3 Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had a unique window into how CEN plays out in people’s adult lives and relationships.

The sad reality is that growing up in an emotionally neglectful family, with your feelings ignored or discounted, has profound effects on how you feel in your adult life, the choices you make, and your perceptions of yourself.

The Emotional Neglect you experienced as a child stays with you throughout the decades of your entire life. It hangs over your relationships, holding them back from developing the depth and resilience that you deserve to have.

But there is one relationship that is uniquely influenced by CEN. It’s affected relentlessly, even if silently, from Day One of your life. It’s your relationship with your parents.

3 Common Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  1. You have spent your life feeling emotionally let down by your parents. This makes it hard for you to have full trust and love for them. You may have always blamed your lack of positive feelings on yourself and/or felt guilty about it.
  2. Your parents are the ones who birthed and raised you, so they should be the ones who know you best. But since they have overlooked your emotions all this time, they have overlooked the deepest, most personal expression of who you are. So sadly, they may not actually know you in any kind of deep or meaningful way. This is painful.
  3. Once you realize your parents emotionally neglected you, it can be hard to be around them. It’s like going to a well for water over and over again, only to find that it’s still dry. To cope with the letdown and disappointment, you may try to convince yourself that you don’t want or need their love or approval anymore.

Below is a section about emotionally neglectful parents from my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. In it, I explain how and why it’s so uncomfortable and painful to have your emotional needs thwarted by your parents.

A Passage From the Book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships

Built into our human brains from birth is an intense need for emotional attention, connection, approval, and understanding from our parents. Every baby born needs to feel emotionally connected to its parents. We do not choose to have this need, and we cannot choose to get rid of it. It is powerful and real, and it drives us throughout our lives.

I have noticed that many people with Childhood Emotional Neglect try to downplay this essential requirement by viewing it as a weakness, or by declaring themselves somehow free of it.

“I’ve given up on my parents. They mean nothing to me now.”

“My parents are incapable of giving me anything. I’m done.”

“I simply don’t care anymore.”

I fully understand why you may say these things, either out loud or just inside your own head, and believe them. After all, it’s very painful to have your deeply personal, human needs for emotional connection and emotional validation thwarted throughout your childhood. It’s a natural coping strategy to try to minimize your frustrated needs or eradicate them altogether.

But the reality is, no one, and I mean NO ONE escapes this need. You can push it down, you can deny it, and you can deceive yourself. Sometimes it may seem to be gone, but it does not go away. It will inevitably return.

That’s why growing up without being seen, known, understood, and approved by your parents leaves its mark upon you. But with all that said, growing up thwarted in this way is not a sentence to being damaged.

In fact, it is very possible if, instead of disavowing it, you accept that your need is natural and real, you can purposely manage it. In this way, you can heal the pain of growing up unseen or misunderstood.

Often, contradictory feelings plague CEN children in their relationships with their parents. Love alternates with anger, appreciation with deprivation, and tenderness with guilt. And none of it makes sense to you.

If you identify with some of these struggles and feelings with your own parents, it’s okay. You are in the company of legions of other emotionally neglected folks who are struggling in the exact same way.

And there are answers. There are some key things you can do to make this easier for you.

3 Key Steps to Start Protecting Yourself in Your Relationship With Your CEN Parents

  1. Stop viewing your emotional needs as a sign of weakness. Your need for emotional connection and approval from your parents is a sign of only one thing: your humanity. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s built into your nervous system. It just is what it is.
  2. Accept that, no matter how you feel toward your parents, it’s okay. Since you can’t choose your feelings, you are not allowed to judge yourself for any feeling you have, no matter what it is. So, acknowledge and accept your feelings as they are, because managing any feeling starts with accepting that feeling. 
  3. Shift into self-protection mode. I know this may seem uncomfortable. No one wants to think that they need to protect themselves from their parents, but, in this case, it is necessary. Consider the type of parents you have. Do they seem to hurt you on purpose? Are they too absorbed in their own needs and pursuits to notice yours? Or are they simply unaware of feelings in general and so aren’t capable of noticing or responding to yours? Then, taking into account the type of parents you have, start forming a plan to protect yourself. I am talking about boundaries.

