Are You Suffering From The Invisible Legacy of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
D.W. Winnicott and the Good Enough Mother
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Are You Suffering From The Invisible Legacy of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
That’s the paradox of being a person.
We cannot see what we cannot remember or point to the moments that formed our worldview, our sense of safety and self, or our understanding of the matrix whose intricate and specific entanglement forms the scaffolding upon which we were raised.
We become the consequences of what was done to us and what was withheld.
The invisible map of our lives we follow is paved with unnamed feelings, leading to a routeless effort to meet our own needs without knowing what we need or why. We believe we know what we are seeking, although we are often wrong, and instead of living our lives, we’re stuck, like a trapped Roomba, within invisible parameters that we can’t name or see beyond and, therefore, cannot pass.
We are, each of us, caught in a world of unintentional consequences born from the missteps of those who raised us.
The wounds of childhood run deep.
Even without intentional harm by well-meaning caregivers, we cannot control what psychic chaos may manifest from one innocuous moment of neglect. The ability of caregivers to repair, mend, and redirect unintentional wrongs plays a crucial role in a child’s development.
In that innocuous moment of neglect, and under the steadier hands of capable caregivers, a child left lingering for a moment too long will grow up unscathed at the very least and able to communicate their needs at the very best.
If we are self-aware enough, we learn from our mistakes. If we are not, we repeat them, projecting our incapacity to evolve onto others by shaming their missteps—not understanding that mistakes are part and parcel of being alive and trying; mistakes are how we learn.
All parents make mistakes. Your parents made mistakes, their parents made mistakes, and you make mistakes. The entire lineage of parenting is rife with slip-ups and misapprehension.
What separates a harmful mistake from a less harmful one is a parent’s willingness to acknowledge their limitations and do something about it. When a parent is unable to accept their shortcomings, how will they accept the limitations of others?
When mistakes form the core components of parenting, an insidious type of adversity takes root. Unlike physical abuse, which forms bruising evidence, another pattern of scarring goes overlooked because the wounds are underneath, in the psychic makeup of a child, shaped by emotional neglect.
The name for this absence of attending to an infant’s intrapsychic makeup is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and was coined in the early 1990s by psychologist Jonice Webb while working alongside families who presented as well-adjusted but harbored serious internal troubles.
Child abuse is a parental act; something a parent does to a child, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act.
CEN is the parent's dereliction to meet their child's emotional needs for affection, support, attention, or competence during their early years. It involves unresponsive, unavailable, and limited emotional interactions between caretaker and child.
Young people spend their days learning to become well-rounded and well-adjusted students. They are tested in history, science, math, and English but never learn the steps to become a well-adjusted friend, partner, colleague, or, should they choose to raise children, a competent and capable parent.
Because parenting isn’t taught, the message sent is that raising a child is innate. Once they are born, our natural instincts will kick in, and we’ll automatically respond adequately and appropriately to a child’s emotional needs, validate their feelings, and truly intuit their humanity.
This simply isn’t true. Parenting is a skill that must be learned.
What is taught and easily gleaned are a child’s basic physical needs: feeding, sleeping, and diaper changes. These are hard-to-miss aspects of raising a child, but this is the bare minimum of what parenting calls for. The goal is to keep the child alive and give rise to behaviors that allow them to thrive. To do this, one must understand the primary emotional needs of infants.
Caregivers who misunderstand these early emotional needs can easily fall into an area of unintentional neglect that is profoundly harmful to the child, laying a pathway that undermines a child’s ability to thrive and thwarts stability throughout their lives, allowing this dysfunction to pass down generationally until it’s caught and the pattern is stopped.
Sometimes, that never happens, and it never stops.
Fellow perfectionists do not fret because in her book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Dr. Webb contends that emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s feelings and emotional needs.
The "good enough mother" notion is central to Winnicott's ideas on parenting and child development, emphasizing the importance of the early mother-child relationship in shaping a child's emotional and psychological well-being. According to Winnicott, a "good enough mother" is not a perfect or idealized caregiver but is sufficiently attuned and responsive to the infant's needs.
Winnicott believed that a primary caregiver should be able to provide a nurturing environment that is "good enough" to meet the child's basic needs for care, love, and security. This concept challenges the notion of perfection in parenting and recognizes that making mistakes and being imperfect is a normal part of the caregiving experience.
He argued that a mother who is attuned to her child’s basic needs for care, love, and security allows the child to develop a sense of security and a true self, whereas a mother who is overly intrusive or neglectful may lead the child to develop a false self as a defense mechanism.
Less than good enough, and the child becomes an adult who struggles emotionally. Perhaps they seem successful on the outside, but something inside feels lacking and empty, which no one can see.
Low-income families have long been demonized as bastions of neglect, yet financial deficiency does not equal deficient parenting. This correlation, long-held by many, is not simply untrue; it’s shameful.
Families without financial means lack access to resources available to wealthier families. This access is a privilege offering material advantages that equip the already flourishing with a clearer path to thrive. However, poverty does not lead to intentional parental neglect; it leads to involuntary deprivation.
If anything, it’s the other way around.
A fair amount of people who grew up in “good homes” with enough money, food, and plenty of clothes, who were cared for physically, can grow up unable to shake some sort of internal pain, a pain that interferes with their life, but that they cannot identify because it remains hidden, even now, inside their bodies.
“Poor Little Rich Kids” are now known as victims of “affluent neglect.”
