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Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect


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This informative guide helps you identify and heal from childhood emotional neglect so you can be more connected and emotionally present in your life.

Do you sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions in life? Do you often act like you’re fine when you secretly feel lonely and disconnected? Perhaps you have a good life and yet somehow it’s not enough to make you happy. Or perhaps you drink too much, eat too much, or risk too much in an attempt to feel something good. If so, you are not alone—and you may be suffering from emotional neglect.

A practicing psychologist for more than twenty years, Jonice Webb has successfully treated numerous patients who come to her believing that something is missing inside them. While many self-help books deal with what happened to you as a child, in Running on Empty, Webb addresses the things that may not have happened for you. What goes unsaid—or what cannot be remembered—can have profound consequences that may be affecting you to this day.

Running on Empty will help you understand your experiences and give you clear strategies for healing. It also includes a special chapter for mental health professionals.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781614482420
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 16,044
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and has been licensed to practice since 1991. She has a strong background in research, psychological testing and psychotherapy.  Webb has been the Director of three large outpatient clinics over the course of her career. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and adolescents. Webb currently resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt



"... I am trying to draw attention to the immense contribution to the individual and to society which the ordinary good mother with her husband in support makes at the beginning, and which she does simply through being devoted to her infant."

D.W. Winnicott, (1964) The Child, the Family, and the Outside World

It doesn't take a parenting guru, a saint, or, thank goodness, a Ph.D. in psychology to raise a child to be a healthy, happy adult. The child psychiatrist, researcher, writer and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott emphasized this point often throughout writings that spanned 40 years. While today we recognize that fathers are of equal importance in the development of a child, the meaning of Winnicott's observations on mothering is still essentially the same: There is a minimal amount of parental emotional connection, empathy and ongoing attention which is necessary to fuel a child's growth and development so that he or she will grow into an emotionally healthy and emotionally connected adult. Less than that minimal amount and the child becomes an adult who struggles emotionally–outwardly successful, perhaps, but empty, missing something within, which the world can't see.

In his writings, Winnicott coined the now well-known term, "Good Enough Mother" to describe a mother who meets her child's needs in this way. Parenting that is "good enough" takes many forms, but all of these recognize the child's emotional or physical need in any given moment, in any given culture, and do a "good enough" job of meeting it. Most parents are good enough. Like all animals, we humans are biologically wired to raise our children to thrive. But what happens when life circumstances interfere with parenting? Or when parents themselves are unhealthy, or have significant character flaws?

Were you raised by "good enough" parents? By the end of this chapter, you will know what "good enough" means, and you will be able to answer this question for yourself.

But first ...

If you are a parent as well as a reader, you may find yourself identifying with the parental failures presented in this book, as well as with the emotional experience of the child in the vignettes (because you are, no doubt, hard on yourself.) Therefore, I ask that you pay close attention to the following warnings:


All good parents are guilty of emotionally failing their children at times. Nobody is perfect. We all get tired, cranky, stressed, distracted, bored, confused, disconnected, overwhelmed or otherwise compromised here and there. This does not qualify us as emotionally neglectful parents. Emotionally neglectful parents distinguish themselves in one of two ways, and often both: either they emotionally fail their child in some critical way in a moment of crisis, causing the child a wound which may never be repaired (acute empathic failure) OR they are chronically tone-deaf to some aspect of a child's need throughout his or her childhood development (chronic empathic failure). Every single parent on earth can recall a parenting failure that makes him cringe, where he knows that he has failed his child. But the harm comes from the totality of important moments in which emotionally neglectful parents are deaf and blind to the emotional needs of their growing child.


If you were indeed emotionally neglected, and are a parent yourself as well, there is a good chance that as you read this book you will start to see some ways in which you have passed the torch of Emotional Neglect to your child. If so, it's extremely vital for you to realize that it is not your fault. Because it's invisible, insidious, and easily passes from generation to generation, it's extremely unlikely and difficult to stop unless you become explicitly aware of it. Since you're reading this book, you are light-years ahead of your parents. You have the opportunity to change the pattern, and you are taking it. The effects of Emotional Neglect can be reversed. And you're about to learn how to reverse those parental patterns for yourself, and for your children. Keep reading. No self-blame allowed.

The Ordinary Healthy Parent in Action

The importance of emotion in healthy parenting is best understood through attachment theory. Attachment theory describes how our emotional needs for safety and connection are met by our parents from infancy. Many ways of looking at human behavior have grown out of attachment theory, but most owe their thinking to the original attachment theorist, psychiatrist John Bowlby. His understanding of parent-child bonding comes from thousands of hours of observation of parents and children, beginning with mothers and infants. It suggests, quite simply, that when a parent effectively recognizes and meets her child's emotional needs in infancy, a "secure attachment" is formed and maintained. This first attachment forms the basis of a positive self-image and a sense of general well-being throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Looking at emotional health through the lens of attachment theory, we can identify three essential emotional skills in parents:

1) The parent feels an emotional connection to the child.

2) The parent pays attention to the child and sees him as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of him or herself, a possession or a burden.

3) Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child's emotional need.

Although these skills sound simple, in combination they are a powerful tool for helping a child learn about and manage his or her own nature, for creating a secure emotional bond that carries the child into adulthood, so that he may face the world with the emotional health to achieve a happy adulthood. In short, when parents are mindful of their children's unique emotional nature, they raise emotionally strong adults. Some parents are able to do this intuitively, but others can learn the skills. Either way, the child will not be neglected.


Zeke is a precocious and hyperactive third-grader, the youngest of 3 children in a laid-back and loving family. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for "talking back." On one such day, he brings a note home from the teacher describing his infraction by stating "Zeke was disrespectful today." His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Rollo told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might "stab himself in the face." He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Rollo by telling her that he would have to bend "alllll the way over the pencil like this" (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn't "that stupid." In response, Mrs. Rollo confiscated his pencil, wrote his name on the board, and sent him home with a note.

Before describing how Zeke's mother actually responded, let's figure out what Zeke needs to get from the coming parent-child interaction: he is upset by the incident with his teacher, whom he generally likes, so he needs empathy; on the other hand, he also needs to learn what is expected of him by his teachers in order to succeed at school. Finally, it would help if his mother has noticed (emotional attentiveness) that lately he is very sensitive to "being treated like a baby" because his older brother and sister leave him out a lot due to his age. Zeke's mother needs those three skills: feeling a connection, paying attention, and responding competently, in order to help Zeke with his problem.

Here is how the conversation went between mother and son:

Mother: "Mrs. Rollo didn't understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn't matter. It's your job to stop."

Zeke: "I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn't listen!"

Mother: "Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don't let you talk. Mrs. Rollo doesn't know that you're dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately."

Zeke relaxes a little in response to his mother's understanding: "Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil."

Mother: "It must've been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Rollo's class is very big and she doesn't have time to talk things over like we are right now. It's so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zeke?"

Zeke: "Yeah, Mom."

Mother: "Good! If you do what Mrs. Rollo asks, you'll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it's unfair. That's fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher's requests."

This mother's intuitive responses in the above conversation provide us with a complex example of the healthy, emotionally attuned parenting that leads to the sane, happy adult whom Winnicott describes. What exactly did she do?

• First, she connected with her son emotionally by asking him to tell her what happened before she reacted. No shaming.

• Then she listened carefully to him. When she first spoke, she provided him with a simple rule that an eight-year-old can understand: "When a teacher asks you to do something, you do it right away." Here Zeke's mother is instinctively attuned to his stage of cognitive development, providing him with a general rule to use at school.

• She immediately follows the rule with empathy and naming his feeling ("Mrs. Rollo didn't understand that you were embarrassed ...") Hearing his mom name the feeling, Zeke is able to express more of his emotion to his mother ("I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn't listen!").