How to Set Up Protective Boundaries

  • Take control of the time you spend with your parents. You may need to alter your patterns of phone calls and visits, keeping them shorter or more structured. You may need to say, “No,” to some of their invitations, see them only on your own home turf, or meet in neutral territory. Start taking charge of the plans, and do so without guilt, since your first responsibility is to protect yourself.
  • Create an internal boundary. Become much more mindful of what you expect from them or ask of them. Share less personal information with them as needed in order to make yourself less vulnerable. Lower your expectations for understanding and emotional support so that you will not set yourself up to be disappointed by what they are unable to give you.
  • Consider talking with your parents about CEN. Some parents, especially ones who mean well but simply don’t understand the psychology of emotions well enough to respond to you emotionally, (I call these parents the Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves or WMBNT) will at least try to understand. For extensive guidance on whether and how to have such a conversation with your parents, consult the book quoted above, Running On Empty No More.

By accepting your own needs and feelings, you have made a good start. Your first responsibility is to yourself. You must protect yourself, even if it’s from your own parents. 

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and  Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.

Jonice

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Rabz De Rivers - July 17, 2020 Reply

I am afraid there’s little else to do but to mourn and grieve how one’s parents “outside” never matched what you needed “inside” – perhaps for a lifetime … Perhaps lots of people may want to “out-think” the truth with it’s hopeless facts but there is nothing wrong with giving up and grieving (crying) for that child inside that was always struggling for attention or some kind of love or hugs or affirmation ….There is nothing wrong with tears that resolve the painful truth .. Accepting even no relationship is better than permanent struggles and illusions …..It’s a very sad step to reach but for some of us it’s all too true ..

Then you start taking care of the leftover child of pain inside you, yourself .. Becoming the mirror where sadness now takes root but also understanding that some parents cannot truly see or love their own children ….It’s a loss but loss grows maturity and wisdom .. xx

Peter - June 28, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice,
My wife and I found your books to be very helpful. We found answers to many questions that bothered us for a long time. We told some of our friends about books. I wonder if I should talk to my parents about CEN. I’m concerned that even if positive result is achieved very quickly, they may still be anxious for a while. Since they are in early 70s, is potential upside worth potential downside? Please understand that I’m not looking for a very definite yes/no answer. Maybe I missed something in the book that can help me find the answer. I’d appreciate your direction. Thank you

    Jonice - June 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Peter, this is a very personal choice. That said, if you feel your parents can grasp this and if you can present it in a very caring, understanding, and loving way, I usually encourage people to try. You can take small steps to introduce it and ease them into it (use book #2 to help you do that) instead of doing it all at once. I hope this helps.

Jackie - June 27, 2020 Reply

This registers with me although it was mostly my mother that neglected me. I’m now 56 and over the years I’ve come to realise that she is an extremely selfish person and expects no-one to question her, even my Dad went along with it ‘anything for a peaceful life’s sort of guy but in the last few years I’ve come to realise he was scared of her as he became frail through cancer and I lost him in September 2019. I now realise my mother was only interested in me in the last year or so as I was of use to her and since my dad passed away she has decided to cut me out of her life completely. Her choice, her loss is how I now deal with it. I cared for my Dad when she was too busy with her social life. I’m still coming to terms with losing my Dad but with her I cant lose what I never had can I?

    Jonice - June 28, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jackie, that sounds really hard. I’m impressed with the way you have faced what your mother cannot give you. I encourage you to focus on nurturing and caring for yourself and your own emotions.

Eman. - June 26, 2020 Reply

When I was maybe around 8-9 years old I bite people for no reason I didn’t know not to do that. but then my mother. shes has done something that will be traumatizing forever and why I am scared of my mother. One day when I bit my little brother for no reason (keep in mind I was little) that was the last straw for my mother. So, she slapped me on the mouth and my mouth was bruised and bleeding. My mum told me not to tell anyone about this but now after maybe 2 or 3 years I have spoken up about this.

