Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Children desire to please their parents, in this manner they seek approval and acceptance. “Look what I can do!” A common phrase children express when seeking attention or showing a skill or capability. What happens when a child attempts to gain the attention of their parents and their efforts are unfruitful? The child begins to think their feelings and desires do not matter.
When parents frequently dismiss a child’s achievements or contributions, the child questions their experience, struggles with trusting their own feelings, and finds difficulty allowing people in their space; constantly worrying about what other people think of them. When a child’s emotional needs are not met as they grow up they are left without a foundation to reference how to process their feelings. Children struggle to establish their own identity or know what they want in life. In essence, the child becomes separated from their own feelings.
This is called Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
“Why am I not good enough”? “Why doesn’t (Mom/Dad) love me?”, “Why can’t I be good?”, “Why do other people get my (Mom/Dad’s) attention?” These existential questions turn into self-rationalizations “I must not be good enough”; “I must not deserve (Mom/Dad’s) love.”; “I must not be important.”, “I must not matter.” In the next step, the child transitions from self-rationalizations to affirmations: “I am not good enough.”; “I do not deserve (Mom/Dad’s) love.”, “I am not important”., “I do not matter.” Adults who have experienced childhood emotional neglect many times struggle with being in "abusive or unhealthy" relationships. Others struggle with initiating into relationships or commitment out of fear of having the same experience.
—"My mother only had time for her boyfriends, she was very promiscuous as I was growing up. It was just me and my brother. Today, he lives far away and I have not spoken to my mother nor have I spent time with her for some time now."
Adults having experienced childhood emotional neglect view their parent's inability to express love or show approval as a form of rejection. Parental rejection inflicts damage in a two-fold manner:
Creates a fear of further rejection, assuming rejection preemptively rejecting others
Just as symptoms announce the presence of something wrong in the body, there are specific visible behaviors (symptoms) pointing to childhood emotional neglect which affect a person's impression of self.
A continuous need to please people
Easily upset or concerned by what others think
An overwhelming feeling of misunderstanding yourself or how to act/react
Adults trying to assimilate why there is a struggle processing emotions is in itself frustrating. An adult is expected to have the ability of controlling anger, manage stress and overcome anxiety. However as time lapses, unresolved childhood emotional neglect surfaces as bitterness, resentment, shame and mental anguish. I use the term "mental anguish" referring to its meaning in reference to law. Ever heard of someone suing another person over mental anguish? It refers to a relatively high degree of mental pain and suffering one party inflicts upon another. You guessed it! The pain a person feels from childhood emotional neglect tends to spread to other relationships. For many adults they know they have experienced "problems or trauma" as a child and understand what they feel as adults has something to do with their past. However, putting together the pieces of their personal puzzle and understanding how those childhood experiences are affecting current day is perplexing.
Behind every parent is a history of upbringing from which they draw their own experience. Many children who never heard "I love you" find difficulty expressing those words themselves. Culture and tradition play an integral part in child development. For some parents daily responsibilities took center stage there was no time or opportunity for receiving or showing any form of affection.
Imagine being the child who was told: "Don't ever put your hands on me! Men do not touch each other!", "Men do not cry!", "Why are you such a cry baby? Just because you are a girl doesn't mean you have to cry all the time! (Parent ridicules child in front of guests). Trust me, a child does not forget when a parent mocks, ridicules, or harshly criticizes them in front of people external to the household. Therapists, pastors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and pastoral counselors hear about it in session. While it may sound juvenile or immature for adults to make such statements it is easy to make such a judgement when the person passing judgment is not on the receiving end of a parental mockery.
The compelling desire for recognition does not wane with time, in some cases it intensifies. Within the adult son/daughter a drive to excel fuels an ambition of achieving accomplishments. Even as an adult "Look what I can do!" is evidenced by the adult son or daughter desiring for the parent to demonstrate some form of acknowledgement. Acknowledgement translates into value because that which is valued is prized, cared for, protected. When a parent fails to acknowledge their child, the child questions: "Can you see me?" Rebellion also brings forth an intense self-hate where the child wishes to be and look like someone else because they reject themselves. I wonder how many cases of individuals struggling with body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders,
"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
The attention, recognition, and acknowledgement a parent does not provide a child contributes to the adult rebelling seeking to stand out among others. —"If Mom/Dad will not see me, others will." Although the child may achieve success, the void left within leaves an etched impression; unfilled felt in the recesses of the child's heart. The adult son or daughter becomes embittered, resentful, and rebellious in some cases resorting to clandestine or criminal behaviors (attention seeking?....hmmm). Others decide to dismiss any opportunity for relationship with their parents—I will touch on this later in the article.
How to Overcome Childhood Emotional Neglect
"For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long."
