About 10 years into my psychology career, I noticed a curious pattern beginning to emerge among my patients.
I began to realize that many, most of whom seemed to have little in common with each other, were reporting the same group of ambiguous struggles: feelings of emptiness or numbness, a sense of being disconnected and alone, a secret feeling of being deeply flawed in some way, and a general lack of fulfillment.
I saw this pattern in so many people that I began to wonder what was causing it. Could it be that they were all abused in the same way, or shared a common type of childhood trauma? Could it be something in their current lives that was making them feel this way? In searching to understand this intriguing pattern, I finally was able to identify the one thing these patients all shared in common, and I was surprised. It wasn’t abuse or trauma, or anything that had happened to them.
The single thing these folks all shared in common was a childhood characterized by a lack of response to, and validation of, their emotions.
It was nothing their parents had done to them. It was instead what their parents had failed to do for them. It wasn’t their parents’ act, but their failure to act. Not abuse, not mistreatment. Just nothing.
When these folks were sad, hurt, scared or angry as children, no one noticed. No one asked them what was wrong, or stepped in to validate what they were feeling, reassure them, guide them, or teach them about emotions. Their parents may have responded sometimes, in certain situations, but it simply was not enough.
The one factor these folks had in common was the fact that they had all grown up in an emotional wasteland, surrounded by people who perhaps loved and cared about them, but who failed to notice or respond enough to their emotional needs. As adults, they were all running on empty.
I gave this childhood experience the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
It took me several years to begin to understand the breadth and depth of this problem. The more aware I became of CEN, the more I saw it, not only among my patients, but everywhere. I also gradually became aware that in my growing realization of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I was alone.
This made me even more curious. Why didn’t I hear other therapists talking specifically about what had failed to happen for their clients in childhood? Why hadn’t I seen this concept in research studies or articles? I began to search the vast databases of the American Psychological Association. Journals, books, articles and research studies alike; and what I found was very interesting.
When the term “emotional neglect” was used in the professional literature (which was remarkably seldom), it was invariably used in this way: “emotional abuse and neglect.” By lumping these two very different childhood experiences together, these articles were virtually always talking about emotional abuse, which is active mistreatment of a child — a very different thing from the form of emotional neglect that I was so concerned about. Indeed, emotional neglect was falling through the cracks. Just like the children who lived with it, it resided under the radar.
Thus began my 7-year odyssey, trying to call attention to this under-recognized, under-talked-about, under-studied, yet powerful childhood experience. I began to write, and talk. And write and talk some more.
In 2012, I published my first book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In this book, I introduced the acronym CEN, and outlined my observations of why it’s so unmemorable and invisible, as well as walked readers through the steps needed for recovery.
In 2014, I began the Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on Psychcentral. As people read about this concept, they resonated deeply with it. Thousands who had lived their entire lives feeling deeply, inexplicably un-validated finally felt validated when they took the CEN Questionnaire, or read about CEN.
As I reached more and more people with the CEN message, requests flowed in for referrals to therapists worldwide who knew how to help people through the steps of CEN recovery. There was a terrible shortage, and I knew then that I needed to do more. So I did two things.
In 2015, after fine-tuning the powerful steps to heal CEN by treating a myriad of CEN clients in my office, I created the first online Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovery Program, Fuel Up For Life. The program is designed to walk participants through the 4 stages of CEN recovery with guidance, homework, videos, and plenty of support. The response has been tremendous, and the demand for slots in the program continues to grow and grow.
In 2016, I did a Continuing Education training for therapists about how to identify and treat CEN in their patients, and began to create an international list of CEN-savvy therapists on my website. That list has grown to 200 strong, and continues to build.
On Nov. 7, 2017 my second book was released. In response to the thousands of people asking how to manage and heal CEN in their relationships, I wrote Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Now, at the end of 2017, I see many other writers, therapists and authors using the words “Emotional Neglect” and talking about empty feelings, validation, the importance of getting in touch with your emotions. I am so very pleased that the word is spreading, and that people are finally talking and thinking and writing about this long-overlooked cloud that has been coloring so many lives gray.
What will 2018 hold? I want to continue to give answers to the thousands, or millions, of people who are secretly feeling flawed. I want to train more therapists and reach more and more people with this valuable message. I want parents to realize the awesome power that lies in emotionally attending to and responding to their children’s emotions.
In 2018 and beyond I will relentlessly continue this work. I will not stop until most therapists are familiar with this concept, and know how to treat it.
