3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to a Child

AdobeStock 163929563 scaled e1583508802196

Yes, it’s true. Emotional Neglect can feel like abandonment to a child.

Let’s start with a refresher on Childhood Emotional Neglect. What exactly is it?

Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than most people would think. That’s because it happens far more simply than most people would think and is far more powerful, as well.

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when the parents fail to respond enough to the emotions of the child. That’s all it takes.

You may grow up with plenty of food, clothes, and a good school. You may have a fine education and even a stay-at-home parent. But none of this is related in any way to Childhood Emotional Neglect.

You may enjoy having all of these basic needs fully met throughout your childhood and, from the outside, you may even appear to be fortunate, indeed. In fact, even from the inside, you may believe that too.

But here is the hard reality. There is no more basic need than emotional validation, emotional connection and emotional support. All children require this. And they need to receive enough of it from their parents in order to become emotionally strong and thriving adults.

Why? Because emotions are far more important than most people think. They are wired into us before birth for a very good reason: to help us survive and thrive.

Our feelings tell us what to do and when to do it and why we’re doing it. They drive us, direct us and motivate us. They tell us with whom we should connect and why we should connect with them, and then they connect us.

In short, our feelings are the deepest, most personal expression of who we are. They are messages from our bodies and when we ignore or discredit them, we are actually ignoring and discrediting ourselves.

The 3 Basic Emotional Needs of Children

  • Emotional Response: Children need to experience their parents noticing their feelings. “You look sad,” “I know you are angry right now,” “I see how disappointed you are,” are examples of emotional response. This communicates to the child that their feelings are real and that other people can see them and, perhaps most importantly, that they matter.
  • Emotional Validation: Children need to be assured that their feelings make sense. “Of course you feel sad, I’m sad about this too,” “I understand why you are angry right now, it’s because_____,” or “It makes sense that you feel disappointed. It’s so disappointing when something you were excited about doesn’t work out.” This communicates to the child that they live in reality and this deepest expression of who they are is understandable to others.
  • Emotional Education: Children will have emotions throughout their entire lives, but they are not born understanding emotions and how they work. If they are to learn, they must be taught by their parents. “You look sad and I understand why. Let’s sit and talk about this together,” “Let’s sort through your angry feelings and how we can help you feel better about this,” “Feeling disappointed is a natural response to this situation and it’s OK to feel that way. Sometimes you just have to wait it out and it will fade. In the meantime, let’s think about what else could be set up to look forward to because that will help too.”

Emotional Abandonment

So how does Emotional Neglect feel like abandonment to the child?

The vast majority of parents respond to an infant’s cries. Parents understand that a crying infant is uncomfortable in some way and needs attention; and to help out, an infant’s cries can be difficult to ignore. In this way, biology provides a way for a non-verbal infant to communicate its needs to its parents.

As children grow they develop verbal skills. They learn to say, “I’m hungry,” for example; but far too few parents teach their child to say, “I’m sad.”

As parents, we teach our children to express their physical feelings but we do a far lesser job when it comes to emotions.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Can Feel Like Abandonment to the Child

  1. Lack of Response: Children feel their emotions in a raw sort of way, in many ways even more intensely than adults. Children’s feelings are experienced as a powerful force as their bodies try to tell them what they want and need. When your parents do not respond to them enough the child feels a sense of abandonment from their parent. A gulf appears between them in which the child feels alone.
  2. Lack of Validation: Children do not know whether their emotions make sense or where they come from. If their feelings are not expressly understood by their parents, they are left with the impression that their feelings are not understandable and perhaps do not make sense to others. This leaves them feeling not just not validated but not valid. They will go through their lives feeling less-than.
  3. Lack of Emotional Education: Children are naturally in the dark about the world of emotions. Where they come from, what they mean, how to read and interpret them and how to use them. If they are not taught by their parents how to understand, manage, and interpret the world of feelings in themselves and others, they grow up lacking emotional intelligence, which has been shown by research to be a key factor in building a successful personal and work life in adulthood. The uneducated child feels at sea, alone and abandoned in the emotional world.

