Is there an unseen epidemic in our society? Jonice Webb, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Lexington, Mass., believes there is. In practice for more than 20 years, Webb started to recognize that many of her clients were suffering from a particular set of struggles, a sense of being on the outside, being less happy than they should be or of feeling empty inside. These were struggles that did not stem from any specific trauma or diagnosable psychological condition.
Webb found that, for each of these people, it was not so much as an event or troubling treatment from their past, but a lack of emotional attunement passed on by their parents. She labeled the condition “Childhood Emotional Neglect” and, in a book on the subject, identifies several types of parenting styles that can lead to serious issues for a child as he grows. Her weekly blog on PsychCentral touches on the array of areas where emotional neglect can blossom into serious, but hidden, problems for adults.
In a conversation about her theory with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter, Webb described the condition along with ideas for helping these adults to recover and a hope for this issue to be recognized more widely in mental health fields.
Q: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
A: It is very simple: It is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
Psychology overlooks emotional neglect. We lump it in with emotional abuse and physical neglect. It is hard for us to focus on this one thing as a stand-alone experience that has its own validity and its own effects. That is part of what I am trying to accomplish, to get us all to think a little differently about it and to have more words to use when we talk about it with our patients and with each other.
Q: How would you define the difference between emotional neglect and emotional abuse?
A: Emotional abuse is something a parent does to a child – it is an action. Whereas emotional neglect is the opposite – it is a lack of action. It is a parent overlooking a child versus a parent mistreating a child.
So patients don’t remember that it happened to them and they don’t tell us about it and they don’t have the words for it. If we don’t know to look for it, it falls between the cracks in our treatment.
Q: What are the common symptoms you would look for in an adult?
A: It is a general feeling of being disconnected, living life on the outside, looking in at other people, of being less valid or less important or somehow different from other people. Many times there are passive suicidal thoughts that go along with it but not always. It is this general feeling that this person should be happier than they are. There is no explanation for why this person feels so empty and disconnected.
I named the book “Running on Empty” because so many people use the word “empty” and I think that sums it up pretty well.
Q: Are there differences with men and women in how they exhibit symptoms?
A: Women tend to put other people’s needs in front of their own, to fill their space with other people’s needs. Men tend to become very distant. Also, men may seek adventure and work success to fill the void whereas women are more likely to fill it with relationships that don’t feel satisfying because they are always in the role of caretaker.
Q: Are men more likely to have these issues since, culturally, boys are not taught to identify their emotional range?
A: Yes, I think men do definitely get it more, especially in the previous generations where men were taught not to be emotional. Then they got married and the wife wants emotional support out of them. Every couple’s therapist comes up against this, the husband who can’t be there for her emotionally. Often, if you talk to the husband, you find that he really was well-trained in childhood that his feelings were irrelevant or unacceptable.
Q: Is this generational? Are things getting better?
A: Yes, it is generational and things are changing, but now we are in danger of a boomerang effect. Parents who grew up with their feelings being invalidated are overly indulging their children’s’ feelings and giving their children’s feelings too much power… which is also emotional neglect because the kid is still not getting an education about how to share and manage and put words to their emotions.
Q: What are your recommendations for healing?
A: Essentially, it is a process of first naming and understanding the problem and then trying to get in touch with the emotions they have pushed down.
In my practice, I put people though an emotional training course. Sometimes I will get them to talk about something that will get them to emote and then help them sit with it, tolerate it, put words to it, and figure out what to do with it. They missed out on this entire way of being in the world. Also, part of therapy is mirroring them because they didn’t really get that as children. They can’t see themselves because their parents didn’t see them.
Q: In your blog, you point out that, rather than blame parents, it is important to remove blame from the equation and focus on understanding the effects of parents’ actions…or inactions in this case. It is not necessarily that parents are “bad people” or intentionally cruel. Maybe under prepared?
A: In the book, I outline 12 different types of emotionally neglectful parents. The largest part are the WMBNT group: “well-meaning but neglected themselves.” Mostly, these parents really they love their children. They give their children everything except emotional attunement because they don’t have it themselves. It is an emotional blind spot that gets passed on from one generation to another.
Q: Has there been any research looking at this theory?
A: A colleague in Arkansas did a study involving the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, a self-diagnosing tool on my Web site and in my book that I completely made up and fully acknowledge that has no research behind it. It was a very preliminary study being presented at the SouthWest Psychological Association in April.
Part of the reason I wrote the book is that I couldn’t find anything on it, not organized in the same way. What does play into it is all the research on attachment and emotional development. It is just not directly testing this particular theory.
I am looking for a university or research setting closer to me for someone interested in doing this work. So, whoever is willing to start doing research is going to have a clean slate, I should think.
Q: So it is sort of a groundbreaking area right now.
A: Well, it feels like it to me but I hate to put that word to it because it doesn’t seem right for me to say that. I do feel like it is.
By Catherine Robertson Souter