Updated: Oct 15
The Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of Abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect Trauma
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example:
experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
witnessing violence in the home or community
having a family member attempt or die by suicide
ACEs are common. About 64% of U.S. adults reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 (17.3%) reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.
According to the CDC, ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, wellbeing in childhood and life opportunities, such as education and job potential, well into adulthood. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems (including teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death), involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.
ACEs and associated social determinants of health, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning.
Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.
What many folks don't understand is that childhood trauma can look like self-blame, self-directed anger, and low self-compassion. People like me who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) of abandonment and childhood emotional neglect are some of the strongest adults I have ever met in my years of working in the counseling profession. I've seen in my own life as well as my clients how childhood traumatic experience can give us many strengths to help us get through life.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but the strengths developed from growing up emotionally ignored are what help us survive difficult people, situations, and hardships of life. The problem is that we were not taught how to properly process and regulate our emotions, instead, we avoid, hide, and bury our pain deep inside of us which makes us prone to food, chemical, and relationship addiction. In addition, we have trust issues therefore we never ask for help. Most times we find ourselves losing our sense of self in relationships because it feels more comfortable giving than receiving. In my own journey, I've lost myself because I tend to create one-sided relationships with people I thought I could fix, help, rescue, heal, and or be useful to, hoping that in doing so, they'll never leave me. Eventually, I became aware of this faculty thinking pattern and dealt with this issue as it was a trigger of my abandonment wound and childhood trauma due to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Not asking for help and embracing support is just one problem or habit those of us who struggle with CEN experience in childhood and brought into our adult lives. But after getting married, I've found that I had another habit of believing that the mood of others and my happiness were dependent on others to make me feel happy. For example, if my husband's mood was off due to a bad day at work or a disagreement he was experiencing with someone, my happiness, and mood were dependent upon what he said, how he felt, and how he behaved. Soon I was awakened to the fact that I experienced this with others I had relationships with not just my husband. (I am embarrassed to admit this weakness but it is. true and part of the reason why I was in so much pain and experiencing one-sided relationships with people who did not appreciate and value me) I felt like my entire existence meaning my happiness or mood was dependent upon what others said, how they felt, or behaved, this includes my mother, family members, kids, clients, and friendships. Later, I learned this was because no one taught me how to process or regulate my emotions, and the over-accommodating, self-neglecting behavior was a result of my codependency people-pleasing traits as well as my sugar addiction, cravings, and emotional binge-eating disorder I developed in my young adult in my early twenties due to not being able to cope with the new stress I experience as an adult.
Learning I was a Highly Sensitive Person and a People-Pleaser
People pleasing is a coping skill that individuals develop very early in life, especially for those of us who are highly sensitive. One learns that the way they can be safe is by meeting other people’s needs and keeping them happy. Your sense of safety and self-worth is attached to how people perceive you. You are willing to make space for people at your own expense. I learned the hard way that walking away from people-pleasing is a process. To survive as a young child you learned to disconnect from your needs and started focusing on the needs of people around you.
I learned in grad school while completing my doctoral degree in counseling that at the ages between 2-7 years, children go through the phase of cognitive development called egocentrism. Which means they are unable to look at a situation from another person’s point of view. For example, if their mom is upset then they will think that they must have done something wrong to make her upset. In my experience, my father left me at birth leaving me a fatherless child. At age five my mother left me to live with my great-grandmother to pursue her career in law enforcement. Although, I got to visit her each summer only to return home feeling unworthy of love and like I had done something wrong. Each summer was the same. I would visit my mother and then return home feeling bad and ask my great-grandmother why I couldn't live with her like I saw other kids at my school and my cousins living with both their moms and dads. My grandmother was a very good provider of my physical needs and took care of the needs of our community or anyone who needed food, a place, to stay, or even financial assistance, she was there to step in and would give the shirt off her back if needed.
However, the one skill she lacked was emotional intelligence. My great-grandmother lacked the emotional intelligence to handle and deal with my highly sensitive nature and would tell me my mama was working then she shooed me off to play. No explanation, no hugs, no affection, or no sitting down to talk about how I felt or why I kept asking the same question over and over again. Not really understanding back then, I now see that my great-grandmother is no different than any other grandparent or parent living during that time who was taught by each generation to sweep emotions under the rug. No one in my family was taught how to deal with pain or difficult situations. If my grandmother was not taught by her parents how could she possibly teach her own children? That meant my grandfather had no clue how to deal with the emotional aspect of life either, so how could he teach his five children including my mother, so the cycle continued with me and my cousins and kept repeating itself until someone awakened to this issue? As a child I was taught by example to deal with hurt, disappointment, and loss by wiping my tears away, keeping my head up, and keeping going. In my family negativity and pain were part of life, you didn't talk about it. You didn't talk about how you felt, you just expected life to be unfair and dealt with difficult circumstances like my mother was doing leaving her child to be raised by my grandmother just like she saw her parents do to her while she worked to give us a better quality of life. Or you deal with it like my aunts, uncles, and other family members did with alcohol, infidelity, or in my case food addiction. I was awakened in my 20s with a quarter-life crisis due to trauma and addiction to be the one to break the cycle. I chose the mission to be a cycle breaker of Sugar Addiction, Codependency People-Pleasing, and Emotional Binge Eating Disorders.
The reality is that the mother/caregiver has to clarify that she is not upset with the child and that they have not done anything wrong. This experience is repeated several times along with the absence of any clarification, which could lead to forming core beliefs like “I am bad’ or “I am in trouble”. These core beliefs could cause a fear of abandonment. In my case it did. My mother and father's choices of not being in my early life full time caused me to develop a deep sense of abandonment and my family having low emotional intelligence and not talking about problems we deal with in life or developing skills needed to cope with our pain as opposed to turning away from it, avoiding or denying it rather than looking at it closely and handling it is the cause of CEN childhood emotional neglect to develop within my life.
This becomes a wounded part and even after growing up the same feelings of guilt and fear show up even if you intellectually know that you have not done anything wrong.
The people-pleasing part shows up to protect this wounded part. People pleasing helps you feel in control. If you keep everyone happy and not disappoint anyone then you won’t risk abandonment in relationships. Now that I am aware of this I know what I need to do to overcome the effects of my adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) of abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma.
How to stop being a people pleaser?
A lot of my clients who are learning about the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have mentioned that they did not want to inconvenience their parents, they were easy kids who did not ask for much attention, and that was encouraged by their parents.
For a little child who is getting these messages from their environment, bringing attention to their needs might mean risking losing their parent's approval, which to them could mean rejection and abandonment.
As adults, they are still acting from this wounded part that thinks that being easy, accommodating, and nice will protect them from rejection, which can leave us locked within subconscious loops of self-sabotaging habitual thinking and behaviors, such as codependency. Therefore, they schedule sessions with me to learn how to stop being a people pleaser, emotional eater, and self- abandon. They learn to start connecting to their emotions and needs. Listen to the messages their body is trying to communicate to them through physical sensations. What they are learning in these sessions is when you don’t connect to yourself it’s hard for you to know what you really want. Disconnecting from yourself and neglecting your needs can make one feel anxious and experience depression. The inner work needed is simple. The task I have them take fits into their daily lifestyle with ease. It involves, taking a few minutes every day and moving your attention inwards performing a simple body scan a form of meditation to check in with yourself. Journaling is another way in which you can connect with yourself. Painting art and journaling about how you feel about a situation rather than what you think about it is helpful.
Why The Process Works With My Clients Who Are Struggling with Codependency People's Pleasing Behaviors
This process works because you might be experiencing overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame. For a people pleaser, the only way to not feel guilt and shame is by taking care of other people’s needs. If you focus on your needs you might feel like you are selfish or a bad person. Normally the feeling of guilt comes up if we do something wrong. However, in the case of a people pleaser because of developmental trauma at an early age they feel like not meeting someone else’s needs means that they are doing something wrong. The feeling of guilt will always show up. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort and don’t try to get rid of the feeling by doing something you might not want to do.
During my emotional healing journey, I noticed that I was being very hard on myself almost to per perfectionist level, I had no compassion for my failure, mistakes, or the fact that I was on the student level of the learning process of my healing journey. When I began working in the mental health and substance abuse field counseling I quickly learned that people pleasers are very critical of themselves. They are very unkind and harsh to themselves just like I used to be. You are nice to everyone else but yourself. You impose demanding rules and perfectionist expectations on yourself. There is no room for error. If you make a mistake you are taken over by guilt and shame and you are extremely hard on yourself. Instead of criticizing yourself for something that you perceive as a failure, offer understanding and kindness to yourself. But I wasn't aware of this until I started counseling others and saw myself as they mirror back to me my own experience and behaviors. With the tools I now had I could offer them something I never had. Hope and tools to make a shift in their lives. I taught my clients that self-compassion comes from noticing your own pain and suffering, acknowledging your emotions, and becoming aware of your needs. Respond to this awareness of your pain with kindness by saying something like, “I am having a hard day today.” “How can I take care of myself at this moment.” They needed to be comfortable with feeling and facing the reality of their pain, their life experience, and life in general. That became the core of my teaching in my Life in Recovery program and the flagship course The Four Levels of Healing where I teach my students the importance of Feel and Face™ to overcome unresolved pain from their past so it no longer defines who they can become.
Another tool I teach my people-pleasing students and another way of being kind to yourself is taking care of yourself. Making self-care a top priority. People pleasers don’t take care of themselves as they always have too much on their plate. Any available time is seen as extra time that they can use to take care of other people. It is not uncommon for a client to come to their next session and not complete any task on their past session wellness goals list. Their recovery plan takes a back seat if someone needs their support. They are just like I used to be. Schedule self-care tasks only to cancel them to accommodate someone else needs or life goals. I am no longer that people-pleasing woman who breaks promises to herself to please others who do not do the same for me. Taking the time to take care of yourself and prioritizing your needs is another step toward stopping being a people pleaser and overcoming trauma and addictions in your life. Block out time for yourself in your calendar. Make a list of 10 things you enjoy doing and every day do one thing from that list. The list could have something as simple as having a hot cup of coffee on your front porch or in your car right before work listening to your favorite inspirational podcast or audiobook. Self-care looks different for everyone. there is no right or wrong way to take care of yourself. The important thing is that you say yes and choose yourself before giving all your energy away to others making yourself sick.
My Introduction to Trauma-Informed Care and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
You see, feelings of childhood emotional neglect and self-abandonment aren't just something we're doing because we're bored or feel weak. Once you learn the simple truth of where it comes from and why you do it, it dissolves almost instantly and you almost forget how to self-abandon because your focus each day, once you are self-aware, is on your strengths and releasing abandoning self-defeating behaviors of codependency people pleasing, feelings of unworthiness, and not good enough, and any addiction you have developed to cope with pain by turning away from it, avoiding or denying it rather than looking at it closely and handling it. Overcoming trauma is possible. I've done it. My clients have done it. And you can do it too if you do the work. It works by first discovering your "triggers" and then letting the changes unfold naturally.
But I must warn you by no means is it easy. When I first started working in the mental health field as a master-level individual and family behavior health therapist I struggled to counsel people of color. I was working in private practice as a marriage and family counselor and life planning/career coach doing just fine. I soon found out that talking about couple relationship issues and individual issues are two separate beasts. People don't like to air out their personal skeletons in their closet, they have no problem however blaming their spouse for issues in their life or talking about their career and desires in life. I had no choice but to seek counsel from my supervisor who was mentoring me in supervision sessions the following week. I was like I don't understand what I'm doing wrong. I'm African American a person of color I can relate to my people's life problems and pain. Why in each session with new clients I have issues with the women talking and taking their sessions seriously? I thought it was because a family member convinced them to get counseling and they simply weren't ready. I noticed all the white women that were in my caseload were much easier to talk to and open up with no problem. You must remember it is 2016 and back when I first started counseling in 2008 talking about emotions, feelings, self-care, and emotional intelligence issues was not mainstream and frowned upon.
The Shift I Needed
What gave me clarity was when my supervisor sat me down (note my supervisor is a white woman) she told me Dr. White I want you to think about this the next time you are in a session with any woman of color. She said, to step in her shoes for just a moment and think about how she feels, her background, her cultural history, what she is going through, and most importantly what she has been through including her family members from generation after generation. That day she explained to me something not one book ever mentioned while I was in grad school that shook me to my core that I even had to discuss it with my own spiritual counselor that changed the way I practice counseling forever.
She said, that throughout history, black women weren't allowed to talk about what they were feeling or about anything. As an African American woman imagine how your ancestors must have felt during slavery but couldn't speak about their pain to anyone. As women in general we all struggled to be seen, heard, and understood as individuals. I am a white woman and still have to scream loud sometimes to be seen and heard, especially at work. Imagine how a woman of color feels especially those in history. No one cared. The reality of the situation is that all people of color mostly women were taught and trained to be silent, to suffer in silence, and just deal with the hardship and pain they experience in life. It's not that they aren't ready to open up and talk. Society puts pressure on them to be everything to everybody this has been going on from generation to generation. Women of color are known to be strong but what folks don't see is the reality behind the mask they wear, when they take that mask off you will see the stress, anxiety, and depression that lead to unhealthy behaviors such as neglecting self-care, emotional eating, poor sleep, sex addiction, and aggressive anger that cause insecurity and fights among their peers. They wear it as a way of coping with their pain. It's their survival tactic and it's our job to serve them at their own pace while learning to ask the right questions, then she handed me an assessment and told me to use it as my guide and the most important thing I could do was show empathy, compassion, and find a way to make each one feel safe. I walked out of that room feeling so grateful for her because she gave me a different perspective to view my people and their behavior. When I went home that night I was in shock. That assessment was the exact question an ER doctor asked me after visiting five times for panic attacks I experienced after my husband left to go over the road when I first was awakened to having an abandonment wound, it was the adverse childhood experience scale (ACES) assessment. With the assessment as my guide and more supervisor training on trauma-informed care, I was better able to support those with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
So what does all of this have to do with how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) help us develop specific strengths in life that can help us thrive? Let me share what I learned from my mentor.
According to my mentor and bestseller author of Running on Empty Dr. Jonice Webb, the psychologist who terms the coin childhood emotional neglect explains that folks like me who have experienced childhood emotional neglect (CEN) have five strengths.
The Five Uncommon Strengths of the Emotionally Neglected…
explained by Dr. Jonice Webb
1. Independent: Growing up you knew, even though it was perhaps never said out loud, that you were essentially on your own.
Problem with a teacher? You solved it.
Conflict with a friend? You figured it out yourself.
Your childhood was a training ground for self-sufficiency.
Now, as an adult, you prefer to do things yourself.
Because you’re so very competent, the great thing is that for the most part, you can.
2. Compassionate: As a child your feelings were far too often ignored.
But that probably didn’t stop you from feeling for others.
Research has shown that even young babies feel empathy.
I have noticed that many people who were emotionally neglected in childhood have decreased access to their own feelings, but extra sensitivity to other people’s feelings.
Compassion is a powerful, healing, and bonding force. And you have it in spades.
3. Giving: Having received a dearth of emotional acknowledgment and validation in childhood, you learned not to ask for things.
Part of being independent and compassionate is that you are more aware of others’ needs than you are of your own.
So now as an adult, you don’t ask for a lot, but you do give a lot.
4. Flexible: As a child, you were probably not often consulted.
Instead of being asked what you wanted or needed, you had no choice but to adjust to the situation at hand.
So now, all grown up, you’re not demanding, pushy or controlling.
Instead, you’re the opposite.
You can go with the flow far better than most people.
And you do.
5. Likable: The people of Childhood Emotional Neglect are some of the most likable in this world.
Compassionate, giving, and selfless, you are the one your friends seek out when they need help, advice, or support.
