Emotionally Neglected Children May Feel Like They Are Ghosts

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

“Emotional Neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.” (Dr. Jonice Webb)

Editor’s note: I use “he” because “he or she” can interrupt the flow of sentences. But abuse can happen to any gender.

An emotionally abused child may sometimes feel like a ghost in his own home. He passes through its corridors, affects its surroundings, interacts (as best as he can) with the other people in the house… but he feels like no one quite sees him.

Or listens to him.

Or understands him.

Or cares for him.

Or loves him.

People outside the house can see this child. And from the outside, these neighbors, family friends, relatives, and teachers may see this gleaming, shiny family, paragons of the community, and believe that all children in this family are loved and nurtured, their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs met.

But when the blinds are closed, when the front door’s shut, when all the windows are sealed up, and the parents have resumed their natural form, the child disappears in front of his parent.

The child feels so lonely, so very unimportant to anyone. Because home should be a place of nurturing, comforting, loving, growing, and playing. But for the emotionally neglected child, home is where you aren’t seen or heard. Home is the place you haunt.

And your parents only notice you when they want something from you. Not any other time.

Emotionally abusive parents are not always noisy gongs, overly boisterous buffoons, yelling caricatures. Some of them hurt their children by emotionally neglecting them.

When these emotionally abusive parents look at their children, the abusers see…

  • Themselves only
  • What they failed to be
  • Sources of energy, love, and approval for themselves

Here’s a more detailed look at what that all means…

Themselves Only

Abusive parents do not know, care, or understand their child. They rarely know what the child likes or dislikes, how the child reacts to things, etc. The parents only know (and care about) what makes them (not their child) happy, and they see their child through a self-reflective lens.

Examples:

Dad buys a sports jersey for his child on his birthday. But the child doesn’t like sports or the team, and has told this to his father. The father does. So, the father gets royally pissed off at child for not appreciating his token of affection.  The father never thought to dip into his knowledge about his child and purchase something that the child would love, not the parent.

Mom takes her child to acting classes because the child has such a natural talent for it. Oh, wait, no. The child hates being in front of people, hates performing, and would prefer to be behind the scenes rather than in it. Mom prefers that. The mom never considered talking to the child about what would be fun or discussing some options. It’s always about Mom, never the child.

Dad goes to visit his adult son’s house late at night for a beer because he knows how much of a night owl his son is. Wait, no. The son likes to go to bed early and has told his father this. The night owl is Dad, not son.

Mom buys tickets to go see a symphony with her daughter, who loves classical music. No, Mom loves classical music; the daughter cannot stand it. But the Mom already bought tickets for her daughter! Mom may accuse adult child of being an ingrate, being difficult, being selfish, etc. The mom never thought to ask the child, “Would you like to go to a symphony? Would you like to go with me? How does this date work for you? Would you like to do something else instead?”

These parents act like the world revolves around them. And that it should always be like that.

What They Failed to Be

These parents may talk about their children to others, but they don’t really know their own children.

Examples:

“Have you met my daughter?” Dad may tell new friends about his child. “She’s an amazing singer. Really, I think she’ll go far in her career.”

Dad himself is a terrible singer. He can’t carry a tune and knows nothing about melodies. Neither can his child. But Dad wanted to be a great opera singer, and when he sees his child, he sees his dreams fulfilled. Even if they’re not.

“My child is so popular!” Mom may say. “Honestly, the phone’s always ringing off the hook for her. You know, she’s an extrovert.”

Mom is incredibly shy and would rather stay home than go out. Her child is neither an outcast nor popular, but the mom can’t gauge when her child how her child feels because Mom wants the child to be uber-outgoing and amazing. Because mom isn’t.

These parents make assumptions about their child. They talk lies about their child. They live in delusion about who their children are.

Sources of Love and Approval

Parents should not demand love and approval from their children. Repeat: Parents should not demand love and approval from their children.

Good parents love their children and nurture their souls and bodies. These parents know that children are a gift from God and treat their children accordingly, with love, tenderness, affection, gentleness, and guidance. Good parents love their children, and that loving behavior will inspire their children to love them back.

But good parents don’t demand that their children fill up the holes in their heart or confidence or self-worth.

Abusive parents see their children as sources of love and affection. An abusive parent will have a lousy day at work and go home and vent their issues to their child and expect the child to serve as a cheerleader, a source of support, make them feel better. They expect their child to fill a role that is not meant for the child. (Often this role is meant for a spouse or a good friend. But the abusive parent will demand kindness, support, etc. from their child… all things that the parent does not provide to his own child.)

Examples:

Dad has a big fight with Mom and takes the child out for some ice cream. He tells the kid about the entire fight, demands (whether overtly or subtly) for the child to take his side, wants the kid to tell him that he’s a good person, etc. Dad doesn’t realize that the child is a child. And the child wanted to just have ice cream and play, or to hang out at home and draw. The child did not want to become Daddy’s Little Therapist.

