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The Story of CEN: Childhood Emotional Neglect

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.

Emotional Neglect and Emotional Deprivation are Not the Same

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

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. 

The Symptoms

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.

The Great News

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.

Emotional Neglect

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.

The Symptoms

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.

The Great News

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.

Emotional Deprivation vs. Emotional Neglect

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.

Black Sheep

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

Big Boys Don’t Cry: The Emotionally Neglected Man

 

Luke prepares himself to walk into the office party. Despite his reputation as the most helpful and productive salesperson in the company, his self-confidence flies out the window when he has to face people socially. “I never fit in anywhere,” he thinks to himself.

Often they are referred to as, “the strong, silent type.” They are giving, reliable, stand-up guys. They may be excessively driven, but that drive is mostly to provide for their families. They are there for others but ask for little in return. They are baffled by other people’s emotions, and typically just want to escape when anyone cries, yells or shows intense feelings of any kind. They live in dread of the moment when their wife says, “I need to talk with you about something.”

Feeling numb, isolated, empty and alone, these men mistake their intense individuality for strength.  But since they are out of touch with their own feelings, they sense that they lack some vital ingredient that other people have; and deep down, they feel overlooked and unseen.Continue reading

Man vs. Woman: The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Do boys and girls respond differently to the same childhood experiences? How do those differences play out as the boy becomes a man, and the girl grows into a woman?

In my work as a psychologist, I have seen remarkable gender differences in the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). First, a quick review.

CEN in a nutshell:

When children’s emotions are not validated enough by their parents, they minimize and push down their feelings in order to get along in their family. As adults, they lack enough access to their own emotions. Since emotions are a primary source of connection and richness in life, these folks end up going through their lives feeling vaguely empty or numb,  disconnected, and confused about what is wrong with them. You can see other results of CEN in the table below. (To learn more about CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com).

When boys and girls grow up this way, are they affected differently? Does a CEN man feel differently than a CEN woman? The answer is yes.

First, two caveats: The masculine effects often appear in women and vice-versa, so please do not take these differences as absolute. Second, these observations are based upon my own clinical experience and have not been specifically researched.Continue reading

4 Things Psychologists Know That You Should Know Too

It’s fun being a psychologist. Just as an engineer is fascinated by the true mechanics of electrical circuitry, we mental health professionals are intensely curious about the human brain.

What people feel and what those feelings mean; why people do what they do; it’s all of interest to us. In the process of doing our job day after day, we can often pick up on patterns and connections that give us flashes of a bigger picture. We see causes and effects and develop insights, understandings and intuitions that tell us basic human truths.

Sometimes new research studies come out that make us say, “Aha! I knew it!” Below are four such psychological principles. All four are the common knowledge of most mental health professionals. All are currently being studied and proven, and all are immensely useful information that everyone should have.Continue reading

5 Steps To Break Down Your Wall

The fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise we will find ourselves running on empty.

 

From the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

What does Empty feel like? What causes some people to feel it? In last week’s article, Not Sad Not Hurt Not Angry: Empty, we talked about how the Empty feeling is a result of having a wall inside of you which essentially blocks your emotions away.

Having a wall like this is functional in some ways. It can get you through your childhood by allowing you to cope with a family who is emotionally unavailable, ignoring, rejecting, devoid of love, or even abusive. But when you grow up and are living as an adult, you need to have access to your emotions.

When your emotions are walled off, you pay a heavy price.  You pay the price of deep, meaningful, supportive relationships, a feeling of purpose and direction in your life, and a strong sense of self-worth and confidence.

Are you thinking, “Yes, I want all that!”? If so, there is a way to get it. It involves slowly, purposefully chipping away at your wall until it no longer stands between you and your emotions. It takes commitment, effort and perseverance. And if you have those, your rewards will be great.

Here are Five Steps to Breaking Down Your Wall:

  1. Open up: Override the unspoken childhood rule DON’T TALK. Identify the trustworthy people in your life, and talk to them about difficult things in your life and difficult things in their lives. Talk about things you never would have before. Be vulnerable. Talk, talk, and talk some more.
  2. Make friends with your emotions: Several times each day, close your eyes, focus inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”  Pay attention to how you feel about things, and listen to those feelings. Know that your feelings matter. If the feelings that come up are difficult to handle, please find a trained therapist to support and help you learn to tolerate and manage them.
  3. Take your own needs seriously: Override the unspoken childhood rule DON’T ASK. Tell the people in your life when you need help or support. And then let them help you.
  4. Let people in: Fill your life with quality people. Meaningful relationships are a primary source of richness, connection and meaning in life.
  5. Get to know who you are: Pay attention to everything about yourself. What do you love, dislike, excel at, struggle with? What is important to you? What are your values? What do you care about? Once you see the full picture of who you are, you will see your value and worth, and you will feel stronger.