What to Do if You Experienced Emotional Abandonment as a Child

First, do not worry because it is never too late. You can un-abandon yourself!

To do this follow the steps of recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Begin to pay more attention to your feelings, the vital messages from your deepest self. You will find that what you always thought was useless or shameful is actually incredibly useful.

When you follow this process of healing you will find your passion, your preferences, your strengths and your weaknesses, your joy, your needs, and yes, also your pain.

But as you allow yourself to experience all of these mixtures and nuances from within you will be building a richer, more complex, more powerful inner life that will transfer to your outer life.

You will be finding that long-ago abandoned child, reclaiming and validating and nurturing them. And in recovering the deepest expression of who you are, you will finally be allowed to become the person you were born to be.

To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join a community of CEN people going through the steps together with my guidance see the Fuel Up For Life Program.

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


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Bev - January 16, 2023 Reply

The emotional neglect I suffered was only discovered following research and reading your book Dr Jonice. Although I now understand why I am like I am, my 3 siblings never suffered the way I have. I have tried to inform them about it and why I am regularly suicidal and full of self hatred even as a high functioning mother, grandmother and registered nurse. They totally don’t understand and just look at me with disbelief, they think our mother was and is amazing. I am struggling constantly with trying to help myself, my self loathing is (I know) unfounded however I am constantly feeling unworthy of others company and find it difficult to feel a part of a group. It is true as a child I felt totally alone and all my feelings were negated and shut down by my (very often) absent parents.
I envied my friends who had warm and loving mothers waiting for them when the school day was over. I constantly cry for the sad, little girl I was and the depressed and lonely woman I now am.
Thankyou for your book and for helping me to understand why I am like I am.

    Jonice - January 20, 2023 Reply

    Dear Bev, I’m so sorry you are experiencing this. It’s not at all uncommon for siblings in a family to experience CEN completely differently, so it may not be helpful at all to share this with your siblings and may be hurtful instead. I encourage you to talk with a therapist instead who can help you deal with it. And consider the possibility that your brain chemicals may be out of balance due to your experiences of childhood. Suicidal thoughts are very painful and harmful to you, and so talking with a psychopharmacologist (psychiatrist) about whether a brief trial of anti-depressants might help along with the therapy could be very helpful. Please take this as a general comment, not professional advice since I’m not able to know enough about you in this setting. Sending you all my best wishes.

Rae - January 11, 2023 Reply

Hi Jonice,
I have wondered why I find it so difficult to express my feelings and why I find it ridiculously difficult to acknowledge and ask for help. I have wondered what is wrong with me I put it down to hyper independence but didn’t know where it can from. I have always handled all personal crisis it simpler problems in my own, but this coping mechanism is taking it’s toll on me. I tick the boxes for many of the CEN test questions. it gives me hope that I can begin to understand why I am this way and that I can make positive change in my life. Thank you for your studies and for sharing this. I have ordered your book and look forward to reading it.

Keith - March 12, 2020 Reply

Dr. Jonice,

My wife and I have been raised in EN homes, mine fitting 3 of the descriptions and she at least 2 of the scenarios described in your amazing book.

We laughed at how two majorly neglected people were able to find each other and maintain a reletively decent relationship for 15 yrs so far with 4 children without professional help. The oldest of which is entering double digits in age, so your book couldn’t have come at a better time.

We are both highly functioning broken folks, good external bells and whistles going on… with that darkest of clouds always waiting to show up when we let our guards down.

Thank you for your book and this newsletter.. I feel for the first time I have the info to not repeat history…

    Jonice - March 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Keith, it’s amazing that you and your wife have been able to figure things out together. Keep up the good work!

Infran - March 11, 2020 Reply

Afterthought: not all people respond to things in the same way. Just because Child A responds differently than Parent A does doesn’t mean that with of their reactions are invalid, or cannot be validated.

That said, do you think you can do an article on how to validate your child’s emotions if they’re different from yours? I think it could be very helpful.

    Jonice - March 12, 2020 Reply

    Hi Infran, that is a very important topic! And I do talk a lot about that in multiple articles. It starts with accepting the child’s feelings without judgment of right or wrong.

