3 Ways Emotional Neglect From Childhood Affects Your Adult Emotions

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is the silent scourge that hangs like a cloud over countless people’s lives, robbing them of the zest, the warmth, and the connection they should be feeling each and every day.

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents (perhaps unintentionally) fail to respond to your emotional needs enough when they are raising you.

Yes, that’s all it takes.

When your parents don’t respond to your emotions enough, they send you the powerful, subliminal message that your feelings don’t matter enough. This never-stated-out-loud message in your childhood has an incredible ability to disrupt your adult life in immeasurable ways.

As a child, when you receive the subliminal CEN message over and over, your brain somehow understands the unspoken request to hide your feelings, and somehow, surprisingly, knows just what to do.

It walls off your emotions so that they will not bother your parents — or you. Tucked away on the other side, your emotions almost seem to go away. This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but as an adult, your walled-off emotions may become a great problem for you.

**Important: Before you read about these problems, I want to tell you that there are answers to all of them. The one good thing about CEN is that all 3 of these effects  can be healed.

3 Ways CEN Affects Your Adult Emotions

  1. You don’t take your emotions seriously. Part of CEN is an important lesson that is false: that your feelings are useless, unacceptable, excessive, wrong or bad. So when some emotions do manage to leak through your wall, you are likely to distrust them, disavow them, or even belittle them as a sign of weakness. You may even be ashamed of them. Since your emotions are the deepest, most personal expression of your true self, you are actually distrusting, disavowing, and belittling your true self. Over time, this takes a tremendous toll on your self-confidence, self-trust, and self-esteem.
  2. Emotions that are pushed away or ignored become more powerful. Deep emotions must be accepted, acknowledged, and considered before they go away. When they are walled-off or minimized, emotions may seem to disappear. But they do not, they do the opposite. They get stronger. They grow and grow behind your wall, and may leak out at the wrong times, about the wrong things, or perhaps directed at the wrong person.
  3. You miss out on the subtle variations and depths of feelings that other people enjoy. To get through your wall an emotion has to be “big.” So you may go through most of your hours and days feeling nothing; and then suddenly experience an emotion unexpectedly intensely. But what about all the possibilities in-between? Most people use the subtle variations in their emotions to tell them how they feel about things: what matters, what they care about, what they enjoy, like, and dislike. This is incredibly valuable in knowing yourself, making decisions, finding direction and, most importantly, enjoying the richness of life.

The Solution

A subliminal message gains its power from lurking in the shadows. As long as you remain unaware, your belief that your feelings are useless silently, invisibly runs your life. But fortunately for us, the opposite is also true. When you shine a light on that shadow, and see this buried belief for what it is, you can redefine it as simply this: a false belief from your childhood that is now a problem.

Once you have done this, you have taken control. You can begin to actively take it on and change it. You can replace your old, false, harmful belief with a new, healthy strategy:

My emotions are important, and I will begin to welcome them and learn to work with them.

  • Begin to value your emotions, as messages from your deepest self. When you feel your feelings, you are honoring who you are. Not all of your feelings are “right,” and not all of them should be acted upon, but they are all real, important and a sign of your humanity and strength.
  • Start paying more attention to the feelings of the people closest to you. All your life, your CEN message has been undermining your relationships. Paying attention to what others are feeling is a key to everything you’ve been missing so far.

If you work on these steps repeatedly, consistently and persistently, over time it will make a tremendous difference in your life. You will drive away that cloud that’s been hanging over you, and you will experience the zest, the warmth and the connection you’ve been watching others enjoy.

Finally, in honoring and living in your deepest self, you will, at last, be home.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn how to heal the effects of Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Jonice

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Laurel - April 20, 2019 Reply

Can someone with CEN truly be unable to realize how their silent treatment is hurtful and abusive to the ones they love? If someone is pleading with them for a simple yes or no answer, can they truly feel unable to respond?