—Psalm 32:3 ESV
Early church father Origen (c. 184 - 253 CE) provided a vivid illustration of confession in a graphic way. Confession is the "vomit of the soul". Ever been sick and after the unpleasant experience of vomiting felt relieved, lighter, and overall much better? The same happens when we come clean about anger, bitterness, and grudges. True confession comes from a repentant heart willing to relinquish the grasp on pride and rebellion; from a contrite heart filled with gratitude (which I will touch on later on in this article). Tell God the truth of your matter, the good, the bad and the ugly. It may require reaching into yourself and pulling out dark secrets you have kept about feelings against your parents. These are truths known only to yourself which have been kept locked away from the everyone else however God knows those secrets exist. It is liberating loosening the grasp on hate, anger, pride, rebellion, and even embarrassment.
Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. —Psalm 44:21 NIV
While there are physical ailments which are the product of an unhealthy diet and careless lifestyle. Some physical ailments which medical doctors have not been able to diagnose are typically suspected to derive from psychological problems. It is mentally exhausting holding on to grudges, it also physically distressing carrying the burden of accumulated pain. "My bones (6105) wasted away through my groaning all day long refers to deep-seated physical ailments to such a degree the skeletal structure sustaining the integrity of the body is in a state of deterioration. The word "bones" in the verse is the word Hebrew word:"etsem" which by extension refers to the body.
First and foremost, forgiveness is a necessity to move beyond the pain. However, it is impossible to honor a parent with residual resentment, bitterness, and anger. Forgiveness releases the child from the burden of holding the parent responsible for paying for hurt experienced years ago, today, or yesterday. Holding on to feelings specifically bitterness contributes to constant tension in the relationship not only affecting the child and parent but spouses, children, friends etc. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God.
Watch out that no poisonous "root of bitterness" grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. —Hebrews 12:15 NLT
It is interesting the Bible uses the word "root" of bitterness. Roots are not visible externally they grow in the depths of the earth extending far beyond the original the plant. Bitterness affects others not just the embittered person.
"Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit."
—Psalm 32:2 ESV
Forgiveness is misinterpreted when the decision to place distance between self and parents to avoid interactions is defined as forgiveness. While in some cases a toxic relationship with a person could warrant the measure of placing distance, it is necessary to determine if in fact the person in question is by definition "toxic". I would like to interject here a parent is not "toxic" when the son or daughter does not know how to interact with them—(Coming soon: blog on "Defining Toxicity"). A parent may prove difficult to understand or handle however, that does not make them toxic. Forgiveness is not just allowing "I'm sorry, please forgive me" to slide off the lips without any genuine humility. Therefore, your actions must reflect your words and vice versa. Do not be deceived by the notion of having engaged in inert wordage. Is it possible to be disingenuous with our words? ABSOLUTELY! "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." —Matthew 15:8 Jesus spoke the words in the previous verse concerning the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Simply put, "be sincere."
HONOR YOUR PARENTS
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.—Exodus 20:12 NIV
No one was given the opportunity to select their parents, this feat was accomplished by divine appointment. Some children lose their parents becoming orphans, others are given up for adoption. Although a parent may have been physically present accountable for taking care of the responsibilities inherent with maintaining a household yet emotionally absent you still were blessed! There are parents who abandon their child before and after the child's birth.
Although agreement with parent philosophies or parenting styles may not exist, the mandate to honor carries weight over the position of the office of parenthood, not the quality of parenthood. Sons/daughters choosing to abstain from compliance are subject to shortening their days of life.
But what does it mean to honor your parents? It means that a son or daughter may have to model the respect they were never shown. It means having to show love and affection for someone who may not have nurtured, cared, or demonstrated any form of love or affection. It means extending mercy to someone who may not know the word: mercy. It means giving esteem to people who may have not displayed any esteem for others or themselves. It means demonstrating the love of God. To honor is to esteem highly, to care for, and show respect. Honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12) remains in effect today as when God etched the commandment with His own finger on the tablets given to Moses. (Exodus 31:18) Do not repeat history, rewrite your story to model for your children the difference. Therefore, honor your parents, that one day your children reciprocate the model exemplified establishing a legacy for generations to emulate.
"In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." —1 Thessalonians 5:18 KJV
I know for some reading these words the prospect of being grateful despite the pain inflicted may not at first be a welcome sentiment. However, be grateful you were provided an identity in your parents; there are many individuals who struggle with their identity because they have no knowledge of their parents. Be grateful you survived what you may describe as the worst parenting and especially be grateful if you are not following the same example of substandard parenting you experienced. Be grateful you have an opportunity to make right what was not right for you breaking what may have transformed into a vicious cycles throughout generations of neglect. Be grateful you have the opportunity of sharing your own testimony of how you came from a background of ______________(<----add your details here) but it did not destroy you. Be grateful the generations beyond yours will enjoy the love you were not demonstrated. Be grateful knowing the Lord will never leave you.
Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.—Psalm 27:10 NLT
It is impossible to live with the burden of pain when you live a life of gratitude.
Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible: Bringing the Original Text to Life. (2015). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.