Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you.
You can see from this definition that Childhood Emotional Neglect is not something that your parent does to you. Instead, it is something that your parents fail to do for you.
For example, your parents fail to notice enough when you are upset, hurt, or in need of help. Or they fail to ask you enough what you feel, what you need or what you want. So it’s not an actual event, it is quite the opposite. It is, in fact, an event that fails to happen.
This is why I have so often said that most Childhood Emotional Neglect is typically invisible and unmemorable. It weaves itself into the fabric of the family, and endures quietly in the everyday drumbeat of family life, with emotions in the family falling under the radar day after day after day after day.
No one talks about feelings or names them, no one teaches the children about feelings, and no one validates what anyone else is feeling enough. Which is not to say that none of it ever happens at all; but simply that it does not happen as much as the child needs.
But there was a 2009 experiment by Dr. Edward Tronick, a psychology professor at UMASS Boston, that shows a sudden, active, visible, and memorable version of Childhood Emotional Neglect as it happens.
After you watch the video, I have more to say. But please do not read further until you’ve watched the video.
So go to the link below and watch it. Then come right back here so that I can help you process it. Even if you have seen this video before, it is vital that you watch it now. We need it to be fresh in your mind as we use it to process your CEN.
(If you have problems with the link below, just go to Youtube and type into the search bar “Edward Tronick Still Faced Experiment.”)
Watch the Still Faced Parent Video. Then come right back!
OK, so now you’ve watched the video. And I have some questions for you.
I would like for you to take some time with each question, really thinking about it. Writing your answers is helpful instead of just thinking them.
I ask you to consider how the child responded in the video, what you thought the child was feeling, and how intense her feelings were.
Then think about how it might affect an infant to grow up with a parent who is not necessarily as dramatically ON or OFF as the Still Faced Parent but is nevertheless blind to her child’s feelings.
Unlike the extremes of the still faced parent, the emotionally neglectful parent’s emotional inattention may be quite consistent and predictable. Imagine that the child continually goes to his parent for soothing or support, and can generally count on having his physical needs met. But his emotional needs fall by the wayside.
What does this child learn? She learns that when she needs to be soothed, comforted, or understood, she should keep those needs to herself. She learns that, unlike her physical needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are important, but that her emotional needs are not. She learns that the deepest, most biological expression of who she is, her emotions, do not matter.
She learns that she does not matter.
Yet the emotionally neglected child will likely have no memory of his parent’s failure to act. Unlike the child of a more extreme or unpredictable parent who suddenly withdraws attention, rejects or abandons the child, or emotionally abuses him, he will likely be unable to see or recall the more subtle, everyday lack of action.
This is what happens in the life of the child who is growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
In my five-part Fuel Up For Life Recovery Program to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect, the first step is the foundation for the other four. Step one is becoming aware, and truly accepting, the reality of your Childhood Emotional Neglect: that it happened to you, how it affected you as a child, and how it’s affecting you now.
Now that you have watched the video and thought about how it pertains to you, I invite you to go back and watch it again. This time, pay attention to what you are feeling as you watch it. Watch the Still Faced Parent Video Again.
Then, keep in mind this: the feelings you have while you watch this video are likely the ones you had as a child, probably in a less intense but more chronic way, over and over throughout your childhood. These are probably also the feelings that reside in your body, now walled off but still there, in your adult life too.
Over the next few weeks, when you have a few minutes to yourself, keep picturing yourself in the place of the child in the Still Faced Parent Video. Try picturing yourself as a child, with the parents you had and in the home you grew up in.
What CEN lessons did you learn? What CEN messages did you get? How are you continuing to follow those lessons and messages now? Consider these questions for some time, and think deeply into it. Your answers form the foundation upon which your healing will be built. The deeper your understanding, the more thorough your awareness, the more ready you will be for the next step in your recovery.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable. To find out if you grew up with it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to feel your feelings and express them in your relationships plus parent your children in an emotionally responsive way, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
There is one powerful aspect of all of our lives which refuses to conform to the laws of nature. This part of your life has the ability to make or break your marriage, direct your career choices, drive your friends away, or keep them connected to you through thick and thin. It is rooted in your physiology, defines your humanness, and yet makes you a human unique from every other.
Despite its incredible power, it is nevertheless largely ignored and suppressed by many people. I am talking, of course, about emotion.
Not surprisingly, these two reasons perpetuate each other. The less attention we pay to our feelings, the less we learn how they work and how to use them. That only serves to make them more confusing.
Then the problem is perpetuated in another, even more, enduring way. If your parents were confused by your feelings and ignored them (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), then they inadvertently taught you to do the same. Growing up blind to your own feelings, you will also be blind to your children’s feelings, and you will raise them as you were raised.
On and on it goes, with one generation after another learning little about how their own feelings work and what to do with them. One generation after another, expecting feelings to be logical, make sense, and conform to the laws of nature. Causing more and more people to become frustrated and baffled and, lacking a way to cope, choose to ignore them.
Think Newton’s Laws of Gravity, the Laws of Motion, or the Relativity Principle. These laws of physics allow us to understand, define and predict our complicated world. They’re all based on formulas and can be demonstrated by mathematics. They make sense. They’re logical.
As complex as those principles may be to thoroughly understand, basic knowledge of them at least provides us with guidelines. We know what to expect when we drop an apple or push a chair, and generally why it happens.
But many bright people have sat in my therapy office completely befuddled by their own or their spouse’s feelings. And they are confused for a very good reason. It’s usually because they’re trying to apply the logic of nature to something that does not follow them:
It’s wrong for me to be angry about this.
How can she possibly feel that way?
That’s a dumb way to feel.
You just said you’re happy, and now you’re not. Which is it?
I need to stop feeling this way.
Feelings cannot be true or false, right or wrong, smart or stupid. You cannot choose them. Your body chooses them for you. They just are what they are, period.
Your feelings are your greatest motivators and guides. They are messages from your body, that’s all. They may hurt, but they can’t hurt you. Listen to your feelings, but don’t give them too much power. It’s your responsibility to manage them, share them with care, and try to understand them on their terms.
It’s your responsibility to learn how your emotions work so that you’ll understand how your children’s emotions work. Then, instead of teaching them to ignore their feelings, you can teach them how to feel, name, manage and share their feelings: the exact opposite of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
That’s you, stopping the cycle of confusion and avoidance. That’s you, defying the laws of human nature. And creating a different future for us all.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about emotions, how they work, and what happens when you ignore them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to use your feelings in relationships and teach your kids about emotions, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Some parts of this article originally appeared on PsychCentral.com and have been republished here with the permission of the author.
Growing up with your emotions ignored is a far bigger thing than most people would ever imagine.
As a child, to cope with the unspoken demands of your childhood home, “Keep your feelings to yourself,” you push your emotions off to the other side of a wall, and this is, without a doubt, a brilliant and adaptive move. After all, now those burdensome emotions are no longer a problem for your parents or yourself.
But when you grow up, it does become a problem. Something is missing inside you; a valuable resource that you need. If only you had full access to your feelings, they would guide you, inform you, motivate and connect you. Sadly, you are operating with a dearth of this rich asset that everyone else enjoys.
The strange thing about this missing asset is that even though you don’t realize what you are missing, you feel it. When it comes to blocked-off feelings, the body knows. Somehow, in some way, you will, in your body, feel it.
Some people actually say, “I feel empty,” and they can point to a place in their belly, chest or throat where they feel it. Others say they feel numb, lost, apart, at sea, or different. And others say, “I don’t feel things as intensely as other people do.”
Emptiness is unique to its holder, but yet it is always the same. It is your body saying, “You are missing something important. Wake up. Pay attention. This matters.”
Fortunately, there are ways to make your emptiness go away. There are things you can do that will powerfully change your life for the better. No, healing your emptiness is not simple, but it is definitely possible.
|Thoughts/Behavior||Relationships||Your Inner Life|
|Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood||Increase emotional connections||Grieve what you didn’t get|
|Emotional awareness & management||Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed||Develop compassion for yourself|
|Self-care||Work on trusting others||Decrease self-directed anger|
|Decrease self-blame||Therapy relationship||Self-acceptance & self-love|
|Increase self-knowledge||Share your pain with another||Value your emotions|
|If you have depression or anxiety, let medication help||Let down your walls||Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored|
If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. All of these items can be done, and improvement in one of these areas often will feed into other areas. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.
However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, conscious effort and time. You may benefit from the help of a therapist. It is, though, entirely possible to fill your emptiness on your own, with the right structure and support.
An amazing result of working through the four steps is this: you will gradually learn to love yourself. Picture yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.
Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.
Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.
It is not an absence but space, filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.
Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.
Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.
Abandonment issues lurk under the surface of your life, often raising their ugly heads when you least expect them. Abandonment issues are caused by a painful experience of being left by someone important, like a parent, spouse, sibling or very close friend.
Any single one of these three key factors can make you more vulnerable to developing abandonment issues:
All abandonment is not the same. There are two different types.
Most people think of abandonment as a physical experience. In other words, when a child is abandoned, it means that his parents physically left him. Many children have this painful event happen when a parent dies or leaves them for another reason. Adults can be physically abandoned by their spouse leaving them, or by another important person in their lives dying or moving away.
Emotional abandonment is far less obvious, yet equally painful. Emotional abandonment happens when an important person who you believe cares about you and loves you, seems to stop caring about and loving you.
The experience of being abandoned, either physically or emotionally, prompts a very predictable response in your human brain. Your brain automatically goes into high alert, becoming hyper-vigilant for any whiff of anything that could lead you to be hurt by another abandonment.
If you do not acknowledge and work through how you feel about the abandonment experience, your brain’s hypervigilance becomes more intense and continues longer. Over a much longer time than necessary, you may search for rejections or potential abandonments everywhere, and your brain may continually hold you back from taking healthy emotional risks in your life. This is the very definition of “abandonment issues.”
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. When you grow up this way, you receive a powerful, unspoken message throughout your childhood that your emotions do not matter.
Being raised to ignore your feelings sets you up to downplay your emotional reactions to all of the things that happen throughout your entire life, and that includes your abandonment experience.
Unfortunately, ignoring and downplaying your feelings about the abandonment prevents you from being able to work through them in a healthy way. All that old hurt, sadness, anger and fear stays right there with you, keeping your brain in high alert, and holding you back from new relationships and experiences. All of this may happen completely outside of your awareness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often subtle and invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more about CEN and how to heal it, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal yourself see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to heal CEN in your relationships and as a parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Parents, I have an important message for you. Of all the gifts you can give your children, emotional intelligence is probably the most valuable.
For decades, it was believed that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was the primary factor in the ability of a child or adult to be successful in life. Now, thanks to lots of research, we know differently. Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ) is more important to life satisfaction and success than IQ.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence? EQ expert Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. defines it as the ability to manage your own emotions, and also the emotions of others. If you have a high EQ, you are able to recognize your feelings when you have them and understand what they mean. You are also able to read what others are feeling and respond to them appropriately. This makes you well-equipped to manage complex interpersonal experiences.
The importance of EQ to life success has been established in study after study over the last 15 years. Research has shown that students who receive training in emotional intelligence at school try harder in classes, have better self-awareness and self-confidence and manage their stress better in school.
Not only that, high EQ adults are more effective and more successful in leadership positions in both business settings and in the military.
Despite the incredible value of these skills, they are not in the minds of most parents as they raise their children. Parents want to teach their children how to behave, but they are probably not thinking about teaching them how to handle their emotions.
But this must change. Because fortunately, although a parent may have some difficulties helping his child understand complex math or chemistry concepts, all parents have the capacity to help their children develop emotional intelligence.
As Marcy stood chatting with another mom at their daughters’ soccer game, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that her 10-year-old daughter Halley was playing very aggressively. She was kicking the ball in a too-hard, undirected, and out-of-control fashion. As she watched, she saw Halley kick so hard that she missed the ball altogether, and then sit down on the field appearing to be in tears.
Marcy walked over to meet Halley on the sideline, where the coach sent her to cool down. “What’s going on Halley?” she asked her daughter. (This question tells Halley that her feelings are visible and important.)
“I hate soccer and I don’t want to play ever again,” Halley exclaimed with disgust in her voice.
“What’s making you so angry right now, Hon?” (Marcy has named the feeling for her daughter).
“Sophia and Katy were ganging up on me before practice, and they’re still doing it on the field. I hate those two,” Marcy explains, breaking into tears now.
“Aw, Halley, it always hurts so much to get ganged up on. No one likes that!” (Here Marcy has validated Halley’s feelings as understandable while also establishing that her painful experience happens to other people too.)
“You can handle this Halley. I know you’re hurt, but you can put that aside for now and finish the game. Then we’ll talk about what to do about Sophia and Katy on the way home, OK?” Putting her hand in the air for their trademark “pinky high-five,” Marcy says. “You’re strong and you got this.” Halley does the high-five with her mom and nods her head reluctantly. (Here Marcy has shown Halley that her feelings can be managed, and also how to do it.)
Years from now, at age 26, Halley will benefit from this exact experience. She will find herself feeling excluded at work, right before a meeting in which she has to present an important project. She will notice that she’s angry, and she will realize that her feelings matter. She will take a moment to identify the reason (she feels excluded).
Armed with this self-awareness of what she’s feeling and why she will now use the emotion management skills her mother taught her. She will say to herself, “I will think this through later. Right now I need to focus on this presentation.” With that, Halley will put a smile on her face and walk into the meeting looking composed and confident.
Marcy could have handled the soccer situation very differently. She might have walked over to Halley and said any of these things that any parent might say:
Pull it together, Kiddo and get back out there.
This kind of behavior will get you kicked off the team!
What the heck is the problem?
You’re really annoying the coach!
If you’re not going to play the game right, we might as well go home.
None of these responses from a parent would be horrific or unreasonable, but all would ignore the importance of the child’s feelings (the definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). And all would miss an important opportunity to teach the child emotional intelligence.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect yourself; if your parents didn’t teach you the EQ skills, then you may need to begin to learn them yourself.
But as a parent, you don’t have to be perfect at this. You only have to be willing to try. Please know that every single time you notice, respond to, and validate your child’s emotions, you are giving him the skills for a lifetime. Skills for confidence, connection, success, and motivation.
Possibly the greatest, most loving gift ever.
To learn how to emotionally connect with, and emotionally validate, a child of any age (small, teen or adult), see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, your Parents & Your Children.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.