What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

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Do you feel empty and disconnected? Do you sense that you’re different than everyone else, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? Childhood Emotional Neglect, a term coined by psychologist Dr. Jonice Webb, is a powerful experience, but one that often goes unnoticed and untreated. In fact, many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) describe their childhood as “good” and it’s only on closer examination that they recognize that something important was missing.

Your childhood experiences played a huge part in shaping you into the adult you are today. Children rely on their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. And significant, but invisible, damage is done when parents fail to meet their children’s emotional needs. Childhood Emotional Neglect is the result of your parent’s inability to validate and respond adequately to your emotional needs. Childhood emotional neglect can be hard to identify because it’s what didn’t happen in your childhood. It doesn’t leave any visible bruises or scars, but it’s hurtful and confusing for children.

 

What does Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) look like?

In an emotionally neglectful family, you might have come home upset because you didn’t make the basketball team, but when you tried to talk to your Mom about it, she shooed you away saying she was busy working. And when your grandma died your father told you “boys don’t cry” and no one helped you process your grief. Or it might have been that you spent hours and hours isolated in your room as a teenager and no one asked how you were feeling or if something was wrong. When this happens consistently, you feel unloved and unseen.

CEN can co-occur with physical abuse and neglect and is rampant in families where a parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or any compulsive behavior, or mentally ill. But many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect grew up in families without obvious dysfunction. They weren’t beaten or belittled. Their parents were well-meaning but lacked the emotional skills themselves to notice and tend to their children’s feelings. Such parents never learned to cope with their feelings or express them in healthy ways and don’t know how to deal with their children’s feelings either.

Many adults who experienced emotional neglect look like they’ve got it all together on the outside. They’re successful and have a happy family, but there’s a nagging sense of emptiness, not fitting in, and that they’re different, but there isn’t anything obviously wrong.

Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect include:

  • Emptiness
  • Loneliness
  • Feeling something’s fundamentally wrong with you
  • Feeling unfulfilled even when you’re successful
  • Difficulty connecting with most of your feelings, not feeling anything
  • Burying, avoiding, or numbing your feelings
  • Feeling out of place or like you don’t fit in
  • Difficulty asking for help and not wanting to depend on others
  • Depression and anxiety
  • High levels of guilt, shame, and/or anger
  • Lack of deep, intimate connection with your friends and spouse
  • Feeling different, unimportant or inadequate
  • Difficult with self-control (this could be overeating or drinking)
  • People-pleasing and focusing on other people’s needs
  • Not having a good sense of who you are, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses

 

Why is Childhood Emotional Neglect so damaging?

Your feelings are a core part of who you are, so when they aren’t noticed or validated you come to believe that you aren’t important because you aren’t “seen” and known. In emotionally neglectful families, the message is that feelings don’t matter, they’re an inconvenience, or they’re wrong. Naturally, you learn not to value your feelings; you push your feelings away or numb them with food, alcohol, drugs, or sex.

When your emotional needs aren’t met and your internal state isn’t acknowledged, you’ll be disconnected from yourself. You will constantly seek attention and try to prove your worth through clingy or needy behaviors, perfectionism, overworking, and achievements. But these external validations never fix the problem; they never leave you feeling good enough.

Feelings serve to let us know what we need. For example, if you don’t notice when you’re getting frustrated, you won’t be able to find a healthy resolution or outlet for your anger and you’re likely to let it fester until you explode.

Lack of emotional attunement also makes it hard for you to deeply connect with others and understand your spouse and children’s feelings.

 

CEN and Codependency

I have been counseling Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) and people struggling with codependency for almost two decades. When I started learning about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I immediately noticed a big overlap between CEN and codependency or ACOA issues. It makes sense that if you grew up with an alcoholic or otherwise impaired caregiver, your emotional needs weren’t noticed and met.

Individuals with CEN and codependency have in common:

  • Perfectionism
  • People-pleasing
  • Low self-worth, feeling inadequate
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Lack of awareness of their feelings
  • Discomfort with strong emotions
  • Putting other people’s needs before their own
  • Difficulty trusting
  • Difficulty asserting their needs

And just like CEN, codependency is passed from one generation to the next by unknowing parents.

Do you identify with the traits and experiences described in this post? If so, help is available. I highly recommend the books Running on Empty  and Running on Empty No More by Jonice Webb, Ph.D. and The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori, LPC and working with a therapist like myself who is familiar with healing Childhood Emotional Neglect.

If you live in San Jose, Campbell, Santa Clara, Los Gatos, or surrounding parts of Silicon Valley, please contact me to discuss how I can help you. I can be reached at sharon@sharonmartincounseling.com or 408-982-6535 or you can schedule an appointment using the button below.

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Childhood Emotional Neglect

 

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in the San Jose area, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in Campbell, CA where she is available for in-person counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful summary on something I never knew had a name. I am in my 7th decade of life and strongly identify with 90% of the characteristics. Is this recognized in the DSM?Are there any support organizations?

  2. Hi Sharon, I fall into this category. I have been trying to heal myself every day. My question is what can I do so I don’t ruin my kids? I have a hard time with my kids emotions because I don’t know ow how to handle mine. I am worried I will cause them to grow up with CEN. Mainly because I don’t always realize I am saying something I shouldn’t or I just don’t what to do. Please help.

  3. Hi Sharon,
    Thank you for your very informative webpage. I have been dealing with CEN for at least 2 decades and it is a constant struggle. In the process I have also met someone and ee found out we both had/have similar struggles. Sometimes this helps too.
    What I find difficult with CEN is to find a balance. The most useful thing I found instead is identifying what triggers the bad emotions or the bad memories of my neglected past.
    I have a question about the symptoms. Would it still be CEN if the people-pleasing aspect was not particularly evident? I have a tendency of wanting to be of help. But what if someone has all the symptoms usually listed for CEN, with a moderate people-pleasing attitude?
    Thanks for your help.

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