They were yelling very loud and either I really could not make out exactly what they were yelling about, or I just cannot remember.
I was a tenacious little girl though and I remember deciding, after mustering up some courage, that I was going to go out there to put a stop to this.
I left my room and looked down the hallway toward their room where the yelling was coming from. I saw my father leaving their room and walking away from me toward the living room. He didn't see me. He had no clothes on which made me self-conscious, so I ran back to my room.
Once back in my bed, I started to cry and to holler, “Stop it!"
Shortly after, my father came into my room, dressed, and sat on my bed with me. He pet my head and told me everything was alright. He said he was sorry but he was angry with my mother because she took a bunch of pills. He said everything is okay now and I should go back to sleep.
I didn't understand but I felt consoled and I went to sleep.
The next morning, my father was gone to work when I woke up to strange noises in the bathroom. It was my mother, sitting on the floor and huddled over the toilet while crying. She was or had been vomiting.
I didn't understand what she was telling me but I knew it was bad. I still hold a snapshot of the scene in my mind and it still brings the same surge of feelings to my chest. I'm not sure I really understood yet what death was then. I certainly didn't know what it was to make yourself die or how pills would do that.
I was five or six years old and so, in my view, began the journey of an invisible child.
My parents separated when I was seven, and later divorced. My mother and I moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cantley, Quebec to live with my grandparents. When we arrived, my uncle and my cousin, who was then three, were already living with them.
I didn't have a relationship with my father again until I was 18. Both “sides” offered me reasons for why that is and the reasons both make sense to me and don't make sense to me. But now as a 50-year-old woman I'm not sure that it matters anymore because it's now just part of a journey that brought me back to my father as an adult, and he is now my biggest and closest support.
However, what's clear to me as an adult is that my childhood was filled with me chasing after the affections of my mother who just wasn't emotionally available for me. And last night in group session at Serenity Renewal for Families the term “invisible child” came up and it resonated with me.
Each of us in the group had the chance to take a turn at telling our own stories and mine began by saying, “For most of my life you would never have convinced me that there was anything dysfunctional or wounded about how I grew up. But then I had a breakdown a few years ago and I'm still having trouble recovering from it. It has forced me to take off the rose-coloured glasses.”
The idea of the invisible child is someone who was emotionally neglected by either one or both parents. While the experts are increasingly calling this Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), they also agree that it's not on the same page as abuse because it's more about failing to respond to or even notice a child's emotional needs.
It doesn't involve mistreatment, abusive acts or malice, it's more a matter of what a loving parent fails to do for a child – that the parent fails to respond enough to the child - and it’s not a matter of something a parent does to a child.
“A child whose feelings are too often unnoticed, ignored, or misinterpreted by her parents receives a powerful, even if unintended, message from them: “Your feelings don’t matter," “Your feelings are wrong," or even “Your feelings are unacceptable," writes Dr Jonice Webb PhD, clinical psychologist and author of the self-help book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Many who have experienced CEN may not be aware of how it connects to adult feelings of inadequacy. In fact, “people look back upon a “fine childhood” with loving parents, and see no explanation for why they feel this way. This is why they so often blame themselves for their difficulties, and feel a deep sense of being somehow secretly flawed,” writes Dr. Webb for PsychologyToday.com.
According to Dr. Webb, the principle is that if a child's emotions are not validated or there’s a denial of emotional self, it results in adults who may find themselves feeling disconnected, unfulfilled or empty. They may have difficulty trusting or relying on others and feel different from others, like something is wrong with them but they aren't sure what it is.
“Even parents with the best intentions, experience moments of stress in which they are misattuned to their children. These misattunements and moments of trauma cause children to form self-protective defenses to comfort themselves or “get by.” The defenses formed out of childhood events stay with us into adulthood," writes Dr. Lisa Firestone PhD, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association.. "Often, they continue to serve the purpose of cutting us off from unpleasant emotions or harboring us from perceived risks. However, while our defenses may seem like a beneficial layer of protection, they usually do more harm than good.”
In her PsychAlive.org article, How Childhood Defenses Hurt Us As Adults, Dr. Firestone gives some simple illustrations of the point such us how “a father who broke promises may have taught us to be less trusting of those close to us. A mother who ignored us may have left us feeling self-reliant and guarded against wanting anything from someone else.”
Dr. Webb has noticed in her practice begun in 1991, that many adult children of CEN have similar life questions/beliefs including:
“Something’s not right with me, but I don’t know what it is.”
“I had a fine childhood. I should be feeling and doing better than I am.”
“I should be happier. What is wrong with me?”
So then the question comes up about whether or not we could just blame our parents for everything wrong in our lives. For many of us, the idea is agonizing because it almost takes our power away when we come to understand the full impact our parents had on us. If we reach a place of deciding that our parents had a huge impact on our shortcomings, it can leave us feeling alone, disempowered, or even victimized and that can be very uncomfortable, says Dr Webb. For most of us, it seems easier to just blame ourselves for our own shortcomings. Especially when somewhere in all of this, it forces us to also recognize that we have the same influence on our children as our parents had on us.
For others, blaming our parents is a bit of a liberating position for a time. It may lessen the burden of blaming ourselves for our adult struggles and mistakes but does it actually take us off of the hook? Dr. Webb questions: Shouldn't blaming our parents just open us up to more guilt for how we parent our own children?
Dr. Webb advocates on her website that, “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.”
In her article, Shall We Blame Our Parents, Dr. Webb concludes that understanding how your childhood affected you brings you to 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.”
She suggests there is freedom in understanding your childhood because it helps you reach a place where you “get it” about why you do some of things you do, or feel the way you feel. This understanding allows you to challenge yourself to change what's not working in your life and to take responsibility for your adult life.
As for me, I recognized long ago that at 19 and 20 years old, my parents were babies having an unplanned baby. Fifty years ago there were not nearly the supports in place or even the basic information available of child birth and parenting available to them that there is today for the full spectrum range of challenges they had. And there were many reasons why they were challenged. (As one example, my mother now believes postpartum depression was at issue for her which may have had little recognition then for either my mother or my father to see as something real to be concerned with. That realization alone many have changed the future for all of us.) Many might also resonate with the idea that my parents couldn't simply 'Google' everything - certainly not like I've been able to do today upon reflection of the challenges they had. That alone makes for a huge generational gap.
Neither of my parents, in my view, is to blame for the hardships I might have today and the exercise now is purely to understand how I've arrived at where I'm at, (feeling isolated and depressed), and to begin to discover how to make a better life for myself, as I have no doubt is both of my parents' wish for me.