10 Things Childhood Emotional Neglect is NOT

One of the greatest challenges I have encountered in my pursuit to make the whole world aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is helping people understand exactly what it is. So, let’s begin with the definition of CEN.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when you grow up in a household that generally does not notice, respond to, or talk about feelings.

Children who grow up this way receive an unspoken, yet powerful, message that feelings are irrelevant, useless, invisible, or even a burden. To cope, they naturally push away, or wall off, their feelings so they will not inconvenience or bother their parents.

While this may help children adapt to the requirements of their parents, it effectively separates them from their own emotions for a lifetime.

The consequences of this separation are great, and you can read about them in many different blog posts across this website. Today, we will focus on understanding CEN in a way that is both deeper and broader.

We will do that by identifying what Childhood Emotional Neglect is NOT.

10 Surprising Things Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is Not

  1. Physical neglect. Physical neglect can be either a shortage of food, clothing, shelter or the physical presence of a parent. Latch-key kids are considered physically neglected, as is a child who is sent to school in winter without a coat. But Childhood Emotional Neglect is not necessarily any of these things. You may have a stay-at-home parent and everything you could want, but if your parents under-respond to your emotional needs, you may still grow up with the footprint of CEN.
  2. A disease. CEN is decidedly not an illness. It’s simply something your parents couldn’t give you in childhood, emotional validation, awareness, and support. You are not sick. You just need something now that you didn’t get.
  3. A life sentence. CEN is something that can and will hang over your life for as long as you allow it. But, once you realize the problem, the solution is in your grasp.
  4. A personality disorder. Although in my observation, Childhood Emotional Neglect is one ingredient among other powerful forces (like genetics, abuse, double-bind parenting, for example) in the formation of most personality disorders, pure CEN in itself does not produce them. The vast majority of what I would call CEN people have no personality disorder at all. The most common personality disorder that I see among CEN people is avoidant.
  5. A choice. One of the most common assumptions of CEN folks is that they brought their adult struggles upon themselves. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. No child chooses to have their parents ignore their feelings. Interestingly, the vast majority of CEN parents don’t choose it either. It all boils down to one thing: you can’t get something from your parents that they do not have to give. It’s not your fault, it just is.
  6. An event. Emotional Neglect is not something your parents did to you, it’s something your parents failed to do for you. In this way, it is not an event, but a non-event. Your parents were not able to notice your feelings and ask you about them, name your feelings, validate them, or talk it over with you. Childhood Emotional Neglect is not an act but a failure to act.
  7. Memorable. Our human brains are set up to record events as memories. Things that fail to happen are not seen, noticed, or remembered. This is why legions of people are struggling through lives colored gray by Childhood Emotional Neglect, unable to pinpoint what’s wrong. Absent an explanation, they are prone to blaming themselves. “I’m flawed,” “I’m different,” “There is something wrong with me,” I’ve heard countless CEN people say.
  8. Abuse. Abuse is an active mistreatment of a child. I liken abuse to knocking a plant off of a shelf, while CEN is more like failing to water it enough day after day after day. Because they are so very different, abuse and Emotional Neglect have very different effects on the child.
  9. Less harmful than abuse. Abuse carries an impact that makes it seem more painful than the mere absence of something should be. But I have seen that the slow, subliminal, relentless effect of what didn’t happen is the equivalent of stomping out the spirit of a child.
  10. Incurable. During the last ten years of working with hundreds of emotionally neglected people in my office and in my online Fuel Up For Life CEN Recovery Program, I do know this: The wall that blocks your feelings from you can be broken down, your spirit can be reclaimed. You can get in touch with the life force that’s meant to guide, protect, and connect you, and use it to enrich your life. Yes, I know, without a doubt, it’s true. What you didn’t get in childhood can be gotten in your adulthood.

Your Childhood Emotional Neglect can be healed.

Since Childhood Emotional Neglect is so hard to see and remember it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Alex - November 13, 2020 Reply

Jonice, I identify with so many of the items listed in your questionairre. Both my parents, too, experienced CEN when they were young. At 30, I have a good relationship with them, and feel loved and validated. But when I think to my childhood, the ways I may have experienced CEN seem unclear to me. I recall that they were loving, interested, encouraging. I do know that I’ve sought to idealize and protect my childhood. Could they have been caring about my emotions, and simply not equipped as parents? The bottom line– I am intensely resistant to the idea that they were bad parents. What can I do?

    Jonice - November 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Alex, we are not looking to declare CEN parents as “bad” at all or blame them. It’s only a matter of trying to understand what went wrong for you and accepting that you were deeply affected by it.

BraveHeart - November 6, 2020 Reply

This is all well and good…now what’s your experience with parents whose needs seem always to come first before yours as a child? We are NOT talking about life’s essentials here: food, shelter, and protection until one is old enough to fend for themselves? Depending upon parents like those whose needs are always first…is a very selfish person and should really consider not having children….they have no reason…unless they are keeping “up with the Jones’?” But keeping up appearances like that is just what our past generation had a tendency to follow….same circumstances are not common this time around…but now a 2nd generation falls into the same story?

Kim - October 28, 2020 Reply

I married a man who denies it but has CEN. This has led to extereme emotional neglect in our 20 yr marriage. I have finally realized that my voice matters. That my thoughts and personhood are to be valued by my spouse. But I am not acknowledged. I am not heard or seen.
What path is there for marriages with a pattern of neglect continuing? My 5 children have all suffered from this. I have become their all their only parent. My teens have checked out from their father because they aren’t even noticed. It’s so sad.
Can children who have one healthy parent overcome the wounds from the other with CEN?

    Jonice - October 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kim, in many, many cases, one emotionally attuned parent is enough. Your children are fortunate to have you. I suggest you put your energy into emotionally nurturing your kids rather than trying to change your husband. Provide him with a copy of Running On Empty, invite him to see a CEN therapist with you and the rest is up to him. People seldom address CEN until they are ready.

Madeleine - October 27, 2020 Reply

I have been following your work with great interest and increasing enlightenment ….I think I have found a therapist from the list below but, in the meantime, I wonder if the terrible anger I used to feel and which still is unleashed is a result of CEN ? Madeleine

    Jonice - October 27, 2020 Reply

    Dear Madeleine, it’s hard to know exactly where your anger is coming from. But I can tell you that anger that has walled off due to CEN can simmer under the surface for a long time. I would recommend that you discuss this with your therapist and try to pinpoint the things that have caused your anger.

Helen - October 26, 2020 Reply

I have spent my life looking for answers why I felt empty, never good enough, alone and sad on the inside.
Now I don’t blame my war torn parents anymore. I could see them but that was it. No wonder I didn’t know how to have a conversation with peers. I had nothing to say because I was invisible. That quote “children should be seen but not heard” Damn that quote.

    Jonice - October 27, 2020 Reply

    Dear Helen, it sounds like you are understanding your parents’ situation and also acknowledging the depth of its impact on you. These are important steps toward healing.

Nick - October 26, 2020 Reply

Wow this explains my life totally my parents split when I was a baby and my mother was more out than in my life and was a substance abuser. As much as sometimes wanna be in love I’ve never been and often push a way from it I’m 37 never married

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Nick, there’s still much you can do. It involves beginning to treat your feelings the way your parents should have treated them: as useful and valuable expressions of your inner self. I encourage you to take this on.

R - October 26, 2020 Reply

Your work thru the years has helped me discover my own healing path by better understanding myself so I could become a better person, wife and mother. I can’t thank you enough.

My challenge now is maintaining a relationship with 2 emotionally immature parents who struggle when not “mirrored” in every aspect of life. I’ve established boundaries which has helped me tremendously but the constant nagging of “we never hear from you” is taking it’s toll. When they DO see me they announce to everyone present (even strangers—true story) “we never hear from her” to shame me publicly. They’ve done this in front of my best friends as well. I’ve explained that I have a full life and keep busy. I’ve accepted they’ll never change or understand their emotional immaturity but the continued exposure to it is frustrating.

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear R, the best solution to parents who repeatedly hurt your feelings is boundaries. That means not taking their comments seriously but instead as a product of their emotional immaturity. See my second book, Running On Empty No More, to learn about how to build and maintain boundaries.

      R - November 10, 2020 Reply

      Thank you for your response. 🙂 I’m working on those boundaries and definitely will get the book for further guidance.

Parvez - October 26, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr.
For people not in north America & especially are in developing countries, it is difficult to attend a CEN therapist’s session.

What would you suggest to people who cannot access a therapist, that they can do on their own, to have their healing process started. Any basics, do it yourself steps, that will help to cure CEN to the best.

Regards,

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Parvez, I know this is a dilemma and I feel badly that there can’t be help for every single person in the world who needs it. I did create the Fuel Up For Life Program for this purpose but I realize not everyone can access it either. I do suggest that you get a copy of my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and do the exercises in it.

Tresa - October 26, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb, I think I have symptoms of Executive Dysfunction in addition to effects of CEN during my 58 years. In your experience, can Executive Dysfunction be a result of CEN? Thanks,
Tresa

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tresa, exec. dysfunction is not a result of CEN. It is a function of how your brain works, like a learning disability.

Mary - October 25, 2020 Reply

Is it possible to have a parent who was overly present and almost a super mom in early years (although kind of a pushy perfectionist who didn’t get you) but then to experience CEN as a teenager. My parents got divorced when I was 15 and my Mom went from overbearing to totally absent and into her own world above all. I always felt kind of not understood but there was a huge shift at this point like she was just suddenly not into being a parent. I feel badly asking about this as my Mom probably looks like a perfect Mom on paper and I can’t find any incidents other than when my parents divorced.

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mary, you are doubting your own experience, I think. Trust what your feelings are telling you and start doing the work of healing your CEN.

Laurie - October 25, 2020 Reply

None of these are surprising when you think about it. I was just talking with a client a couple of weeks ago about the effects of CEN having a more destructive impact in the long-term than the abuse he suffered.

Tim - October 25, 2020 Reply

From memory snapshots of myself and 3 siblings, me, twin brothers and sister all within 3 years. Absent, wandering father, distraught mother, abandoned and signed over to state orphanage, the image of mother kissing us, whispering “take good care of my babies” to me, walking out the door and out of our lives. A year later sis and I adopted. Successful, driven parents who both worked. Latchkey kids after school. Often brought work home. Children to be seen not heard. Old school discipline. Lectures not conversations. Performance in school a reflection of them. Standards to be upheld. success was an expectation. Isolation in my room with my books became my refuge. I left home right after college. Your book brought all of what this was to the surface. In Houston. Recommendations?

    Jonice - October 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tim, I’m so sorry you went through all of this. I do suggest that you go through the steps of CEN recovery. It’s important to value your feelings and yourself. If you need help doing this work consider the Find A CEN Therapist List and seed some support and help.

Melanie - October 25, 2020 Reply

While I so appreciate your explanations and efforts to help people with CEN, I worry sometimes about the emphasis on your emotions as a guide and not being a choice.

I think it is crucial for any person to be able to recognize when their emotional response to something is an overreaction or—to put it bluntly—kind of ridiculous. Our emotions are important but they do not always lead us to the truth or what is right. It is important to learn to control our emotions, or at least how we respond to and interpret them. I think over-valuing the importance of listening to and protecting emotions is causing a number of societal issues today. Emotions can actually be a hinderance to productive conversation if you cannot face them critically.

Just something that has been on my mind as I read these newsletters.

I do appreciate you stressing that CEN is not someone’s fault, but rather something that can get unintentionally passed down.

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Melanie, what I am saying is that since we can’t choose our feelings, they cannot be judged on a moral code. While we cannot judge our feelings as good or bad, we can judge our actions as good or bad. We are all responsible for managing our emotions and being accountable for how they affect others.

    Elaine - October 25, 2020 Reply

    Melanie : I think when I look around me that the biggest hindrance to communication is a total lack of emotional intelligence. Also lack of empathy. The UK especially has a notorious culture for deriding emotions. I think maybe one of the problems here ( no disrespect to you ) is that Jonice Webb is doing vital pioneering work here. It seems incredible doesn’t it that we are in the 21st century and emotional deprivation has taken this long to be explored. Valuing your emotions does not mean not taking responsibility for them as Dr Webb explains. As someone who grew up with a chronically depressed mother ( not her fault ) it’s taken me six decades to really discover the damage done to myself and siblings. I’m so relieved this is out in the open. Also we need to be in touch with our emotions to steer us through life – I’m far more alarmed incidentally by the trouble our society got in by sneering and denying the emotional side of our humanity

Kaity - October 25, 2020 Reply

Thanks for another amazing article. I’ve been doing your program for over a year and already feel much better- more connected and I feel I see the world in color instead of in gray.