Mom is feeling incredibly depressed. Instead of seeking help or taking the right meds (if needed) or calling up a friend, Mom manipulates her child to attend to all her needs, to treat her as if she were a fragile and delicate thing that needs to be pampered. Mom doesn’t care about the child and how that freaks out a kid to take on that role; Mom needs a parent and the neglected child will become that substitute parent.

Emotional Neglect

All the above are examples of emotional neglect.

“Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse,” writes Dr. Jonice Webb. “Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”

And though it’s an act of omission, it is quite damaging…

“Psychological neglect, though less obvious [than physical neglect], is just as serious,” writes Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. “Children who are constantly ignored, rejected, threatened, or belittled grow up without the inner resources that everyone needs to cope with difficult times.”

That emotional neglect leaves children vulnerable to such terrible relationships and situations.

“When children get little or no affection and physical comfort, they are vulnerable to anyone who will give them attention,” writes Hartwell-Walker. “Often they become sitting ducks for people who exploit them.”

That’s one reason so many emotionally neglected children end up as adult survivors in hard relationships or in tough situations. They often just want someone, ANYONE, to see them to hear them. And they often cannot discern who is toxic to them or who will be a good person. So, they often fall for people who will treat them with the same level of disinterest that their own parents exhibited.

Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Symptoms of childhood emotional neglect that show up in adults may include (but are not limited to):

  • “Numbing out” or being cut off from one’s feelings
  • Feeling like there’s something missing, but not being sure what it is
  • Feeling hollow inside
  • Being easily overwhelmed or discouraged
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Pronounced sensitivity to rejection
  • Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own expectations for yourself

However, adult survivors can heal and get to the point where they have emotionally healthy lives.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse can find a better way, a brightly lit path, through counseling, reading about healing, talking to others in a support group, praying, etc.

You can heal in time. You can learn to re-parent yourself.

If you were an invisible child at home, know that you are not doomed to be forever invisible. Just because your parents lacked the intelligence, compassion, or just very basic human instinct of nurturing their young, that doesn’t mean you aren’t real, that you don’t matter, that you are unworthy.

Because you are worthy. As a human being, you have dignity. You matter.

Perhaps not to your parents, and that’s a very tragic truth to accept. It’s hard and terrible. Almost no one will understand what you mean when you tell people that your parents are “toxic” for you… but the readers here at The Invisible Scar do. I do.

You’re not alone.

We see you. We hear you.


veronica-jarski-managing-editor-the-invisible-scarVeronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

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Fear and Guilt Will Keep You in an Abusive Relationship If You Let Them

[via flickr user ajari]

[via flickr user ajari]

You’ve long suspected something is not quite normal about your relationship with your parents. Perhaps you even sought answers and read about the signs of emotional child abuse.

Now, you have come to the hard, cold realization that you’ve been emotionally abused as a childand that the abuse has extended into your adulthood.

So, what do you do now?

Your First Few Steps Towards Healing

First, you need some emotional breathing room to just grasp the reality of what has been happening. That means to take a break from interacting with your abusive parents. (Whether the break is permanent or temporary isn’t the focus right now.)

The focus is you—your coming to grips with your past abuse and present situation, your attempts to reconcile what you thought was real and what actually is, your desire to get a clear view of your life, your younger self finally feeling relief at being heard.

You need to breathe deeply. Think. Find a therapist. Pray. Think some more. Research.

Your abusers will not want you to think freely. They want your thinking to be only what they want you to think. Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic novel Ninety-Eighty-Four, your abusive parents do not want—nor will they tolerate—your thinking critically about them or your thinking well of yourself.

But don’t give up on yourself!  You need this time. If you want, tell your parents that you need some time to think about your relationship. Loving parents will understand and/or pray and hope for you. Abusive parents will go bat-shit crazy with fear of losing you or just freeze you out.

But don’t be afraid in giving yourself thinking time. Here’s why:

“Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-worth, lead to anxiety and depression, and make you feel helpless and alone. No one should have to endure this kind of pain—and your first step to breaking free is recognizing that your situation is abusive. Once you acknowledge the reality of the abusive situation, then you can get the help you need.” (Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, HelpGuide article)

What Creating Space Really Means

Creating breathing and thinking space for yourself means you have moved yourself up from being the lowest person on your own totem pole to the one in a higher position. It means making yourself a priority. It means putting your parents in their appropriate place on your totem pole.

Unfortunately, adult survivors have a hard time in setting such boundaries. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have been conditioned by their parents to habitually…

  • Jump up to answer their calls immediately
  • Answer their emails instantly
  • Drop everything to help them with non-emergencies (that the parents erroneously label “emergencies”)
  • Be completely available at every second of your day via text
  • Rearrange your work schedule to suit them
  • Organize your family schedule to accommodate your abusive parents’ demands
  • Plan your meetings with friends/co-workers/spouses/children around your abusive parents’ schedules
  • Report everything you do, think, or feel to them
  • Seek their constant approval by going through hoops
  • Act, dress, feel, think, and be in the ways approved by the abusive parents

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent and adult children respect one another’s boundaries and the fact that the parent and adult child have their own separate identity and life. Parent and adult help one another sometimes. But in an abusive parent-child relationship, the parent demands to be the center of the adult child’s world, eclipsing the adult child’s own needs, friendships, relationships, work, well-being, everything.

Should You Tell Your Abusive Parents That You’ve Been Abused by Them and Need Time to Think?

That depends. Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running on Empty: Overcoming Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, offers advice that applies to adult survivors of emotional child abuse:

“Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN [childhood emotional neglect] based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.” (Dr. Jonice Webb,How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents“)

For now, you can just tell them that you need some space to think. You don’t need to give them a deadline for your thinking to end or healing to being nor give them updates. It’s all right to breathe and search for healing and answers.

Even if doing so feels scary.

Fear and Guilt Will Hound You at First (But Not Forever)

Breaking out of an abusive relationship—especially a parent-child one—is very, very hard at first. It’s stepping out into the unknown.

Because an adult survivor of emotional child abuse has been conditioned to stay in his/her cage, the survivor will feel a hurricane of emotions. There will be heart-pounding panic, a sense of impending disaster, an almost overwhelming sense of loss, depression, and just the conditioned response that the adult survivor is going to catch absolute hell for acting against his or her parent.

Fear

The adult survivor may experience panic attacks and myriad symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A person thinking about leaving an abusive relationship or actually leaving one may feel gripped by…

  • Fear of “getting in trouble”
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of retribution
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of being a disappointment
  • Fear of people thinking badly of you
  • Fear of not “fitting in”
  • Fear of losing friends
  • Fear of not being believed

Some of those fears may happen, but they will not crush you. Some may never take place. Either way, the fears should not keep you in your abusive relationship.

We’re telling you this not as excuses or reasons to not leave an abusive relationship, but to let you know that all those suffocatingly awful feelings you’re experiencing are normal for an adult survivor of emotional child abuse getting out of the abusive relationship. Those emotions are common and understandable.

And those emotions will not always be as huge and dark and overwhelming as they seem in the beginning. They’ll seem as vicious as monsters at first, but through therapy and prayer and time and reading, you’ll see those feelings become smaller and more manageable. And sometimes, a few of those terrible feelings disappear in the light and brightness of an emotionally healthier life.

False Guilt

You very well may lose friends and relatives and your social circles and your assigned place in family interactions when you decide to break out of the abusive parent-child relationship. People might give you absolute hell for how you are treating your outwardly-appearing-good parents because those people do not know the truth about your parents.

And in facing such opposition, you may begin questioning what really happened, gloss over facts, bury some unhealthy emotions, and jump right back into the abusive relationship—all out of guilt and fear.

That guilt, however, is not true guilt from doing something wrong and having our well-formed conscience tells us we need to ask for forgiveness and remedy the situation. This type of guilt is very different, according to psychologist and author Dr. Gregory L. Jantz. This guilt is how emotionally abused adults make false sense of what happened to them: “The reason given for the abuse varies: you are bad, stupid, ugly, or wanted, or you are the wrong sex, the wrong age, or the wrong whatever. You are guilty of causing the abuse.”

“The guilt you are feeling is not true guilt. True guilt is brought on by a realistic understanding of your behavior and its consequences to yourself and others. False guilt is an oppressive burden that is not based on reality but on the warped views, ideas, and attitudes of others. Emotional abuse transfers those warped views onto you, and those warped views produce mind-numbing, action-paralyzing shame.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

But you need to face those fears so that you can become emotionally healthy.

“Emotional abuse leads to intense feelings of anger, rage, resentment and bitterness. Submerged feelings of guilt and fear of your abuser can lead you to choose a safer target for your anger that your abuser. All too often that target is you. Unspent anger continually works inside the body using up energy, causing feelings of fatigue and apathy.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

You’ll need to tackle the reality of what happened, which means getting out of your current “comfort zone.”

But you know what? It really, really, really wasn’t working well for you in the first place. That “comfort zone” you were in with your abusive parent(s) wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t safe. It was “known,” which has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with habit and brainwashing and conditioning.

The reality is that if those fears are actualized, you’ll still be a thousand times off better than when you were in your abusive relationship.

Because you’re walking in the truth now. And in doing so, you’re walking away from the shadows and into a healthier present and even healthier future.

Onward.

[via flickr user Henry Liriani]

[via flickr user Henry Liriani]


Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.