Eman. - June 26, 2020 Reply

Everything I red is so true. my parents take my feelings as a joke.
There was a time where me and my parents had a small argument then my parents wanted to push my buttons. I could hear her whisper to my dad “im gonna act like im talking about her and im gonna show you how sensitvie she is” after she acted like she was talking about me i said “uhm.. stop talking about me would you.. :(” then she started laughing at me saying how im so sensitive and how sons are better than daughter. i said to her “STOP! IT ISNT FUNNY! IM JUST SENSITIVE!!” then they started yelling at me for standing up for myself. they dont take my feelings seriously.

    Jonice - June 26, 2020 Reply

    I’m very sorry, Eman. What matters is that you take your own feelings seriously. They always matter.

Jenny - June 26, 2020 Reply

Hi, As a counsellor in a school community, I come across teens who are emotionally neglected. I wonder if there’s some resource that would be useful to work with these students now. There seems to be quite a bit around for adults dealing with emotional neglect, but not so much kids. Thanks for this article.

    Jonice - June 26, 2020 Reply

    Hi Jenny, thank you for working with teens! In my second book, Running On Empty No More there’s a large part of the book dedicated to emotionally validating and healing emotional neglect in kids and teens. It’s probably available in your local library.

      Jenny - June 28, 2020 Reply

      Thanks Jonice, I will check it out.

Mark in Idaho - June 26, 2020 Reply

Dr Webb, Apparently, you deleted or blocked my post and your reply from the Comments thread.
I have never seen you write on PsychCentral about trying to repair CEN relationships. You only talk about separation and continued blame as a cause of adult struggles.
We’ve offered to meet with her with any professional or chaplain of her choice. Our communication was through her Army chaplain. Everything she has read or been counseled suggests her separating from us.
Her neglect was: discontinued ballet classes due to family scheduling conflicts, a missed dance recital, not protecting her from all of her brother’s downgrading comments, a childhood nickname she decided was derogatory 10 years later, supporting her choice of sexual purity, and more. The worst is how she tells others how bad her childhood was so they reinforce her complaints “You poor dear. Come get a hug” and much more.
Then, she does nothing as her husband emotionally abuses our granddaughters as he puts them on involuntary display. We see them in very controlled environments once or twice a year even though they live 3 miles away.
The counseling she gets appears to only make things worse.

    Jonice - June 26, 2020 Reply

    Hi Mark, I didn’t delete or block anything. I responded to your comment and published yours and mine yesterday. I’m sorry your family is going through this. Family relationships are complicated and no two are the same. Some wounds can be healed and what matters is being available and willing to work through things at whatever point both parties are motivated.

      Mark in Idaho - June 26, 2020 Reply

      She says she was told to set boundaries but she built walls. Beware the ‘score keeping’ children. They score every event in their life and hold that score and call it neglect. I wish I could talk to the counselor who apparently took her through regression analysis and dug through her past. She can tell you the score back to 3 years old. She just retired from the Army at 38.
      I wonder how much time the CEN therapists spend listening to the other side before they give counsel. There appears to be a lot of misplaced aggression. “It’s my parent’s fault I did not get the teacher I wanted.” That is not emotional neglect.
      The “Your parents should have treated you this way and that way…..” puts an unknown high standard that parents cannot reverse time to take a class and get a do-over.
      btw, The previous comments finally posted.

        Jonice - June 26, 2020 Reply

        Not getting the teacher a child wanted is not emotional neglect, no. But there are indeed particular emotional needs that children have and I am trying to make sure all parents know what they are and how to provide them. I will continue to try to bring this vital information to the world. I encourage you to try not to judge all psychology based on your experience with your daughter’s therapist. There are many, many excellent, well-meaning, trained therapists and many of them are on my CEN Therapist List. Wishing you all the best.

Lisa - June 24, 2020 Reply

I am new to your valuable articles about CEN. I’m glad to be able to relate to other people’s dilemma. My parents have been gone since the late 70’s.. I was the scapegoat and my sisters repeat their patterns. I’m just now trying to get a grip on my life (it’s been rough) and slowly achieving. I am partially deaf. Disabilities forbidden in my family and I was ignored profusely causing PTSD and very suppressed emotions

    Jonice - June 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lisa, I’m very sorry you had to endure that. You can definitely nurture yourself now and give yourself the attention and love that you’ve always deserved.

Mark in Idaho - June 24, 2020 Reply

More of this Emotional Neglect malpractice. No mention of trying to resolve the issues. Only more encouragement to build walls.
So, if a child ‘thinks’ they were emotionally neglected by their parent(s) when they were a child, they can pay them back by emotionally neglecting them for the next 40 years as an adult. That sounds like a very mature attitude……NOT.
Not all relationships can be improved but not suggesting even trying to improve the relationship, even with the aid of a professional counselor/therapist is malpractice.
One sided complaints are rarely accurate. Bringing the other party(ies) into the process is important.

    Jonice - June 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mark, I write often about how to talk with parents about CEN and how to repair. But many CEN parents aren’t capable of understanding or doing their part. In this situation, it’s vital for the CEN person to move on and nurture themselves.

Sherry - June 24, 2020 Reply

Is there any merit to focus on your validation needs from your parents when you’ve realized there’s no chance of change in the relationship with the parents?
Shouldn’t we be more focused on accepting that we’re good enough and amazing without their validation? Then moving on to live a good life without them.

    Jonice - June 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sherry, yes that is exactly what you can and should do when your parents are unworkable. Thanks for your comment!

Sarah - June 23, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice. Took me forever to figure this out. Just so happens that both my parents are narcissists. So their emotional neglect was firmly tied up in ” their way way or the high way” . Any articles that link those 2 together that you might have written?

    Jonice - June 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear sarah, I do have articles on narcissistic parents. Just look back through my blogs and you’ll see them. I also cover that topic in both of my Running On Empty books.

CBD Products - June 22, 2020 Reply

I’m, as a person with exactly such parents, really understand everything that is written here and see that they behave this way because of their mistakes that they made earlier. Of course, this has a good promise, but in reality it affects a person very badly because of how toxic they bring this thought. That is why for a long time after I left my parents, I visited a psychologist in order to settle my psyche and stifle the same attempts at toxic behavior.

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear C, the important thing is to look inside yourself for the answers and validation, as your parents will likely never be able to give you any of that. I hope you will keep working on it! Thanks for sharing.

Hank - June 22, 2020 Reply

What’s doubly tough is when you try to talk about this with siblings and they won’t or accuse you of being bitter or resentful. It means I’ve got to throw a few more logs on the “I’m done with this” fire.

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Hank, that is indeed a tough situation. Your sibs may have had a different experience with your parents (this is very common) or they may be less insightful or emotionally aware than you are. The vital thing is for you to protect yourself and care for yourself.

    Isabel - June 29, 2020 Reply

    If it’s of any consolence – I’ve had the same negative experience/ attempts w/ my siblings as well. I’ve had no choice but to accept this on move on . . . Nevertheless I also believe that we are probably more fortunate to at least have been able to “shine the light” on this situation & become more self & environmentally aware! Blessings for more future strength& success!

Dianne - June 22, 2020 Reply

This may be helpful for those whose parents are still alive. But l have yet to read anything of help to someone whose parents are both dead.

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dianne, I will write this article so watch for it! In the meantime, you can find helpful suggestions in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Judy - June 21, 2020 Reply

This is so apt for me right now. My father & I had an ‘event’ at the end of last year where he yelled abuse at me, insulted me and my profession. It was so bad that he even insulted my face (“What’s wrong with your mouth?” – I was pursing my lips to keep from yelling back). It was absolutely awful. I’d been spending every day at their home, helping them downsize and he exploded when I suggested he stop being so rude to the person on the phone.
I’m 56 years old and felt myself crumble into a 4 year old. The gift for me in that moment was the confirmation that he has been emotionally abusing me and my Mum for years. He shuts us down, demeans us, belittles us (“Just women”), & in response, we shut down, don’t speak up and keep emotions to ourselves. Since then I have seen very little of them and am ridiculously grateful for the pandemic as it is a great excuse to not see them. I refuse to be alone with him. I’ve stopped sharing anything about work and stick to topics like gardening (where he still ‘tells’ me what to do). Your article confirms for me that Boundaries are so necessary now. Thank you

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Judy, that devastating moment was, indeed, a gift, as you say. Now you know that you have been dealing with continuous abuse and it is your responsibility to protect yourself from it. Please do so without hesitation, and fight back any feelings of guilt, if any does arise, in the process.

Lyn - June 21, 2020 Reply

CEN how do you become free when they are dead and you yourself 70 years of age?

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lyn, you can change your relationship with your parent even after they are gone. You can get a new perspective on them and on how they affected you. It is never too late.

Claire - June 21, 2020 Reply

I wish I had known about CEN when my parents were alive. I knew my parents were well meaning but unable to have the kind of relationship I wanted with them. They themselves had not been nourished by their own parents, my father had been physically and emotionally abused by his stepmother and his father hadn’t intervened.

So I accepted what we did have and tried to meet their needs. I grieved the loss of that relationship long before they died. When they died I didn’t really feel their loss like my friends did when they lost their parents.

One way CEN has affected me, that I’ve never seen addressed, is in the spiritual dimension. As a Christian (Catholic) I’d like to feel a loving confidence in God as Father. I don’t naturally ‘feel’ this even though I strongly believe. I wonder if there’s a way a therapist can help work through this or do I just accept this is the way I am?

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Claire, as a psychologist I would suggest that the work be done in the area of your feelings about your parents. Making it about spirituality may distract you from the work that will make the most difference for you. Your parents being gone does not mean you can’t still change your relationship with them.

    Annie - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Claire, I have been through your dilema regarding the death of parents and healing work. As a fellow Christian I found wonderful counseling in a Christian counselor. There are two elements of faith that are essential to healing now. First of all, write a letter to each parent regarding what you are going through and how it has hurt you.Hold them accountable for their part and then forgive them. Speak it out loud. I have done this and when you understand that forgiveness isn’t about them, rather it frees you from the mind games that plague your life now, you will truly begiin to heal. Second, the Fifth Commandment says to honor your mother and father, that it may go well for YOU! By completing the first step, you will understand and believe just how important your trials have been and how you are being shaped by them. My experience brought me wisdom, and we are supposed to pray for wisdom. In this way, you can have a close relationship with your heavenly Father. May the Lord bless you and give you peace. Annie

      Isabel - June 29, 2020 Reply

      So beautifully & practically stated for us Annie. Thank you for sharing your helpful words of wisdom & experience!
      I personally find tremendous support through our heavenly God/ Father (as an emotionally neglected child/ daughter) that is whom I’ve learned to trust & feel real fulfillment from. I’m still learning & reading the bible (& planning more group studies) but I just wanted to share w/ others here that it has been my life saving force during this harsh awakening (of being an emotionally neglected child for so many years w/ so many traumas as do many others here I’m sure!). Many Blessings, peace & love to all!
      Isabel A.

Mary - June 21, 2020 Reply

This is a valid and helpful article. However, I am still dealing with CEN concerning both my parents, and they have passed away. I would like to see an article about dealing with emotions after the parents have been dead for years, because obviously I can’t address any of my concerns to them but I am still struggling.

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mary, I did cover that topic in the book Running On Empty No More but I will write a future blog post about that too. Take care!

Amelia - June 21, 2020 Reply

Wow, the “3 Common Challenges of Having Emotionally Neglectful Parents” are so true for me. Thank you for putting these challenges into words. You do feel cutoff from your parents because one day you realize they don’t even know who you are deep down. It’s all superficial. The first statement spoke to me the most: “it makes it hard for you to have full trust and love for them.” This is the first time I’ve considered that I am uncomfortable around my parents because I don’t trust them. I have put the blame on myself. Thank you for giving me a different perspective to consider.

    Jonice - June 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Amelia, I hope your new realization will help you understand yourself and your relationship with your parents better. All my best wishes!

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