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kaity, I’m so very glad you’re discovering the world in color! Keep up the great work you’re doing in Fuel Up For Life!

Andy Hudak III - October 25, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice!

I have commented before how much I appreciate your talent to bring to many who struggle to understand concepts that help them integrate their feelings thoughts narrative stories of their lives etc.
You truly have a talent for bringing a much needed, hard to see, developmental “freezer” that help folks integrate (heal) themselves!
Your metaphor for the difference between abuse, personality disorders, and CEN, though true, also, IMO, gets a bit on track due to the confusion of terms like personality disorder. (PD)
PD, though necessary for reimbursement is an outdated concept, that divides people in places that fall short of understanding the complete big picture.
Let’s not forget that whether we knock a plant off the shelf or starve it of water, the plant lives on life support.
Not to mention that CEN CAN (unintentionally, of course) produce a personality disorders in the next generation. (A Narcissistic wound would, in some cases, be such an example, as would children that self-harm…often due to little to no info re their inner worlds, in relationship with their caretakers. (CEN))
I would highly recommend that you look at Dan Siegel’s “The Neurobiology of We” (IF you have not already), which integrates attachment w brain development.
In it, he shows how the DSM’s disorders can pretty much all be divided broadly in to neurobiological non-integration patterns that produced Chaos, Rigidity and Disconnection (The avoidant attachment that we see so often in CEN)
It was a game changer in terms of the big picture for me several years back when I finally sat myself down to listen to him, and how all of us healer types are essentially helping our clients integrate what could not be integrated in their abusive neglectful and CNN (avoidant attachments) experiences within the context of our relational selves. (The part “not watered” in CNN).
But really, the full series that I mentioned earlier, explained attachment in a way that helped me deepen my understanding of both myself, the process I had been engaging in w clients for 35 yrs, at that time, in such an accessible way, that I wanted to share it with you!

I’d LOVE to see what a person w your exquisite communication talents would do with that info!

Thanks again for bringing so many into their healing process.

Warmly,
Andy

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for this recommendation, Andy. I’m a big fan of Dan Siegel and will check it out. Thanks for your comment and take care.

Leo - October 25, 2020 Reply

At 8 years old my friend invited me to his birthday party. We were developing a nice friendship. When my birthday came I asked my step mother if I could have a party and invite David back. My step mother wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it myself and I soon lost my friendship with David.
Now, I’m 72 and still remember my CEN. It’s wonderful to recognize and understand what really happened to me as a result. Thank you for helping me.

Karen - October 25, 2020 Reply

Amazing article. Your research continues to help me, day by day.

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to hear that, Karen.

Candace - October 25, 2020 Reply

Thank you!

HOLLY - October 25, 2020 Reply

This is very point on. I feel like I am doing well at the ripe old age of 68 but I do have questions such as WHY did my parents think this was “okay” to do to me. They are both dead now and I feel guilty that I don’t really mourn them. THAT is the chink that’s missing, I feel.

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Holly, parents automatically raise their children the way they were raised themselves. That may be what your parents were doing. Don’t feel guilty about what you do and don’t feel about your parents. You cannot choose your emotions.

      Elaine - October 25, 2020 Reply

      Yes to an extent it is true that parents who were emotionally deprived themselves will treat their own children this way .. however a child may observe and think – ‘I’m not going to copy this behaviour – later becoming a parent who tries hard not to ‘pass it on ‘ I have been such a person – however that’s not to say that I’ve had inner conflicts all my life that have given me great pain even now .. in my sixth decade and still feel the pain of being an ‘emotional pursuer of connection ‘ in a family of emotional avoidants

Michael - October 25, 2020 Reply

very informative. Thank you.

    Jonice - October 25, 2020 Reply

    I’m glad, Michael!

Leave a Comment: