How People Who Were Emotionally Neglected Can Break The Cycle With Their Kids

Photo: Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash
being a good parent after emotional neglect

“Stop crying and put your shoes on like I told you to do ten minutes ago!” Will yelled at his 6-year-old son, Billy.

But as the words came out of his mouth, somewhere in the back of his mind he felt uneasy. Part of him heard his own father’s voice yelling those same words at him, three decades ago.

Whether we like it or not, we all carry the voices of our parents within us. The way our own fathers and mothers spoke to us when we were growing up has a way of embedding itself in our brains. We may talk to ourselves this way, inside our own heads, for decades, but never once hear ourselves speak it to another.

Until we become parents.  

Then, we find ourselves playing the part of our parents, while also feeling the feelings our child. It can be a painful place to be — especially if being a good parent is an important goal. 

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Get over it.

Don’t be a baby.

Stop crying.

Go to your room until you can simmer down.

You’re quite a drama queen.

If you hear yourself ignoring or discounting the emotions of your child in this way, you are most likely repeating exactly what was done to you.

We, as humans, do not know that our own feelings or the feelings of our children matter unless our parents taught us so.

Today, because of advances in the fields of psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, it’s clear that there are particular ways that we parents can respond to our children’s feelings that will set them up for a happy and healthy adulthood. But alas, many, many of us don’t yet know those particular ways. It’s not our fault. It just is.

To get back on track, and be more aware of how you're speaking to your child, follow The 4 Part Feeling Formula For Parents:

1. Notice 

Instead of responding to your child’s behavior, identify what he is feeling, and put it into words for him.

2. Validate 

Help your child understand that she is having this feeling for a reason, and that it makes sense to you.

3. Empathize

Try to feel your child’s feeling, from his perspective. This will give you a moment of connection that has incredible value for your relationship.

4. Teach 

Help your child learn what to do with her variety of emotions. Set limits if needed in the situation.

To see how the Feeling Formula for parents works, let’s check in on Will and Billy again:

On this morning, Will is prepared. It is several days later, and Billy is again crying instead of putting on his shoes. Despite his worry that they would be late for school, Will sits down next to Billy and says, “What’s going on, Bud? Why are you upset this morning?

“I hate these shoes! Mommy said she was going to get me some new ones but she hasn’t!” Billy yells while throwing one of his shoes across the room to land on the floor of his closet.

Will considers this for a moment and knows he must supply Billy with a label for what his feeling. “Are you angry at Mommy for not buying you new shoes?”

“Where is she? I want new shoes!” Billy says, but his yell is trailing into a sad tone.

“I know you’re upset about the shoes. You really are starting to outgrow them, I know. But I think you’re missing Mommy a little bit, too? She’s been gone for three whole days and I miss her too!”

At this point, experiencing empathy from his father, Billy sobs, “When’s she coming back?”

“Tomorrow,” Will explains in a soothing voice. “Then, we’re all going to have pizza and stop by the shoe store together. Can you get through one more day with these silly old shoes?” As he says this, he dabs at the tears on Billy’s cheeks.

Billy nods his head yes, much calmer now (because he feels emotionally understood and validated). “OK, please go pick up the shoe you threw into the closet. As you know, we do not throw things when we are angry. Instead, we talk. Right?

As Billy walks toward the closet to pick up his shoe, he nods in agreement. Will gets Billy to school three minutes past the bell, and in his mind, it was well worth it.

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In this scene, Will has used all four parts of the "feeling formula."

He noticed Billy’s feelings, put them into words for him, validated what Billy was feeling (anger about the shoes was actually mostly about missing his mother), empathized with him, and set a limit. He reminded Billy of the house rule, “We talk when we are angry. We do not throw things.” Having Billy retrieve his own shoe is a powerful, non-punitive limit to remind Billy about the rules.

How did Will know this feeling formula? He was driven to research and learn it by his deep feeling of unease about the way he was talking to his son.

As Will practices the feeling formula, day after day for Billy’s sake, he finds himself automatically noticing, validating, and working with his own emotions differently, too. In this way, Will is not only growing and maturing as a parent, he is also naturally growing and maturing emotionally as a person.

In addition, he is doing one other important thing. He is stopping the automatic transfer of the voices of emotional neglect he grew up with down to his children. When Billy grows up and has children of his own, the feeling formula will be so much a part of his coping and emotional skills that he will naturally transfer them to his own children.

On and on the pattern goes, begun by Will, continued by Billy, and moving forward through generation after generation.

In his own seemingly small and quiet but ultimately momentous way, by working at being a good parent, Will has not only changed himself, he has changed the future.

RELATED: The #1 Indicator You Were Emotionally Neglected As A Kid

Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn more about how CEN affects your parenting and other relationships, take the free CEN questionnaire and see Jonice Webb's new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.