• Again, his mother responds to Zeke by naming or labeling the emotion that drove Zeke's rude behavior towards his teacher, the behavior of contradicting her that was viewed as disrespectful ("Yes. I know how frustrated you get when people don't let you talk ...").

• Zeke, feeling understood, responds by repeating this emotion word for himself, "Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil."

• But the mother isn't finished yet. She has, in this conversation, demonstrated to Zeke that she understands him and feels for him by demonstrating that she sees his behavior differently than his teacher does. However, she can't stop there, because his tendency to debate (the likely result of having two highly verbal older siblings) will continue to be a problem for Zeke at school unless he can correct it. So his mom says "It's so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away."

• Finally, she holds her son accountable for his behavior, setting the stage for future check-ins on his feisty nature by asking him, "Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zeke?"

In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Zeke's mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Zeke to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it. And, in the event that Zeke repeats this behavior at school, she will adjust her message and her actions to adapt to the difficulty he is having in the classroom.

Remember Zeke, because I will be using him several more times to help describe the differences between healthy and emotionally neglectful parenting.

Here's another example:


Frequently, harmful Emotional Neglect is so subtle in the life of a child that, although it may be in play each and every day, it's barely observable, often masking as a form of consideration or even indulgence.

Kathleen is a successful, recently married young woman who makes a great salary as an executive assistant in a small high-tech, start-up company. She persuaded her new husband to buy a home with her in the town in which her parents live. Yet she did so knowing that, as she revealed in therapy, her mother often drove her crazy. She was puzzled by her own decision-making. She recognized that her mother had always demanded a lot of her attention, and was aware that she felt guilty about her mother, no matter how much attention she gave her. At the time she came to therapy, at the height of her success and happiness: new home, new husband, great job, Kathleen felt inexplicably depressed. She was both ashamed of and baffled by this feeling, since there was "no reason for it." What follows is a good example of how Emotional Neglect hides, not in what did happen, but in what didn't happen.

Flash back twenty-five years and five-year-old Kathleen is sitting on the beach, happily making sandcastles with her father. The only child of a successful young couple, living in a pristine restored New England home, people often tell her how lucky she is. Dad is an engineer, and Mom has gone back to school and become an elementary school teacher. Travel to exotic places and being taught meticulous manners are part of Kathleen's life. Kathleen's mom, an excellent seamstress, makes her clothes. Often they wear mother/daughter matching outfits. They spend tons of time together. But right now, on vacation, she has left the matching beach chair at her mother's side. Why? Because her dad has just invited her to play. She has the rare and pleasurable opportunity to be doing something special with her dad. They are digging a hole, collecting the sand to form the first floor of their sand castles.

Mom looks up from her book after a while, and, from the perch of her beach chair, says sternly, "That's enough sandplay with Dad, Kathleen. Your Dad doesn't want to have to play with you all day on his day off! Come over here and I'll read to you." Both Dad and daughter look up from their hole, plastic shovels poised. There is a brief pause. Then her father stands up and brushes the sand off his knees as if he, too, must obey. Kathleen feels sad as the play stops, but she also feels selfish. Mom takes good care of both of them, and Kathleen shouldn't wear her dad out. She goes obediently over to her smaller, matching beach chair, and sits in it. Her mother begins to read to her. After a while, Kathleen's disappointment passes as she listens to the story.

In our therapy, Kathleen relayed this memory in the course of explaining how distant a relationship she had always had with her father. But when she got to the part where her father stood up and brushed the sand from his knees, her eyes welled up with tears. "I don't know why that image makes me so sad," she said. I asked her to focus on her sadness and think about what else her mother or father might have done differently that day. At that moment, Kathleen began to see that she had been failed frequently by both parents. It wasn't hard to figure out what she would have wanted to be different that day. She just wished that she could have continued digging that hole with her father.

If her mother had been emotionally-attuned to Kathleen:

Mom looks up from her book as they play, and from the perch of her beach chair says with a smile, "Wow, you guys are certainly digging a big hole! Want me to show you how to make a sandcastle?"


If her father had been emotionally-attuned:

Mom looks up from her book as they play, and, from the perch of her beach chair says sternly, "That's enough sandplay with Dad, Kathleen. Your dad doesn't want to have to play with you all day on his day off! Come over here and I'll read to you." Both Dad and daughter look up. There is a brief pause. Dad smiles broadly, first at his wife and then at Kathleen. "Are you kidding? There is no place else I'd rather be than playing with my girl on the beach! Want to help us dig, Margaret?"

What's important to notice about both of these "corrections" is that they are well within the range of ordinary, natural parenting skills. Conversations like these go on all the time. But if there is an absence of such validation of a child's importance to the parent, if a child is made to feel shame for wanting or needing attention from one parent or the other often enough, she will grow up being blind to many of her own emotional needs. Happily, the adult Kathleen came to recognize that there was a good reason for her anger at her mother. She saw that hiding behind the scenes in their mother/daughter relationship all these years had been her mother's lack of emotional attunement to her. Once Kathleen recognized that her anger was legitimate, she felt less guilty for having it. She realized that it was okay to stop catering to her mother and do what was right for her and her husband. Also, a door was opened for Kathleen to understand her mother's limitations, and to try to repair their relationship.


Excerpted from "Running on Empty"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Jonice Webb, PhD..
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

Part I: Running on Empty
Chapter 1: Why Wasn’t the Tank Filled?
The Ordinary Healthy Parent in Action
Chapter 2: Twelve Ways to End Up Empty
Type 1: The Narcissistic Parent
Type 2: The Authoritarian Parent
Type 3: The Permissive Parent
Type 4: The Bereaved Parent: Divorced or Widowed
Type 5: The Addicted Parent
Type 6: The Depressed Parent
Type 7: The Workaholic Parent
Type 8: The Parent with a Special Needs Family Member
Type 9: The Achievement/Perfection Focused Parent
Type 10:The Sociopathic Parent
Type 11:Child as Parent
Type 12:The Well-Meaning-but-Neglected-Themselves Parent

Part II: Out of Fuel
Chapter 3: The Neglected Child, All Grown Up
1. Feelings of Emptiness
2. Counter-Dependence
3. Unrealistic Self-Appraisal
4. No Compassion for Self, Plenty for Others
5. Guilt and Shame: What is Wrong With Me?
6. Self-Directed Anger, Self-Blame
7. The Fatal Flaw (If People Really Know Me They Won’t Like Me)
8. Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others
9. Poor Self-Discipline
10. Alexithymia
Chapter 4: Cognitive Secrets: The Special Problem of Suicidal Feelings

Part III: Filling the Tank
Chapter 5: How Change Happens
Factors That Get in the Way of Successful Change
Chapter 6: Why Feelings Matter and What to Do with Them
1. Understanding the Purpose and Value of Your Emotions
2. Identifying and Naming Your Feelings
3. Learning to Self-Monitor Your Feelings
4. Accepting and Trusting Your Own Feelings
5. Learning to Express Your Feelings Effectively
6. Recognizing, Understanding and Valuing Emotions in Relationships
Chapter 7: Self-Care
Self-Care Part 1. Learning to Nurture Yourself
Self-Care Part 2. Improving Self-Discipline
Self-Care Part 3. Self-Soothing
Self-Care Part 4. Having Compassion for Yourself
Chapter 8: Ending the Cycle: Giving Your Child What You Never Got
1. Your Parental Guilt
2. The Changes You Have Made So Far
3. Identify Your Own Specific Parenting Challenges
Chapter 9: For the Therapist
Identification of Emotional Neglect
Summary for the Therapist

Resources for Recovery


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