Infran - March 11, 2020 Reply

I *did* have a bit of a “wham” moment on the part about emotional validation: “having emotions = living in reality.” …I can’t think of a nice way to say that I love how succinct it is when out this way. XD; At any rate, I am sick of people talking like emotions are just plain delusional: having meditated a lot on my emotions, I find that they’re a lot more logical that people give them credit for. It might take time to figure out the logic, but it IS there. =)

Nan - March 10, 2020 Reply

ND –

I appreciate your conjecture about SAHM vs WorkAwayFrom Home moms……please be careful not to lump Family Style tracks into Emotionally Available or Not as an entire group! I know thousands of SAHM moms that are the lifeblood of their communities, many giving 20 years or more as volunteers to schools, local non profits and much more. For many of us our passion is to create a dynamic that supports our children having both a vibrant home and public experience, holding the parts of community that happen when everyone else is “working for pay”. Communities need attention as much as businesses.

I appreciate you Dr Jonice for opening a platform for individuals to explore and heal, Un-Abandon our Selves so we can continue to be the vibrant full expression of our gifts and talents: Just what we hoped for in raising our own children.

Today ACCESS is instant – people are Learning and Expanding at an exponential rate <3 Let's be careful not to stand in judgment of others lifestyle differences when the core is Emotional Awakeness. That is what makes your book SO freeing Dr. Jonice – no judgment: not to parents nor others, not ourselves. Instead, Look and SEE what WE are Ready to understand & Open to Healing and Health! I only wish my adopted mother and I had been able to walk down this understanding path before she passed on a few years ago – the stoic Norwegian & her sisters never remember a single hug from their mother, and yet she kept them fed and clothed with hardly any income at all in the Depression. Her creativity & steadfastness were her Gifts of stability to them in a horribly difficult time. I think we ought to honor the other sometimes unspoken strengths that parents can deliver, even if emotions were unpacked.

Thank you Dr. Jonice – I read some of your book every week and am using it both with my clients & with my adult children (who somehow all remember their childhood differently 😉 and know we will have this stream of conversation for the rest of our lives together in different stages of their understanding. My dear mother once told me very late in her 80's (in love) that Life has us in different places on the Circle, and no matter how much we love one another, we are walking a different stage of Life than our children. Grace is a very helpful ingredient as relationships shift, bump and grow.

As for being Adopted – it is it's OWN kind of abandonment, and can be more visceral in our Third Act when our adopted family has passed on. We stand in a place to create our Own Story as we explore our Distinctions we may have suppressed to "fit in".

Best to all of us – Dr. Jonice you have given us all a way to become Emotionally Awake & Healthy!

    Jonice - March 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Nan, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your wisdom with us. I am so glad to be of help to you!

Amy - March 9, 2020 Reply

I love the idea of “unabandoning ourselves”…have been working on this with my therapist but there are so many layers of CEN that it seems impossible at times! But somehow, little by little, I’m discovering I *can* take care of that little child who needed someone to care, nurture and help them and provide for her all the things she never got! It’s empowering!

Peter - March 9, 2020 Reply

Excellent analysis. Took me back to when I was 18. There was zero response, validation, education. I can understand trying and failing but they didn’t even try!

Brenda - March 9, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb, I grew up in a CEN family but attributed it in many ways to culture. Scandinavians are notoriously stoic, pragmatic, and not given to expression of emotion or even touching. Have you seen this as well? I am now working to undo the damage not only done to me as a child, but also what I passed along to my children. Thank you for the great insights and knowledge you provide.

– Brenda

    Jonice - March 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Brenda, yes I do think this is a culture that is less emotionally demonstrative. I applaud you for working to give emotional validation to your children.

Annie - March 8, 2020 Reply

Dr. jonice, this is your best article ever, for me. Thank you!