I will not stop until “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is a household term.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. I invite you to Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Most people, even mental health professionals, do not think about emotional deprivation and emotional neglect as two separate things. And I understand why. In some ways, these two childhood experiences are very much the same. But in some very important ways they are very, very different.
And I’m on a mission to make sure everyone knows just that.
Childhood Emotional Deprivation: Happens when there is an extreme absence of emotional attention and/or response given to an infant or child by her primary caretakers. Has been documented in orphanages, and in families where there are extreme physical absence of caretakers, abuse and trauma.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when a child’s primary caretakers (usually his parents) fail to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. Happens often in normal homes all over the world, even when the parents are physically present, and all the child’s material needs are met.
So both emotional neglect and emotional deprivation involve a shortage of emotional attention and response from caregivers, but they tend to happen in different types of situations, and can play out very differently in the children’s lives as they grow into adulthood.
If you think about it, almost everything is most noticeable in its more extreme forms, right? It makes sense that emotional deprivation would be noted and studied long before emotional neglect is identified as a true issue.
Emotional Deprivation was first identified as a problem in Romanian orphanages, in 1952 by Dr. Rene Spitz. His heartbreaking video taken inside an orphanage, shows the devastating effects of emotional deprivation upon infants.
Since that time, multiple studies have found negative effects of emotional deprivation upon the infant brain. They include reduced brain volume, changes in the prefrontal cortex, and high, disregulated levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in their brains.
In 1999, Megan Gunnar studied the effect of emotional deprivation upon post-institutionalized kids. She found that they tend to have difficulty with executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. They are often impaired in their ability to understand the mental states of others and regulate their own emotions. She found that many of the children suffered from high anxiety.
Happily, studies have also found that many of these neurological and social effects are reversed over time for emotionally deprived children when they are adopted by loving, emotionally attentive parents.
During ten years of working in my private practice, talking with client after client, I began to see a specific pattern of struggles emerge. I saw the pattern in clients who had grown up wealthy or poor, who were married or single, successful or struggling, men and women alike, and regardless of age.
Here is the pattern I noticed: A deep feeling of disconnection from self and others, feelings of emptiness, extreme independence, low self-knowledge, low self-compassion, excessive self-blame and shame, low emotional awareness, and struggles with self-discipline.
The clients in whom I saw this pattern seemed to have little in common other than this special group of symptoms. After seeking answers in my clients’ childhoods to no avail, I realized I was looking in the right place, but for the wrong thing.
I had been asking what had happened to them in all of these people’s childhoods to lead them to feel this way in adulthood. But what I actually found was that something had failed to happen for them in childhood.
Each of these folks had grown up in households that somehow, for whatever reason, were not attentive or responsive to their feelings enough.
It’s hard to believe that a non-experience like this can lead to such significant effects, but believe me, I and many others have now seen that it does.
In the last 5 years, since I became aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have helped scores of people recover from it. I have seen, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can fill the gaps left by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
I have watched lovely people work themselves from a place of living their lives in a CEN bubble, feeling isolated, disconnected, alone, and in some indescribable way, deeply flawed, to a place of feeling alive, feeling their feelings, feeling the warmth of connection, and seeing the bright colors in their world.
In my opinion, the primary difference between these two childhood experiences is that one is more extreme than the other. Emotional deprivation happens when a child is literally deprived of emotional nurturance during his formative years. This has happened in institutions where children are left on their own. But sadly, it can also happen in families. Real homes, real parents, completely ignoring their children and their needs for comfort and happiness and love.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is a milder version of being emotionally deprived. It happens in homes all across the world, often inadvertently delivered by otherwise loving, caring parents. It can be subtle when it happens, but it usually leaves the child feeling, in some indescribable way, deeply inconsequential, and deeply alone in the world.
Is the emotional dis-regulation, impaired ability to understand the mental states of others, and difficulty regulating their own emotions that Megan Gunnar saw in the severely emotionally deprived children simply a more extreme version of the lack of emotional awareness and low emotional intelligence of those who grew up with Emotional Neglect? It’s a question that I hope will, one day soon, be answered with research.
I do strongly believe, based on the research combined with my own experience as a psychologist, that in one important way, Emotional Deprivation and Emotional Neglect are alike. Just as the effects of emotional deprivation can be reversed by a loving adopted family, the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed by purposely making a decision to treat yourself as if you matter. By listening to your own inner voice, caring about your own feelings, and attending to your own needs, you become your own emotionally attuned, and emotionally attentive parent.
Since emotional deprivation and emotional neglect are not the same, affecting different people in different ways, my goal is to make more therapists aware of the far more subtle, far more widespread effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how to identify it in their clients, and how to heal it.
One thing that I can say with confidence true and clear is that if your brain can recover from emotional deprivation in childhood, you can reverse the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your adulthood.
The most important uniting quality of these two painful childhood experiences is that they both can be healed.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
For the realtor, the world revolves around Location Location Location. But psychologists, psychiatrists, and social scientists everywhere know that what really matters is validation.
And the absence of it.
A friend of mine woke up one morning and literally felt a bomb go off in her head. There was a sense of an explosion, cymbals, fireworks all in one split-second cacophony. Then, suddenly, it was over.
Needless to say, my friend was worried on the verge of panic. What was this? What does it mean? “Is this the start of some kind of neurological degenerative disorder?” she wondered. So she did what any of us would do in this situation. She typed it into google.
She only typed a few words, and the answer appeared under the search bar. Exploding Head Syndrome. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s unexplained and rare, but harmless. My friend read postings by dozens of people who have had the same experience. She felt immediately relieved, and never worried about it again.
Because she felt validated.
When my friend told me this story months later, it made me think about validation, and how powerful it is. It’s possible to go from panic to calm by simply being validated. Validation has the ability to save marriages, cement friendships, and decrease depression. It’s scientifically proven.
I recently came across a study by Marigold et al., 2014, which looked at how people with low self-esteem experience different kinds of support, compared with people who have healthy self-esteem.
The researchers found that both groups of people responded well to validation of their negative feelings. That’s these kinds of statements:
I would feel that way too.
Anyone who went through that would be sad.
Your feelings are normal.
Of course you’re angry.
But only the folks with healthy self-esteem also responded well to the kind of support that did not validate their feelings. That’s statements like:
At least you’re learning something from this.
I know someone who went through the same thing, and he’s fine now.
You’ll beat this.
Everything will be okay.
So the only kind of supportive statements that are helpful for people with all levels of self-esteem is the kind that validates their negative feelings. Across the board, we all need to know that the feelings we have are normal and reasonable in the situation.
We all feel better when we’re validated.
I’m sitting in my office in a therapy session with a couple who is on the verge of divorce. Karen and Tom are both lovely people, but they hate each other. Our work together over the past two months has been trying to figure out why.
On this day, one powerful reason emerges. Here’s the story Karen told me:
I was on the phone with my mother, and she told me that her doctor’s appointment didn’t go well. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I was so upset! I hung up the phone, and I was in shock. Tom was in the other room. I walked in and told him what I had just heard.
Tom stopped typing on his laptop and came over to me. He gave me a huge hug, which was just what I needed. Then he said, “OK, let’s stop with the tears and talk about this rationally. It’s not like anyone has died.”
Tom did several things exactly right in this moment. He gave Karen his full attention and a big hug. And he thought he said the right thing. Clearly, Tom’s intentions were loving.
But sadly, Tom missed the boat. His statement was intended to calm Karen, but instead it contributed to the pool of anger and rage that she already had toward him. What Karen heard in his statement was, “You’re wrong to be so upset. You’re over-reacting. You are irrational.”
Karen’s anger toward Tom had built up over many years of such responses from him. Incidents big and small ended the same, with Karen getting MORE upset and walking out of the room, leaving Tom baffled and angry himself in return.
“She’s impossible. I can’t do anything right for her. It’s never enough,” Tom lamented in our session.
Fortunately, there was an answer for Karen and Tom, and the answer was fairly straightforward. In fact, Tom learned quickly and easily. He learned to say instead, in a situation like this, “Oh no, that’s terrible, Honey. I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.”
When Tom handled Karen’s feelings by responding to them instead of trying to minimize or banish them, Karen felt validated.
The Unvalidated Child
Imagine a little child growing up without the kind of validation that my friend got from google; without the kind of validation that the subjects got in the self-esteem study. Without the kind of validation that Karen was finally able to get from Tom.
Imagine this little child trying to understand himself, his world, and all the other people in it. Imagine that he doesn’t feel he can ask questions when he needs help. No one notices his feelings or emotional needs. No one says, “Let me explain this to you.” No one says, “Your feelings are normal.” No one says, “I’m here for you,” or “I see your emotions,” either by words or actions.
This child is being sentenced to an entire life of seeking answers. An entire life of feeling like a non-person. An entire life of feeling less-than. An entire life of feeling angry or baffled or untethered, or all three.
An entire lifetime of feeling invalid.
To learn more about validation, how it affects people who live without it, and how to heal, see the book Running on Empty.
I know why you’re reading this article.
Two reasons, actually: First, because you are curious to know what a WMBNT parent is. Second, because you’re a caring parent. How do I know this? It’s simple. Only parents who care about their children and their parenting would be curious.
To understand the WMBNT Parent, meet Edward and Libby, both caring parents.
Edward the Child: Edward grew up in an abusive family. His alcoholic mother was mean, angry and physically abusive or threatening half the time, and ignored him the rest. Edward’s father loved his children. He worked 70 hours-a-week to support the family. In the few hours that he was home, he tried his hardest to appease his wife, and to smooth over and hide her bad behavior. Edward and his siblings grew up fending off their mother, and fending for themselves. Continue reading
Lets face it. For us human beings, often the most difficult struggles in our lives come from inside of us.
We are all essentially walking, talking bundles of emotions and issues. We can’t sleep, we’re in conflict, we get obsessed or we suffer from anxiety. We’re angry, sad or grief-stricken. We are in pain.
Fortunately, science comes to the rescue. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists are busy giving us answers. What makes us happy? What coping techniques work best? How do our emotions work, and what do we do with them?
Here are three new studies that offer important and helpful information about how we can all live our lives happier and healthier.
A huge study in the UK by Kinderman et al., 2013 surveyed over 32,000 adults about their levels of anxiety and depression, and the potential causes. They found that traumatic life events were the largest factor in creating both.
But here’s the surprise. They also found that people’s coping styles contributed to anxiety and depression almost as much as the traumatic events themselves.
Here are the three coping flaws that were identified as major contributors:Continue reading
Will has no idea how he ended up in his career. In hindsight, he has some regrets….
Jonathan continually dates the wrong women, and then is completely shocked and devastated when they break up with him.
At the first sign of a problem in her pre-med program, Bella decided she wasn’t cut out for medicine, and switched to a different major.
“I don’t care, whatever you’d like,” is Sandy’s standard answer whenever someone asks what she prefers.
If only Will knew that his true passion is helping others, he would never have become a computer coder.
If only Jonathan knew that he is actually very attractive and smart, he would choose different women to date, and be less vulnerable in his relationships.
If only Bella knew that her abilities in science far outweigh the small weakness she has in memorizing anatomy, she could have worked harder, hired a tutor, and continued on to become the thoracic surgeon she was meant to be.
If only Sandy knew what she likes, she wouldn’t be living in a house she doesn’t like, married to a man she doesn’t like, feeling trapped and depressed.
If only Will, Jonathan, Bella and Sandy knew themselves, they would be less damaged by the challenges they encounter. They would have made better choices for themselves. They would be more resilient.
One of the most important qualities for resilience is self-awareness, or in other words, knowing who you are. What you like, what you feel, your strengths and weaknesses. Your preferences, needs, wishes and proclivities. All of the positives and negatives, talents and faults, when all held in your own mind together, add up to a full and realistic, gut-held sense of who you are. That self-knowledge gives you strength and resilience, guides and informs you, and gets you through challenges, failures and mistakes.
Sadly, a huge segment of the population lacks this level of knowledge about themselves. A huge segment of the population struggles through life mystified by why they do things, how they feel, and what they want. They give up on pursuits as soon as they hit a snag, make the wrong choices for themselves, and end up doing what everyone else wants.
How did these masses of people get this way? Why don’t they know themselves? Because as children, when they looked into their father’s or mother’s eyes, they did not see their true selves reflected there.
Their parents weren’t looking at all, or were seeing only what they wanted to see, or saw a distorted picture of who their child really was. So all of these children grew up without the emotional attention and responses from their parents that would have told them so much about themselves. All of them grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Can Will, Bella, Jonathan and Sandy, as adults, gain the self-knowledge that they need to be resilient? The answer is yes. But they may need a little extra help and guidance along the way.
So I have compiled this list of 20 questions. Write down four answers for each one. If you can’t think of four on a particular item, skip it and keep it in mind until more answers occur to you. It may take days or weeks to search inside yourself for your truths. Be sure to honor the process and do not write down glib answers that you do not feel or cannot fully own. All of your answers must be real and true.
20 Questions to Improve Your Resilience
List Four Answers to Each Question:
Will, Bella, Jonathan and Sandy, and all of you who cannot see yourselves, here is my message to you:
No, your parents were not looking. No, they did not see you. But that doesn’t mean that you are not worth seeing, or that you are not worth knowing. You are.
You deserve to be known, and loved for who you really are. You deserve to look inside yourself and know, deep down, that all of your qualities and struggles add up to something real and good.
You deserve to look in the mirror and know that you are looking at someone who is strong, someone who will thrive, someone who is lovable, someone who you love.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it leaves you less resilient, and how to heal from it, see the book, Running on Empty.
Ten-year-old Jasmine lies alone on her bed, glad to be sequestered behind the closed doors of her room. “It could happen,” she whispers quietly to herself. In her mind she’s reliving the fantasy that’s helped her to get her through her life so far: her father answers the doorbell and a kind, well-dressed couple explains to him that Jasmine was accidentally sent home with the wrong family at birth, and that she actually belongs to them. They then take her back to their home, where she feels loved, nurtured and cared for…
Jasmine doesn’t know it, but this is only the beginning of her struggle. She will spend the next twenty years wishing that she had different parents, and feeling guilty about it.
After all, her parents are basically good people. They work hard, and Jasmine has a house, food, clothing and toys. She goes to school every day, and does her homework every afternoon. She has friends at school, and plays soccer. By all accounts, she is a very lucky child.
But despite Jasmine’s luck, and even though her parents love her, even at age ten she knows, deep down, that she is alone in this world.
How could a ten-year old know this? Why would she feel this way? The answer is as simple as it is complicated:Continue reading
“I’m the black sheep of my family,”
said the young man who sat before me in my therapy office. I tried to imagine this adorable, sad young man being the “black sheep” of anything. I couldn’t.
Generally considered the outcast of the family, the black sheep is typically assumed to be an oddball. Furthermore, the rest of the family believes that the black sheep brought this upon himself.
It is true that sometimes the black sheep is indeed “odd” by anyone’s standards (sometimes the result of a hidden mental illness). Or she may be a sociopath who violates the family’s boundaries and care, so that the family has to exclude her to rightfully protect themselves.
But surprisingly, very seldom is either of these scenarios actually the case. Many, many black sheep are lovable folks with much to offer their families and the world. In fact, they are often the best and brightest. They may be the most creative of the family, or the one with the most powerful emotions.
In truth, the world is full of black sheep. Think hard. Does your family have one? This question is not as easy to answer as it may seem, for many black sheep are not physically excluded from the family. For most, it’s much more subtle. The exclusion is emotional.
Three Signs That Your Family Has a Black Sheep: Continue reading
Guest Post: By Joanna Rogowska
I am 32 years old, and as weird as it might sound, I have recently discovered that I have emotions.
This discovery has changed my life. It sent me on a journey to find a way to live my life more fully and at peace with myself.
I am still learning how to deal with my emotions. There are still times when they get the best of me. But now, as I am much more prepared for times of crisis, I do not let them take over.
Let me tell you a story about one of those moments when things got a bit much and I had to put my newly acquired emotion management skills to use.Continue reading
“I scored high on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, but I actually grew up in a family that was the opposite of what you describe. My family was constantly yelling and screaming. How can this be?” –A question posted by a reader on PDAN.
Six-year-old Marcus feels invisible as he sits between his two older sisters in the back seat of the car. He actually hopes he IS invisible, because he doesn’t want to be the target of either of his angry parents. Marcus’ sister Marsha is sobbing loudly on his left. On his right, Blair stares ahead stone-faced with her headphones on, purposely shutting herself off from the brutal but familiar battle between their parents which is taking place in the front of the car.
Eight-year-old Marsha tries to sob loudly enough that her parents will hear her over their yelling, hoping they’ll realize what they are doing to their children and stop fighting.
Eleven-year-old Blair appears to be listening to music. Instead she is acutely aware that her mother will scream and hurl insults at her father until she “wins,” as she always does. Blaire repeats over and over in her head, “I hate these people. I’m going to run away from here as soon as I can.”
Here we have three children who are all responding differently to what is happening in their family. None of the three are experiencing direct verbal abuse, and no one is purposely harming them. But each suffers alone, unheard and unseen, in the back seat of the car. Each one is experiencing Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading