-Jonice Webb, PhD
My mother has complained about my behavior as a child for YEARS. When I was little, she says I “always wanted to be held,” and was “so dramatic” as a teen, acting out to get attention. I was nearly held back in Kindergarten for lack of social skills; I hadn’t been around children my age regularly until then. In occasional situations with peers, she reports that I clung to the wall.
She was faithful to pass along my father’s criticisms, because he rarely spoke. He had no friends and didn’t participate in social activities. He was hospitalized this January, and my mother didn’t even tell me! He passed away 3 weeks after I found out he was sick. I have no tears; I barely knew him. He hasn’t been gone 6 months and the house I grew up in is already on the market.
Perhaps they assumed that if their kids were fed, clothed, sheltered, and in school, their work was done. My mother said once that it never occurred to her that she should be teaching her children to take care of themselves. We were her job.
I’ve struggled for over 50 years to find my strengths, and am scared and frustrated to be without a career (or job) at an age when most people are preparing for retirement.
Reading your mother’s description of you as a child breaks my heart. She thought you were excessively needy. I can, without even knowing you, say with 100% certainty, that you were not needy or poorly behaved.
You were emotionally starving.
In reality, there is no such thing as a needy child. All children are emotionally needy by definition. It is the parents’ responsibility to try their best to understand what their child needs and to try their best to provide it. Whether it be structure, limits, freedom of expression, emotional validation or social skills, it’s all part of the job.
Growing up emotionally ignored results in growing up with a tendency to ignore yourself. When you ignore yourself, you don’t have a chance to truly know yourself. What career should you be in? What kind of job would you excel at and enjoy? Not knowing yourself makes you feel lost, alone and at sea. The answers are there inside of you, but you were not taught how to find them.
Many parents (yours included) don’t realize that their job is not simply to provide for their children and raise them; they’re also supposed to respond to their children’s emotions. Wanting to be held is a healthy and normal requirement that all children have. “Drama” is nothing other than a judgmental word for emotions. Teenagers act out when they’re either over-controlled or under-attended to by their parents.
How can you know yourself when your parents never knew you? How can you feel that you’re lovable when you didn’t feel love from those who brought you into this world and are supposed to love you first and best?
Fortunately, dear Anon, you can still get where you want to be! Accept that you are worth knowing, and start giving yourself the attention you didn’t get as a child. Notice what you like, love, hate, enjoy, prefer, and need. Start noticing what you feel, and start using those feelings to guide and connect you.
If you haven’t yet read Running on Empty, please do so as soon as you can. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider finding one. The social and emotional skills you missed can be learned. You are a classic example of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you can heal.