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad! Thank you, Annie.

baird - March 8, 2020 Reply

Thar comment is no more true than fly a stay at home mother is the best option for raising children;;this comment that fathers should share half is just modern carry on mothering is a very satisfying and wonderful job is done because you chose to have a child and not because of unprotected sex. when children are truly wanted and loved the mother is usually exceptional putting all her love and energy into being a parent and a wife however if a mother is not wanting children and the responsibility that comes with them she is usually a poor mother always looking else where for satisfaction all you have to do is look at a cow and her calf some cows make excellent mothers and other cows make very poor mothers and older more mature person is best a young mother (not always) is not ready for the responsibility of children.

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Good points, Baird. Thanks for sharing them!

      Becky - March 9, 2020 Reply

      Do you really agree with Baird’s comments? Her writing is judgemental and opinionated. She compares mothers to breeding cows! If a mother does not stay at home 24/7 does that make her a bad mum?
      I really respect your work and have taken a lot from your books and am surprised that you seem to agree with these points without question.

        Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

        Dear Becky, I think that if you reread my comment you’ll see that I pointed out that many stay at home moms are very fulfilled and very available emotionally. I challenged the assumption that all moms of any kind are a certain way.

    Chancery Stone - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Baird, what does any of that have to do with emotional neglect? And why, exactly, shouldn’t a father share half of child-rearing? The child is half his, exactly. Or do you think men get a free pass in child rearing – because…? Likewise, what does unprotected sex have to do with emotional neglect? Many ‘accidental’ children are loved just as much as planned children and many planned children are not loved at all. My parents had me intentionally and they were disastrous parents, with no idea how to meet any but the most basic needs. And they were both intelligent and well-read, not lower class drunks or drug addicts or any other thing that ‘excused’ the behaviour. Likewise neither parent was young – my mother was 23 and my father 35. Your list of ‘perfect parenting’ is a lot more to do with social conventions than what actually produces neglected children.

Jerry - March 8, 2020 Reply

As a child who lost a mother at 13 after she suffered a long illness and hospitalization, and was subsequently raised by a father who saw his role as providing food, clothing and shelter (and nothing else), I never fully understood my shyness, loneliness, lack of self esteem and social skills. As an adult, I trained myself to be outgoing, highly social and professionally successful, but never lost that empty feeling inside. Both my marriages have been codependent/narcissist relationships and only now, in my 70s, have I begun to understand the shame that comes with CEN. Still working on it, but your writings have been helpful.

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jerry, I’m sorry your childhood was this way. It’s wonderful that you are addressing how it affected you and I’m so glad to be helpful in that process.

Beverley - March 8, 2020 Reply

I think it’s very important too to talk about responding appropriately to a childs emotions and not just non responses. A large part of my CEN comes from the angry reactions I got to emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt etc. I learnt not to show these feelings and pushed them all away as a child coz they upset the household according to my mother.

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Beverley, yes you’re right. I should talk about that more often! Thanks for pointing that out because it is very harmful indeed.

M. - March 8, 2020 Reply

When I realized that this was the source of siblings’ distress, and that they live in a world that seems to require emotional avoidance, it has been heartrending, although finally the answer to questions I’d had for so long about why our family was and remains so fragmented, and why even a sister who is a parent herself teaches that exteriorization and neglect to her now-becoming accomplished children.

While I hardly know what to do, this particular essay gives some insight – we may have to address our siblings in terms very like those Jonice has outlined as helping offspring.

Thank you for this priceless referential material!

Who knows? It is possible that in the act of working to heal others, we heal ourselves.

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear M, it works even better going the other direction. In the act of healing ourselves, we heal the people around us.

Matti - March 8, 2020 Reply

I am so glad to have found information about CEN as it has given me some much needed insight into what makes me tick. When I describe my childhood to others, I say “my parents gave me everything I needed materially, but were lacking in emotional support”. They were also both controlling. Difficult things were swept under the carpet and never discussed. I felt very alone growing up even though I have two older brothers, and I have always been a loner. I was also adopted. While being adopted never affected me as a child, when I was in my late 30’s I started wondering about certain aspects of my childhood and if being adopted had more of an impact on me than I had realized. After discovering CEN though, I think it was more the emotional neglect than being adopted that has shaped who I am. I have a very good job and am “materially successful” and have been at the same company for over 30 years. My personal relationships, however, have never gone well past the initial honeymoon phase. After having been married and divorced twice, and having ended almost every friendship I’ve ever had due to generally being treated poorly and/or being used, I have determined that I am just not good at human relationships. I am a giver and I have always put others’ feelings ahead of my own, and am not good at dealing with uncomfortable conversations so I let things go that I should have addressed. I essentially have taught people to treat me the way they do. I am also a bit controlling since much of my control was taken away as a child, and am also a perfectionist. While I realize on an intellectual level what I have been doing wrong, I can’t seem to change my behavior and have pretty much given up on people. The silver lining is that I now finally understand myself more than I ever have before.

    Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Matti, you seem to have a good understanding of what’s wrong. I encourage you to make an appt. with a CEN Therapist off the list on this website.

    kate - March 13, 2020 Reply

    Your story rings true to me. I was raised by a single mother who was also a narcissist and an alcoholic. I always had to stuff my feelings. My mother had money, so I had my physical needs met; good schools, clothes etc. But emotionally I was “bad”, “wrong”, and ignored when I had any feelings of anger, upset or sadness. I was a quiet child, a loner,and introspective. I ended up internalizing the message fed to me of “you are the problem, you are wrong and you don’t know what you are talking about”. I don’t think I ever really knew what I felt, except bad. I spent most of my youth and early adulthood depressed. I am just starting to recognize my feelings in my late 50’s. I have struggled in both my jobs and in friendships. I often feel misunderstood. I’ve ended most of my friendships in the past few years because I finally recognize them to be one sided, codependent and not what I thought they were. My marriage is over, same story. Because my mother is a narcissist I have fallen into the same “comfortable” types of relationship that shaped me in my childhood, until they weren’t. (Comfortable anymore) I am solely working on myself, giving myself time and understanding, something that my mother never gave me. I am looking for mutually caring and supportive friendships. If it somehow feels bad, I’m out. I no longer have time for giving endlessly. Because of this CEN site and some that concern introversion I now feel that I belong to a group of other either misunderstood or healing people (or both). I have hope that I can shed the pain and emerge from the cave and learn to recognize my feelings and be whole. (however slowly) Thank you Jonice, thank you Matti. 😉

      Jonice - March 16, 2020 Reply

      Dear Kate, thank you for your helpful words for Matti. I’m so glad you have found your people! It’s so important.

Vivien - March 8, 2020 Reply

I’m now 72, and the eldest of five siblings. My early memories with my sister, two years younger than me, are somewhat lighter than the later years. Once my brother, younger sister and second brother came along I felt abandoned. My sense was that my brother (who arrived when I was 7) was somehow ‘better’ than I was, and the subsequent arrival of two more sibs, while not necessarily threatening me so much, still deprived me of time with my parents. That is the time when I began to feel alone. Lost. Abandoned. I ran away from home when I was 8 – only for two days but in hindsight it was a cry for someone to please notice me.
In later years I wondered why my parents had five children, when it was clear that, while they loved and provided for us in all the usual ways, we – the elder sibs – were neglected once the younger ones demanded the attention that once had been ours. No matter how much a family has in the way of resources, there are still only 24 hrs in a day, a day that goes from being shared between two children, to being more thinly shared between five. My responsibility was to ensure my younger sisters and brothers didn’t get into trouble at play – to ease the burden of caring for a large family by keeping my younger sibs in line. ‘You’re the eldest, you should have known better’ was something I heard regularly, along with ‘Children should be seen and not heard’.
My voice was denied, and I had no way of expressing emotions I couldn’t understand, to people who apparently had no time for them. They were too busy looking after their growing brood and perhaps of a generation when children’s emotions didn’t count for much anyway.
I still feel sad that somehow I wasn’t good enough, and that my parents weren’t available to me when I so needed them.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Vivien, you were good enough! Your parents were not aware of the emotional needs of children. I hope you will work to give yourself that emotional attention and validation you missed.

