for end-of-day connection. My aim is to deliver emotional presence with actual help.

I strive to be helpful to my friends and partner when they are in need. I don’t ask them if they need help. They will most likely say no. I offer specific help and then follow through. I take note when my partner seems stressed and offer a hug or warm smile. Always striving to create emotional connection, pay attention and respond competently.

Does emotional neglect ring a bell for you? How emotionally available are you for your children? How close were you with your parents? How do you handle emotions now?

If you’d like help understanding and healing from emotional challenges please contact me for nurturing coaching.

 

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