Do these steps sound easy? Probably not. But keep in mind that you are not looking to blast through your wall. You want to chip it down slowly, gradually, bit by bit. Since that wall stands not only between you and your emotions, but also between you and the world, your life will get better and better and better, chip by chip by chip

Each time you open your heart to a chosen person in your life; each time you notice something new about yourself; each time you listen to a feeling that you are having, you are chipping away. You are breaking the childhood bonds that have held you back all these years. You are making the decision to live life your way. You are taking a chance, counting yourself worthy, and filling yourself with the most powerful fuel there is.

Finally, you will no longer live your life running on empty.

To find out if you are living with CEN, and if so, what to do about it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.

 

Are You Prone to Depression? This Could Be the Reason

Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are. They are also your greatest resource for coping and strength.

Legions of people walk through decades of their lives completely unaware that they are missing something. They may look around, and they may see others living more fully, or with more color or vitality. They may have a vague sense that something is not quite right.

But they are intelligent and competent and likable, and so they do okay. They put one foot in front of the other, and they take life step by step. Doing what is expected, and providing what is needed, they have no idea that they’re more vulnerable to life’s challenges than other people are.

Until unexpectedly their job changes, or their child has a significant problem, or someone they love moves away or passes away. Maybe it’s a problem in their marriage, or a rejection or a hurtful action directed at them, but something happens to throw them off their game.

Then they struggle mightily, and they sense that their struggle may be going too far, and they find that they are depressed. “Why is this so hard for me?” they wonder. “How did I end up here? Shouldn’t I be more resilient?”

For many of these fine people, the answer is, “Perhaps.”

Perhaps if you had received enough emotional attention in childhood you would now have access to your emotions in a more vibrant and helpful way.

Perhaps if your parents had noticed what you were feeling as a child, you would be noticing that now, yourself. Perhaps if you had been filled with self-knowledge and self-care and self-love as a child, you would have them to rely on now, in your time of need.

Growing up in a household where feelings are not addressed enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) takes a remarkable toll on a developing child. Not the least of which is this: It sets the child up to be more prone to depression throughout her lifetime, and to forever blame it on herself.

If you grew up without enough emotional validation and response from your parents (CEN), you probably did what most good children do: you automatically pushed your emotions away and walled them off. This may have worked fairly well through your childhood, but now, in your adulthood, you need full and healthy access to your emotions.

5 Ways CEN Causes Depression in Adulthood

1. Your emotions are walled off: Since you pushed them away as a child (to cope in your childhood home), you are now living without access to this rich, motivating, stimulating feed back system.

2. You missed the emotion training course that other people got: You grew up in an Emotion-Free Zone. No one taught you how to identify, express, manage or use your emotions.

3. CEN makes you feel alone in the world: When no one notices what you’re feeling enough as a child, and when the response to your emotional needs is tepid or absent, you learn that you cannot (or should not) rely on others emotionally.

4. You are prone to directing your anger inward: Anger can be an empowering, useful emotion when you know how to use it. If your anger was not accepted when you were a child, and if you were not taught how to use it, you are at risk for turning it against yourself.

5. You are inclined to the feel shame: Growing up with CEN, the powerful message that your emotions either don’t matter or are bad can easily make you feel ashamed for having them. Yet your emotions are wired into you. You can’t not have emotions. The result: shame.

And now, after all that bad news, I have some very good news for you. Now that you see and understand the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can heal it yourself. When you do this, you will not only reduce your susceptibility to depression, you will also improve many other areas of your life as well.

3 Ways to Become Less Vulnerable to Depression

• Start working on your CEN. The best thing about CEN is that it can be healed. You can break through that wall that you built to block off your feelings in childhood. You can begin to feel more varied emotions. You can learn how to use your anger in a healthy, protective way. You can learn the emotion skills that you missed.

• Accept that your feelings are your friend. Your emotions are a source of vitality and richness. Without them, you are living in a gray world, devoid of the color that others experience. Reclaiming your feelings and learning to use them will connect you, relieve you and enrich you.

• Reach out. CEN taught you to circle your wagons, but those wagons are now holding you separate. Learning to let your wagons loosen will open the world to you. With more people on your side of the wall,  you will no longer feel so alone.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible. Yet it makes you struggle with emotions throughout your adult life, and makes you more prone to depression. To find out if you are affected by CEN, take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”

I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is,  “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.

As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing. You can see the abstract of the study HERE.

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

Adult CEN Characteristic Women Men
 
Emptiness or numbness Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves
Counter-Dependence Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence
Little Compassion For Self Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.
Fatal Flaw Feel unlikeable or unlovable Feel invisible and overlooked
Struggles With Self-Discipline Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times
Alexithymia May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves Emotions go underground and come out as irritability
Self-Directed Anger and Blame Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others

 

Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.

Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others, but lack the words to express it.

One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.

The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.

Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.

What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marry? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.

Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likeable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.

If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:

You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.

If you would like to learn more about CEN, you can purchase a copy of Running on Empty at a special discount via the right sidebar of this website. Or click on the link below to get it in paperback, Kindle or hardcover from Amazon.

How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:

  1. Self-centered, Abusive or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. This might be financially, emotionally, or with caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT – Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their child and give him everything they can. But they are not able to give him enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. 

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when you parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first, or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame, and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty so that they can read about it for themselves. 

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents 

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.

To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.