The material goods of an affluent childhood do not mean emotional needs are met, just as the lack of material goods in a low-income family does not mean emotional needs are neglected.
Yes, like babies themselves, myths about the well-being of rich and poor families are both mired in misapprehension.
The hard thing about emotional neglect is what’s hard about emotions and mental illness—it’s invisible.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is the legacy you don’t want to inherit, and yet, unless someone puts a stop to it, it’s this blueprint of parenting that’s renewed with each generation regardless of how outdated the site plan.
Because there is nothing visible to point to as evidence of their deprivation, many people misunderstand their feelings of emptiness and assume that they are the problems. But the feelings of emptiness are symptoms of CEN, often masquerading as something else.
The result of our choices is seen and felt in our present-day circumstances, and we often point to the “real culprit.” It’s your boss, your marriage, your erratic and ungenerous friendships, your relationship with food. Yet, these are just symptoms of the underlying problems.
There is an expression that I will butcher (I couldn’t find it online) that goes something like this: You cannot understand the lotus by looking at its stalk. You must study the mud in which it grew.
This means we can’t understand ourselves by only examining our internal world; we must consider the circumstances and dynamics that gave rise to us.
When people who grew up with only their primary needs met, they struggle to identify their feelings of lack. They cannot see the invisible nurturance they did not receive. They cannot point to the missed scaffolding of mirroring, attunement, and reflecting back. An infant must understand herself to feel safe and secure in the world.
But they feel it. And they felt it in childhood, internalizing the lack of parental attunement to mean their needs don’t matter. As adults, these children might worry that stating their needs is asking too much or that they are too much for having needs.
Neuroscience shows our limbic brains are wired to read social signals, and that feeling heard and valued is a primary survival mechanism that develops before logic.
When parents consistently respond to attempts at intimate emotional connection with indifference, hostility, or dismissal, it can result in neural damage. This damage can make it exceptionally challenging to cope with intense emotional experiences in the future.
When caregivers fail to assist children in correctly identifying, comprehending, and managing various emotional states such as joy, anger, and sadness, the developing brain does not form the necessary pathways and schemas.
Schemas, which act as cognitive frameworks for organizing and categorizing information, are vital for guiding perceptions and behavior. Think of them as lenses through which individuals perceive and understand the world. Without developing these pathways and schemas, individuals may struggle to navigate the internal spectrum of emotions with resilience. In cases of trauma, certain aspects splinter off as individuals seek to conceal vulnerability to avoid further harm.
For those raised without sufficient empathy for emotions, chronic issues around identity, purpose, belonging, and the ability to form secure connections often plague maturity.
Typical struggles include:
Feeling empty, numb, or lacking meaning and direction
Intense loneliness, even amidst seemingly populated lives
Poor understanding of one’s own needs, wants, talents, and truths
Difficulty fully relaxing into intimacy or depending on anyone
Harsh self-criticism, imposter syndrome, and perfectionism
Disproportionate anxiety around ordinary evaluations or conflict
Tipping into depression easily during stress yet quickly rebounds, too
Rarely asking for help or admitting struggles to avoid burdening
Both are valuing and struggling with solitude (safety amidst isolation’s pain)
Appear highly functional and put together on the surface while crumbling within
According to Psychology Today, these are the NINE SIGNS YOU MAY HAVE SUFFERED FROM CHILDHOOD EMOTIONAL NEGLECT:
You’re afraid of relying on others and reject offers of help, support, or care.
You have difficulty identifying your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and life goals.
You are harder on yourself than you would be even on a stranger, and you lack self-compassion and understanding.
You feel numb, empty, or cut off from your emotions, or you feel unable to manage or express them.
You are easily overwhelmed and give up quickly.
You have low self-esteem.
You are extra sensitive to rejection.
You believe you are deeply flawed and that something about you is wrong even though you can’t specifically name it.
Self-neglect (something I hope to write about soon) is a telltale sign of emotional neglect in childhood.
1. Develop the skill of recognizing your emotions. (Also known as Emotional Intelligence). If your parents ignored or minimized your emotions while you were growing up, you may face challenges in adulthood when it comes to recognizing your feelings or responding effectively to difficult emotions. Emotions are vital in decision-making, shaping our choices in actions, relationships, and even daily habits. They reflect our perception of the world, others, and ourselves.
2. Recognize your needs and express them to others. Like anyone else, you’re entitled to have your needs recognized and fulfilled. Start by making small requests for easily achievable things—like a hug or a few moments to yourself when you come home from work.
3. Consider finding a therapist. Although a therapist cannot alter your past or reverse parental mistakes, they can equip you with the emotional tools that may have been absent in your upbringing. A skilled therapist can help you identify and regulate your emotions, articulate your needs, build trust in others, boost self-esteem, handle rejection, nurture self-love, and more.
If you are looking for a therapist, you can explore options through the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
But before you look for a therapist, read this:
One must feel their emotional pain to process it, so tackling CEN requires grieving unmet needs. To move forward, sufferers must challenge internalized beliefs and work on forgiving their caretaker’s unconscious limitations.
The path to getting well and finding existential relief involves making the invisible visible. Name it, sink into the depths, learn from it, and reclaim what was lost.
If you are not sure whether you suffered from CEN, Dr. Jonice Webb has a questionnaire you can take.
Did this resonate with you? If so, let me know in the comments!
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Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the best of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.
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