You are there for your family and friends, and maybe even strangers too.
Others know that they can rely on you.
Are you ever puzzled about why people like you?
It’s because you have these five unmistakably lovable qualities.
Many CEN people are secretly aware of their great strength and value it in themselves.
I don’t need help,
I don’t need anything,
I can handle it,
I’ll take care of it,
I’ll be fine with whatever you decide,
If this is true of you, the idea of changing yourself can be frightening.
You don’t want to feel dependent on anyone, including a therapist, friend, or spouse.
You’re afraid of appearing needy, weak, or helpless.
You have a grave fear of becoming selfish.
But here is the beauty of CEN: Your strengths are so enduring that you can make them even better by balancing them.
So you remain independent, but you lose your fear of depending on someone when you need to.
You remain as competent as you’ve always been, but you’re OK with asking for help when you need it.
You stay flexible and can go with the flow, but you are also aware and mindful of your own needs.
You can still handle things.
You’re just as strong as ever.
More balanced and more open, you’re still loved and respected by all who know you.
And the great thing is that now you also love and respect yourself.
If this article rings true for you what I want you to understand is that just because you have experienced childhood trauma doesn't mean you don't have strengths or can't learn from the experience and turn your pain into wisdom. Far too often we have coped with our pain by turning away from it, avoiding or denying it, or developing addiction or self-sabotaging behavior like people pleasing to cope. Let's start feeling and facing the pain and talking about how we feel to process those emotions. The behavior of pretending things are okay and keeping thoughts and feelings to yourself is only causing you more pain. This behavior worked temporarily as a child to survive the pain in your life but now it is time to heal. It's okay not to be okay.
In order to stop being a people pleaser along with, practicing connecting with yourself, making space for uncomfortable feelings, and practicing self-compassion, working through developmental trauma is all part of the process of healing. All of this together will help you take steps toward identifying your self-worth, setting boundaries, and expressing your authentic self. I hope that this article gave you more clarity about self-sabotaging patterns as well as the strength most people-pleasers have but are unaware of. Now you have the knowledge and understand that suppressing how you feel doesn't make the feelings, or the problems, go away, they just get passed down to the next generation as trauma they have to deal with and heal. With this information, you can choose to become a cycle breaker, just as I did and many others. These patterns are known as generational trauma in the mental health world. It is my goal to help women find their true selves heal from trauma and addiction and live a more fulfilling life in recovery. Acknowledging their suffering, coping in healthier ways, and healing from addiction and trauma is how they begin the healing process.
Do you need help with making your self-care a top priority? I Can Help You Develop A Plan For Self Care Do you want help developing a self-care plan that works for your own busy schedule? Do you want accountability in implementing a self-care plan? If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain optimal mental and emotional health, consider reaching out to Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. We are a Metro Atlanta, Conyers Georgia area. We are a coaching and counseling practice with empathetic, skilled counselors and recovery coaches who can help you set goals, develop a self-care routine, and move forward to build a more fulfilling life. Our team would be happy to work with you either just for a couple of sessions to develop and implement a Self-care plan or longer term to work toward overall better mental health within our membership site or other programs.
About The Author: Dr. Nikki LeToya White MSEd-TL, Ph.D. RHN is the founder, director, and full-time board-certified trauma-informed nutritionist, folk herbalist, and wellness consultant at Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. She created Spiced Life Conversation, LLC Art Wellness Studio and Botanica to provide the Metro Atlanta area with counseling and coaching services where clients are carefully matched with the right program for healing abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma that cause codependency, emotional eating, financial stress, and imposter syndrome as it relates to fear of success and being abandon. We help you begin your emotional healing journey with ease. Recently, we have expanded to include an online membership site so we now provide support to people living all over the world. All of our recovery coaches provide at least one evidence-based treatment to assist in your recovery. Dr. White is a big proponent of self-care and helping people live a fulfilling life! She has been in full remission with both codependency and emotional binge eating disorder since 2016. In living a life in recovery from sugar addiction. Loving her low-sugar balance lifestyle. Best Regards Dr. Nikki LeToya White