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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” www.facebook.com/PDAN.  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”!”

And:

“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.”

To:

“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”

And:

“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

17 Comments
  1. 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. 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!

  5. The Neglect word in the CEN is completely disregarding the impact of the Borderline disability. As an Axis-I example most normal parents are not capable of dealing with an autistic child. From current Axis-II category the most descriptive part of Borderlines is the amplification of negative emotions with such multipliers that the disorder becomes unfathomable to the person not having to be in contact with the said pathology. The Borderlines inability to cognitively control duration and intensity of their emotions. The word Neglect should be replaced by Inventory for the sake of accuracy. The Borderline similarity to schizoaffective in the sense of the sufferers eventual resignation and falling info indifference in the efforts to discriminate accurately between internal and external causation. Self report is definitely subject to borderline cognitive distortions more than any other disorder. Borderline Emotional facts are subjective not objective. In Borderline the nature of the disability the and intra psychic pain is mostly internally sourced as opposed to being contributed by external events or actors (=parenting). The word Neglect is the direct abbreviation of “child abuse by neglect which” is a criminal offens with severely punitive consequences for parents. It would be wrong to by default blanket criminalize 2% of the parents who did not Cause BPD, who can not Cure BPD, who Can not control BPD. Would be a 0.98 probability of being right and 0.02 probability of gross injustice based on CEN by pure choice of the name of the diagnostic tool. The 2 of 100 random arrest of innocent is unacceptably high rate of false positive. Administrative Violence would be indiscriminately directed against parents who have no actual parental dysfunction to display because of the the name of the diagnostic tool. A significant defect in parenting and need for criminal justice intervention must be invoked by mandatory reporters already due to the specific name coinciding with legal text. A mother who gave birth to a child with a disability that leads to Borderline PD is not a criminal because she did not wish such an unfortunate predisposition in her child. The disability manifestaions were not due to her actions or non-action but instead shaped by internal organ arrangements lacking the neuroplasticity needed for recovery or reasonable rehabilitation.

    • AE EM, I totally disagree with whatever you wrote above, but I highly doubt you will see this because your post is from 2015. I am a marriage and family therapist and have my PHd as well. It looks to me as you picked some part of a text book that would make you look semi intelligent and insult others was your intent.
      Borderline Personality Disorder has the highest causation with reactive and disinhibidtive attachment disorder. Meaning, the parents were not around to fill their emotional needs. Everyone has some degree of attachment disorder, even those deemed the perfect parent
      Please don’t write things like this to discourage other people on here trying to get help.

  6. Hi Janice,

    I read this with some interest as my daughter has BPD.
    It always fascinates me when the blame seems to hit squarely with the parents because my daughter’s upbringing was neither traumatic nor abusive, unless you count the fact that her father was not in the picture – at his own choice. My parents were very closed, ‘old-school’ don’t discuss anything beyond the weather types, and I deliberately made sure I was not like that. We had a very open relationship in which she could confide in me anything. The most ‘neglect’ you could say that happened is that I worked full time.
    My daughter was a happy, fun-loving and chatty child until she started high-school and got in with the wrong crowd and subsequently got into drugs. She even used to bring her friends home for me to help if she felt they were in trouble and needed some guidance.
    Now if you ask her she would probably tick off most of the items on your list. She is now 30, has a marijuana habit and has never been able to get the appropriate treatment because she’s apparently just too difficult a case.
    I may be wrong, but I believe that harking back to the parents faults, or assuming there was abuse is too simplistic a reason in some cases.
    Just my two cents. 🙂
    Donna

    • My story is very similar to your Donna. I too have a BPD daughter.

      She did have trauma in her life. Her father died when she was 6 and she had health issues that she had to contend with as a child for sure. But all were met with caring and love by me and the people in our circle.

      I believe the genetics play a big role in this. I have an older brother who’s behavior is identical to my daughters. That was what encouraged me to understand and look for reasons that were more than the “blame mom or dad”

      While the environment may lend itself to these behavior patterns whether intentionally or unintentionally, the predisposition has to be there. And a lot of these personality disorders seem to be triggered with “change”. Your child
      Might be stoic through the period of that change but then you don’t really understand until later on. LIke your daughter, my daughters symptoms started to really show themselves in high school.

      She is now 24 has a bad marijuana habit and has not completed a thing. We wait for her to be ready to receive help and we will do the best we can but until then we pray.

  7. I have recently come to realize that I grew up in a CEN environment. It was not abuse. I actually thought I grew up in a loving, caring single parent family. As the eldest I was relied upon to assist with the little sisters and many other household responsibilities. Mom worked hard to take care of us so I willingly stepped into my “giving of myself” role in family. My Mother definitely had her moods, liked to do out on weekend evenings but did spend time with us and I know did the best she could with what she had, at the time. I didn’t know that the years I spent never focusing on my needs (or when expressed denied) and myself would be so detrimental to me as an adult. I was always so proud that I could be such a help to my Mom and thought I was doing the right thing and of course encouraged by my Mom. But as an adult, always feeling a bit different than most people, and having been taken advantage of (I’m guilable for sure-cuz I just want to be good and help) by many in my life. I think I stand up for myself but I guess I pretty much realize that my life is a disaster. I’ve been married for 20 years to a successful, covert narcissistic partner (undiagnosed at the lower end of the spectrumn). The nicest emotional abuser you would ever want to meet, as long as your not in his immediate family. I knew early on that his treatment of myself and our two sons was wrong. He never has been physically abusive always cloaked as a helping type of way (fix my wrong way of thinking). No one was ever allowed to have an opinion if it didn’t mesh with his. And never this way where anyone would see this. No the outside world thinks he is SO wonderful. In many ways he is. We have a good middle class life material wise. Vacations, cars, clothes normal stuff. But he would always make sure we knew how much he had to sacrifice for us (even if we’re not worthy). I knew this was wrong. This is not what I wanted my children to grow up in. I tried to stand up to him, make him see my side. But he could/would not. Nope I was crazy, messed up cannot do anything right. I could see that this was his legacy from his FOO. His parents were still married, retired, traveled, have money- basically perfect in my husbands eyes. He cannot see the dysfunction, will not hear of any such thing. I knew back then that I had to protect my kids so I made attempt to leave him. Did it the right way, over months. Bought supplies we would need to live on own, even gas and grocery store cards because I didn’t know when or if he would give us support. Slowly moved our stuff to storage, then on the day had a team of friends come help final move. I fairly left him plenty of household stuff and we moved to my sisters. From what I read I expected him to stalk me and possibly physically hurt or kill me. But instead he love bombed me and I hadn’t read about that. I figured his display was real that he was willing to change and we did go to counseling many times without great success. After 4 months I put the divorce on hold and moved back. The next 15 years were the best and worst of my life. I slowly driven crazy by the slow subtle underhanded emotional abuse. The life was slowly sucked from me until there really wasn’t a good reason to get out of bed other than sons. To the point that I only did what I absolutely had to, had no interest in anything. I always knew that my sons would end up paying the price for my inability to remove them from that environment. I finally decided that I would make my marriage better or leave (about 4 years ago). And it was improving despite feeling like spouse was beginning to show mid-life crisis signs, only to discover an affair (fairly long and god knows what else has gone on behind my back all those years). Still together (I know -why??) Anyway to now see how both my sons struggle in their relationships and personalities I can really hate myself some days. I knew that this would occur and (despite knowing this) and trying to get my partner to understand that his way of raising kids and the effects it would have on our sons, he can’t see it because he thinks his FOO is wonderful. (They are in may ways but if you really know them you will see the dysfunction he grew up with as well.) As I personally struggle to find myself and become the person I know I can be (and was more of long ago). I also attempt to educate myself and anyone who will listen about the effects of this type of covert, behind closed doors of abuse, that is handed from generation to generation. I also hope to be able to guide my sons towards healthier behavior (that was modeled for them growing up by MYSELF and husband) in their relationships and life. I don’t want to have to apologize to their wives when they’ve been emotionally abused or their children (both have neither yet) because I couyldn’t stop this legacy even when I knew what would happen. Sometimes I hate myself for this. But I understand I did the best I could at the time, I hope they understand that when they figure out their problems stem from growing up in our dysfunctional, sometimes hostile but still grounded with love. I have no doubt that both my husband and I love our sons very much even if their childhood held unintentional emotional abuse. The reason I have written such a long comment is in hope of anyone in the early stages of my situation to hopefully learn from my mistakes. Is there a guarantee that had we divorced early on that the dysfunction would have not had such a profound effect on them? There is no way of knowing the answer to that. It could of been better, worse or similar. But there are days I certainly wish I could of done this but that is hindsight and all I can do is hope to help one parent prevent this from happening to their children. I am on board on education is the best prevention. If you have thoughts please share. Even if you disagree I appreciate respectful comments always. Thank-you for your mission to help spread the message that abuse doesn’t always look like abuse. Neglect,denial or invalidation of ones individuality,thoughts and feelings is abusive too!! And that it can hurt, destroy and permanently alter ones personality.

    • Thank you for sharing. I left, divorced my less kind- verbally abusive husband. My daughter grew up in two homes. I feel so guilty for the damage that it has done to her ( to live even part time with abuse) she is now 23, fractured yet outwardly successful. Her father has not changed, continues the damage. What can be done? Why is it so difficult to get help????

  8. I’m 33 and just realizing the emotional abandonment on the part of my mother. I never would have thought about it, except I was sexuallly abused by my stepfather and told my mother and she didn’t acknowledge it. I only recently started to heal from the sexual abuse, after years of ignoring it with drugs and alcohol and promiscuity. When I realized my mother had hurt me, too, I became increasingly aware of the emotional abandonment throughout my childhood. “Go away!” “Hush!” “Stop whining you’re embarrassing me!” “Just leave me alone!” I can’t remember large chunks of my childhood – I’ve blocked it out almost entirely. This is very real. Thank you for advocating awareness.

    • Sounds almost identical to a good friend of mine , also a jo D . Wishing you get all the support u will need. Surround yourself with positive people that lift ur spirits . Avoid negetive folk that will deflate you. You are not to blame for any of these wrong doings. Maybe Talk about it with a trusted friend . Your past Will creep up on you one day. Face it . Open up. Are you still in contact with your mother ?

  9. As a young adult I realized that the losses in my childhood was causing me emotional, relational and legal problems. However, It was not socially acceptable to say my mother abused me. I was not to blame her and needed take responsibility for my action in order to get better according to society. While at the same time society had no problem blaming me. I became even more confused on this point of blame. I knew the only logical reason why I did what I did must have started in my childhood. I was then as now only identifying the root of my problems, not establishing blame. It did not seem possible that I was “born” that way,therefore something must have happened in my childhood to cause me to think and then act the way I did.
    It has taken me a lifetime to be able to “come out” as a victim of child abuse. And be able to accept what happened without blaming myself or my parents. They had little control over there childhood and it could effect their thoughts and actions in ways I will never know.

    I’ve learned to be gentle with my self. To remind myself it was not my fault, I had no control, and I’m doing the best I can, I can do no more. I am sure as I continue without blaming myself or others, only identifying unwanted thoughts and behaviors and identifying the root cause I will gradually let go more and more. I may have to work on this the rest of my life, but that’s better thank the hell I lived inside my mind trying to be responsible not knowing why I felt so.

    Thank you for your artical, I need this type of work to remind me, I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell.

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