Lori Jo - March 8, 2020 Reply

My mom was very proud to boast that she taught me, as an infant, not to cry. Of course, that was just the beginning. I have never before considered CEN as abandonment and, boy, does it make sense. Thanks for your help on the journey of reclaiming ME.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Wow, Lori, I wonder how your mother did that and how it affected you. I’m so glad to be helpful on your healing journey.

P - March 8, 2020 Reply

I stumbled across your articles several months ago and find them interesting. I believe I experienced emotional neglect as a child but had no clue. I was just surviving as best I could as a child and a few people I’m close to do not understand what I try to explain about my behavior as a child. I think your articles help me as I explore CEN with my psychologist. I try very hard to now convey my knowledge to my son and practice emotional understanding with my grand daughter. I did this a lot with my son but didn’t know about CEN so I was on the right track following my heart knowing something was missing from my childhood but not able to put a finger on it. Pretty sure I now know but still don’t understand some aspects of understanding my feelings and how to deal with them. Not sure about “taking control.” I have 1 of your books and will sit down and re read it; hopefully with better understanding. Not easy trying to deal with something I didn’t even know I might have experienced.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear P, yes it is hard, but definitely possible. I’ll keep the articles coming and you’ll find other resources throughout this site.

ND - March 8, 2020 Reply

A great post.

I was perplexed, though, by you saying “You may have a fine education and even a stay-at-home parent.”

I think having a stay-at-home parent is an alarm bell, not an indicator of a good upbringing. It’s actually a recipe for emotional neglect. The emotional support of a child is much better facilitated when both parents are earning and both parents are taking equal responsibility for meeting the child’s needs.

I actually think it’s impossible for a stay-at-home parent (particularly a stay-at-home mother) to be fully emotionally available to a child. Her development to adulthood has been arrested. She’s not able to have an eye-level relationship with the father because the economic dependence works in all sort of ways to cause her insecurity, fear, etc. often that she has to bury. Most of all, she is so inexperienced in the world that she can’t relate to her child’s experience.

Stay-at-home mothers sometimes do a sentimentalized type of motherhood that seems to be about feelings, and might even at times give a child good feelings. Ultimately, though, its inadequate to getting a child the emotional availability and recognition s/he needs.

If someone tells me they had a stay-at-home mother, I would even say it’s possible to presume there was emotional neglect in the childhood. I’m willing to be proven wrong on that, but I have to say that in my experience (including my own childhood), I have yet to see stay-at-home motherhood deliver for children on emotional literacy.

Agree or disagree?

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear ND, those are interesting observations. It’s not possible, though, to say that no stay at home mom can be emotionally available enough to the kids. Many stay at home parents are doing what they love and staying with the kids is furthering their development in a way that’s healthy for the whole family. But I have also seen the picture you paint in families as well. I’m sorry this was your experience since that’s what really matters for you.

      ND - March 8, 2020 Reply

      Thanks for you reply.

      I’m not saying no stay-at-home mother could accomplish full emotional literacy to prevent CEN, but that there is a presumption that they aren’t delivering it.

      Even the way you worded that suggests a problem. SAHMs “doing what they love” is about the mother’s feelings not about the child’s?

      The issue is whether the child is getting what s/he needs.

      In the 1970s there were a number of books, by Alice Miller and Dorothy Dinnerstein in particular, that illustrated this problem.

        Jonice - March 9, 2020 Reply

        A mother being emotionally fulfilled increases their ability to emotionally fulfill there children. The two are highly related.

    Michelle - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear ND,

    I had a mother who worked full time and was exhausted and emotionally stunted from her own childhood neglect and while she met my physical needs was unable to meet my emotional needs. Yet, I know that not all working moms are like this.

    The bottom line is a person needs become self aware and emotionally mature and will then be able to meet the emotional needs of their children. It has nothing to do with working or non working and everything to do with their own level of maturity.

    People are complicated and each situation needs to be looked at individually. Lumping all people in a given group is black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is one attribute of emotionally immature people.

Rodney - March 7, 2020 Reply

Hi again Dr Jonice. I felt attachment loss from my mother. Recently I watched a video on YouTube by Lisa A Romano talking about being born. I felt connected again to my early mother. Thanks, Rodney

Leave a Comment: