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10 Strategies For Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect

How do you cope with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to struggle with a series of challenges as an adult.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.

When you grow up this way you automatically block your feelings off as a child to cope with the implicit messages in your childhood home.

No Feelings Allowed.

With your emotions walled off, you go through your adolescence and adulthood lacking full access to a potent, vital ingredient from within: your emotions, which should be motivating, directing, connecting, stimulating, and empowering you.

When you are living this way, it’s hard to see the problem, or even that there is a problem. Most children in emotionally neglectful homes have no idea that anyone should be noticing their feelings, validating them, or responding to them. Then, when they grow into adults, they continue to have no idea.

Yet as an adult who grew up with Emotional Neglect, you surely may sense that something is not right with you, but you do not know what it is.

Once you understand that you missed out on a key element of childhood, you are finally freed up to fix the problem. You can give yourself what you never got — emotional attention and validation — and learn how to connect with your feelings and how to use them.

Childhood Emotional Neglect may leave you feeling somewhat empty and disconnected, lost or alone. But good news! There are powerful things you can do to cope.

10 Strategies For Coping With Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. Deeply acknowledge the way Emotional Neglect happened in your family and how it’s affected you. This is not as easy as it might sound. It’s important to try to understand, for example, was it one parent or both? Did your parents fail to respond to your emotions because they were struggling themselves? Because they were selfishly focused on their own needs? Or because they simply did not know that emotions matter? Was your Emotional Neglect active or passive, mean-spirited or benign? How did it affect you as a child, and how is it affecting you now? Understanding your CEN on a deep level will free you from self-blame and shame, and validate your experience.
  2. Accept that your emotions are blocked off, but they are still there, waiting for you. Your child’s brain protected you by walling off your emotions, but it could not make them go away completely. Today you can still access them. By accepting that they exist, you’ll be able to learn how to listen to them, use them and manage them.
  3. Pay attention to your feelings. This is probably the single most powerful thing you can do to cope with your CEN. It’s a way to do the opposite of what your parents taught you, start to honor your feelings, and reach across the wall to the richness, color, and connection that lies on the other side: your emotions. Paying attention to your feelings will allow you to begin to use them as they are meant to be used.
  4. Practice sitting with negative feelings to increase your tolerance. Learning how to sit with strong or painful feelings is one of the main early building blocks to learning all of the emotion skills. Sitting with negative feelings will put you in control of yourself.
  5. Keep an ongoing list of your Likes and Dislikes. Pay attention and take special note as you go through your day. Write down everything you can find that you either do or do not like. It can be small, medium or large, but nothing is too small to make the list. Knowing these things about yourself will set you up to be able to make yourself happier.
  6. Develop and practice compassion for yourself. As a person with CEN, you are probably far kinder to others than you are to yourself. Try to accept that as a human being, you have the same rights that you allow everyone else. You will make mistakes, you will make poor decisions, and you will fail. And you should not be any harsher on yourself for those things than you would be on a friend who you love. Practicing self-compassion will build your self-love.
  7. Become aware of the feeling of anger when it happens in your body. Of all the emotions, anger is the one that, when blocked off instead of expressed and managed, will consume you. Becoming aware of your anger will immediately start to soothe and empower you.
  8. Read a book on assertiveness. Learning how to be assertive is the counterpart to becoming aware of your anger. Being assertive is a way to get other people to hear what you feel, hear and need. Learning assertiveness will make other people value you more.
  9. Share your CEN story with someone close to you. There is something about sharing your CEN story that allows you to own it and take it seriously. Telling someone about your CEN will help you feel less burdened and alone.
  10. Look for the effects of CEN on your primary relationships. Has your Childhood Emotional Neglect played out in your marriage? Affected the way you’ve parented your children? Made you feel uncomfortable with your parents? Looking for the effects of CEN in your relationships will open the door to the people you love.

These 10 strategies for coping with Childhood Emotional Neglect actually do more than just help you exist and manage your life with your CEN. They have the added advantage of helping to heal your CEN.

Practice these 10 strategies as best you can and you will not only survive, you will thrive. And in the most important way of all. Emotionally. 

To learn much more about how CEN holds you back from learning the emotion skills, how that affects your relationships, and how to heal Emotional Neglect in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your children.

To learn much more about how CEN happens, how it plays out through adulthood, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

find out if you grew up with CEN, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.

Why Understanding What Makes You Feel Emotionally Numb Is The First Step To Feeling Again

Way back in 2008, an amazing thing happened that changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself and parented my children. Ultimately, it changed the way I practice psychology.  Here’s what happened.

I was busy seeing clients in my psychology practice. I was working with couples, individuals, and families. I was treating problems like depression, marriage and family conflict, anxiety, communication problems, anger and more. Some of my clients had traumatic or abusive childhoods, and some did not. My clients were a varied mix: plumbers, doctors, salespeople, secretaries, scientists, stay-at-home parents, and more.

Many of my clients had very little in common with each other, yet I began to see a pattern among them that appeared over and over again.

A remarkable number of very different people tried to express a particular burden to me — a burden they had carried through their lives and felt deeply, but never had the words to express. They all said it differently:

I am not like other people.

I’m missing something.

I feel empty.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone.

I am numb.

These folks were not damaged, traumatized, or mentally ill. There was no diagnosis to capture their struggle. They weren’t actually different, or empty, or alone, but they felt this way for a reason. It took me two years of delving into the question and researching to find the answer, and when I did I was very surprised.

The answer was deceptively simple, and not at all what I had expected. The cause of this burdensome feeling was the one life experience all these varied people shared. They had all grown up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

As children, they all had learned that their emotions were not accepted in their childhood homes. As children, they all had, out of necessity, walled their emotions off. Now, as adults, they were emotionally numb.

Becoming aware that you are emotionally numb is painful, for sure. But understanding the reason why can be surprisingly hard to do. Yet it is the first step to stopping the pain of numb.

How Do I Take The First Step?

  1. Think back and try to remember the times and ways that your parents failed you emotionally. Did they fail to notice when you were sad, hurt, angry or anxious? Did they fail to ask you what you wanted and needed? Did they not get to know you in the most deeply personal way — emotionally?
  2. Understand that your parents probably did come through for you in some important ways. The problem is they did not come through for you emotionally enough, and you are now left with the results.
  3. Accept that your brain did what it needed to protect you. It walled off your emotions to protect your parents (and you) from them in your childhood home.
  4. Realize that numbness is a feeling that comes and goes. Like every other feeling, it is your body talking to you. It is saying, “Wake up. Pay attention. Something is not right.”

The Amazing Shift That Happens When You Finally Understand

Since I wrote Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, I now work almost exclusively with folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). As a therapist, it is the most rewarding work that I have ever done. Walking my clients through the steps of understanding is like walking them inward, toward their true selves.

Understanding that you are numb because your emotions are blocked off frees you up in a truly amazing way. Suddenly you realize that you are not damaged after all, and also that you did not ask for this. Suddenly you realize that your lifelong struggle is there for a reason and that it’s not your fault. You see that what you thought was missing, your emotions, are still there after all.

This is the vital first step to feeling again.

The Choice You Have To Make Now

Once you cross the line from being baffled and numb to understanding, you will have a big decision to make. You will need to answer this question:

Do you want your feelings back, or do you want to stay numb?

If you wish to stay numb, you can go on with your life. Just like always, you will sometimes feel glimmers of emotions, but probably not when you need them the most, and not with the depth and richness they should have. Sometimes you’ll be aware of the numbness, and sometimes you will not.

In contrast, if you want your feelings back you have some work ahead of you. But I assure you that, albeit scary at times, it will be the most rewarding work you will ever do.

It All Comes Down To Your  Wall

Are you making the choice to feel? If not, I understand that you may not be ready yet. It’s okay because it’s never too late to come back when you are ready.

If you are making the decision to feel, I am proud of you. You have chosen to challenge yourself in a way that can change your life. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are answers for you.

Your path is well-defined, and you are in the comforting company of the many thousands of CEN people who have walked this path before you.

Bit by bit, you can follow the steps to CEN recovery. You can take down the wall that protected you as a child but is now in your way, holding you back, blocking you off, and keeping you emotionally numb.

Piece by piece, you can tear down that wall, and fill your empty space. Step by step you can learn the emotion skills you missed. 

Inch by inch, you can move forward, reaping the rewards of finally accepting, and learning to love, your deepest, truest self.

To learn all about the steps of CEN recovery and how to take them, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how CEN is interfering with your key relationships, and how to fix it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.