Shall We Blame Our Parents

“It’s not so easy to just move forward if you are held by back by psychological symptoms you don’t understand”… (From a comment on PDAN’s Facebook Page)

I am one of several administrators for a wonderful Facebook Page called PDAN, which stands for “Personality Disorders Awareness Network”  It was set up to provide a forum for people who are diagnosed with personality disorders and the people who love them, to share experiences, information, and offer support to one another. It is an amazing page which seems to be growing exponentially in size. It currently has 56,000 followers, and that number increases every day.

Recently, I posted a link to the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) on the site. I was interested to see that this post received dozens of comments, many of them quite passionate.

Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

Circle the questions to which your answer is YES.

Do You:

  1. Sometimes feel like you don’t belong when with your family or friends
  2. Pride yourself on not relying upon others
  3. Have difficulty asking for help
  4. Have friends or family who complain that you are aloof or distant
  5. Feel you have not met your potential in life
  6. Often just want to be left alone
  7. Secretly feel that you may be a fraud
  8. Tend to feel uncomfortable in social situations
  9. Often feel disappointed with, or angry at, yourself
  10. Judge yourself more harshly than you judge others
  11. Compare yourself to others and often find yourself sadly lacking
  12. Find it easier to love animals than people
  13. Often feel irritable or unhappy for no apparent reason
  14. Have trouble knowing what you’re feeling
  15. Have trouble identifying your strengths and weaknesses
  16. Sometimes feel like you’re on the outside looking in
  17. Believe you’re one of those people who could easily live as a hermit
  18. Have trouble calming yourself
  19. Feel there’s something holding you back from being present in the moment
  20. At times feel empty inside
  21. Secretly feel there’s something wrong with you
  22. Struggle with self-discipline

Look back over your circled (YES) answers. These answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced Emotional Neglect as a child. If you’ve circled 6 or more, it indicates that your Childhood Emotional Neglect was extensive.

Comments by PDAN viewers ranged from:

“Bull —-. Yes to all- and know for a fact that I do not have “CEN” Not everything can or should be blamed on how one “grew up”!”


“Bullcrap you did it because you were neglected or abused. Or it’s my parents fault. Thththttth Bull—-! There is only so much you can teach a child, you teach them right from wrong and as much as you try to influence them they will still make their own decisions. A saying I like the most is: You show them the options and what the consequences might be and they are going to open the door that they want. So it is their choice. Whether right or wrong they know the consequences. I don’t feel sorry or feel like a bad friend, sibling, parent, guardian or teacher. I myself had a crappy childhood but grew up knowing right from wrong and have been successful in my life. When things where tough I didn’t blame who raised me. I consciously made a bad decision, dealt with the consequences and learned from my mistakes. Taught my children and now they make their own decisions. Good or bad I love them and they don’t blame mom or dad because they know that they made their own decisions based on what they knew and accepted the fact and learned themselves.”


“I answered yes to 20 of them it does help to know y I feel this way. I’m going to talk to my doctor this week”


“So basically it’s our decision that we grew up neglected and abused. Bull crap to you. Some of us are so damaged from our childhoods that the psychological fears and phobias keep us from moving forward. Yes we can blame our parents if they abused us. Parents have a choice to have kids or not to. You need love to move forward and it’s hard to receive when you are so damaged. It’s not so easy to just move forward if you are held by back by psychological symptoms you don’t understand. It’s interesting that some parents on here have said they’ve shown kids right from wrong. My adoptive mother will insist I had the best possible upbringing. That I just have some illness that descended from nowhere. Denial it’s called.”

This exchange points to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.

Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they became as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”

Here is a section copied almost exactly from the “For The Therapist” chapter of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect:
“In my psychology practice, I have found that many, if not most clients are very uncomfortable with the notion that their parents had such a powerful effect on them. Perhaps acknowledging the incredible power of parents is inherently threatening to us all. If we understand the true impact that our parents had on us, we may feel ourselves alone, disempowered, or even victimized, all of which are profoundly uncomfortable. If we understand the true impact that we have, as parents, upon our own children, we may feel terrified or guilty. So, as a people, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our own issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our children.”

As a psychologist, a parent and a daughter, I truly understand this discomfort on multiple levels. The concept of blame weighs heavily upon us all. If we blame our parents, then perhaps we will feel less burden of blame upon ourselves. But is this a way of letting ourselves off the hook for taking responsibility for our own choices and behavior? And won’t we then have to feel guilty, and take the blame for how we have parented our own children? It is a Win/Lose situation at best; and a Lose/Lose situation at worst.

So what is the answer? Who is to blame for our adult struggles? Who is to blame for our own mistakes and problems? Do our parents get a free pass? What if our parents were well-meaning? What if we have made mistakes with our own children? Who is to blame for that? What is the answer?

Fortunately, there is an answer to this dilemma. And it is free and available to anyone who is willing to embrace it. The answer is:

Remove blame from the equation. Instead, focus upon understanding your parents’ effects upon you and taking accountability for your own decisions, mistakes and choices.

Blame is actually quite a useless concept. It is a road that takes you directly to The Intersection of Burden and Guilt. Blame is not healing and it is not helpful.

However, it is worthwhile to try to understand how your childhood affects you. Understanding is a road to somewhere good: The Corner of Growth and Change. Understanding how your parents failed you, how they mistreated you, ignored you, or simply made mistakes when raising you, will help you understand why you have the struggles and issues that you have. Understanding is crucial to being able to have compassion for yourself as a child and as an adult, and to conquering those issues and struggles. You can have an understanding of how your parents’ mistakes affected or hurt you without going down that Blame Road to Nowhere.

Once you understand how your childhood affected you, you are freed up to hold yourself accountable as an adult. You, the adult, are responsible for your own decisions, mistakes, and choices. Own them. Be accountable for them. Learn from them, and move forward. No blame or guilt necessary.

I think that we would all be much healthier and happier if we would let go of this obsession with blame, realize that yes, each and every human being has a childhood living within him which has a profound effect upon who he is as an adult. Understanding your childhood does not absolve you of responsibility for your adult life. Instead, it frees you up to take responsibility for your adult life.

Yes, there are complex interactions between genetics, environment and parenting which are yet to be discovered. But the true power of parents is not one of them. It is a known, highly studied and highly proven fact. And the better we embrace it and use it to our advantage, with a focus on understanding and accountability and less on blame, the happier and healthier we will be.

Jonice Webb, PhD, Author of Running on Empty


  1. Jeff Phinney says:

    I have always wondered what impacts where in play as a child that affects me in my adult life. After taking the ‘quiz’ I was shocked at how many I was able to answer yes to. I am married to a Person with BPD and have a son who appears to have BPD co-current with other diagnoses. Why, was I susceptible to staying in a toxic relationship? After reading about the book “Running on Empty” I bought it. It is opening my eyes to those things in me that hold me back. I plan on gifting this book to my children and siblings in the hope that the cycle of CEN can stop here and now. I only wish resources where more readily available before my kids where impacted by CEN. Yes, my own kids are victims. There mom is a person with BPD and I buried my head in the sand. Things need to change. Am I strong enough to change, Is it too late, for me, my kids, grandkids?

    • Jeff, thank you for sharing your story. I want to assure you that it is not too late. Now that you are aware of CEN, how it has affected you and your children, you are on the road to recovery. The fact that you are taking this on and dealing with it shows that you are strong enough to change. Stay on this path and you will definitely get somewhere better for yourself, children and grandchildren. PDAN sends you all our best wishes.

  2. I completely agree. Speaking in terms of “blame” or “fault” only gives rise to more anger and frustration. But understanding the fact that our childhood has a certain effect on us, that the upbringing from the parents has a great impact on what kind of person the child becomes, is the first step to understanding who you are and why you are like this. But as adults we have a responsibility towards ourselves. We might not be able to change the past, but we can decide to change ourselves if we think it is neccessary. We might not have chosen where we come from, but we can choose where we want to go and how we want to get there. But to determine the right path for us, we have to understand who we are, what we are like, and understanding how we have come to be this way sure helps a lot.

  3. jema stansfield says:

    It looks like I am one of few who thought this has made me understand more I was abused as a child I said yes to them all so thank u very much x

    • Jema, I just want to clarify. If you are referring to the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, it is set up to detect Emotional Neglect from childhood, which is not the same thing as abuse. Abuse is a parent’s active harm of a child. Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond to or validate the child’s emotional needs.They are equally damaging, but just different. I’m glad you found the ENQ helpful!

  4. This question is for Jonice Webb: Are there any drugs that help regulate emotions that can work for people with BPD? I experienced several forms of child abuse, and worst than the sexual abuse was what you describe as CEN. I have used the label in my case, as chronic invalidation, I have an intellectual awareness of of the right and healthy ways to be but my moods have been unstable and I’ve been unable to feel like I can move forward in my life. I try the cognitive methods you describe and have some success, but not consistent success. I have resisted the idea of taking any form of medication, but I’m really struggling with the emotional component. Can you could provide a list of possible ones that have worked for people with BPD?

    • Hello Sam, as a PhD I am not an expert on medication. I can suggest that some of my patients have had success with Lamictil, which is a mood stabilizer. The exercise I would most recommend for you is the Identifying & Naming Exercise (page 129 of Running on Empty). Being able to sit with your feelings while you identify what they are is very grounding and is the best way to break through the emotional invalidation that you grew up with. I hope this is helpful, and I wish you all the best!

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