Ketara - December 10, 2017 Reply

Thank you, Jonice, for everything you’ve written about CEN. After years of various kinds of therapy, this is the first time that everything falls into place. I first learned about CEN half a year ago and since then I’ve thought about it a lot, thinking back, analyzing, reinterpreting my childhood.

I see a cycle of neglect when it comes to my family. It’s not intentional nor malice, it’s not knowing better. I was not allowed to be me, with my quirky interests and outgoing nature, not allowed to make noise. Add to that the bullying at school, and you get a shy creature with the superpower to make herself invisible.

In the past half year I have been working on some changes. I distanced myself more from my family. Making my own choices without discussing it with them, so they can’t give me their negative feedback or even laugh at my “silly goals.” I am becoming me.

I always divied up myself in different persons, so people would like me. Now I’m finally becoming one person. It’s scary but also fun to get to know myself better. I’m starting to like myself more now. The voices in my head are still there, critizing everything I do, but I feel less inclined to listen to them. They are losing their power while my power increases. At 36 years old I feel more confident than ever. And a lot of it started with reading about CEN and thinking about the consequences that had on my life. Asking myself what kind of life I would like to have and how I could achieve some of that in really small steps.

Thanks again for your amazing work. You make a difference in this world. Take care of yourself, for the stories on the blogs below your articles can make one so sad sometimes.

Lisa - December 4, 2017 Reply

Wow, it’s painful just reading this. Neglect….the emptiness, the boredom, the loneliness, the waiting in the dark for my dad to come home from work while my mom crashed from her high with the bedroom door locked. Through therapy I know I was abused but I think the neglect part is not just from the abuser but the people who were supposed to rescue me and didn’t. My entire family knew my mother was abusing me. My dad said he stayed in the marriage for us (go figure) yet he’s still married to her! So the pain is compounded over and over. God, I’m having flashbacks as I write this. It’s winter and winter was a terrible time for us since we couldn’t go outside but our mother either beat us or ignored us. Sometimes locking us in our room for hours. We were too small to reach the light switch so we had to learn to sit in the dark. Sometimes we soiled our pants because nobody would take us to the bathroom. I hate winter.
Sometimes. I worry that I neglected my children in some way. But i look back now and realise I would and have done anything for them. I’ve walked 2 and half hours to get to a food bank for them. Still, since at one point we were lacking money because I got no child support, someone called CPS on me. It crushed me because I wanted so badly to be the mother to them that I never had. And I always thought I was a good mom. Friends had told me I was a good mom. I guess CPS made liars out of them. It seems so unfair and ironic that I sustained years of abuse and nobody did anything but when I tried my damndest trying to protect my kids from their abusive father by kicking him out, someone thought I was abusive or neglectful. It’s been 15 years and I still can’t wrap my head around it. I know logically, staying with their father would have been not only neglect but child endangerment since he tried to choke my eldest at one point (and me, but that’s a different story). But, CPS pounded into my head I was a bad mom. They even made me quit my Masters degree to ‘take better care’ of them. So I ended up the welfare mom they expected me to be.
Anyway, sorry for the sob story. I just had to write this to sort my feelings out. I hope someone can relate.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 4, 2017 Reply

    Hi Lisa, that’s no sob story, it’s the story of your life, and you have been through a lot. I’m sure many others who grew up this abused and neglected understand your pain all too well. I hope you’ll learn more about CEN and work to give yourself what you’ve deserved all along: love and care.

Tyler - December 4, 2017 Reply

When uncovering and really examining your emotions for the first time you may go from completely ignoring them as your family did to taking everyone of them too seriously. That’s what is happening to me.

Since your emotions were fused into when you were a child it has helped me to think of them as that child me talking to me as an adult.

Sometimes you need to say back “Yes I know it’s scary but I’ve got this.” Other times you might say “That guy is a creep. I don’t know why I didn’t see that before. Thanks for pointing that out.” Oh the wisdom of children.

The scariest thing about finally shining a light on your true self is not shame but discovering how powerful you are.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 4, 2017 Reply

    All I can say to that is yes yes yes!

Karen R - December 4, 2017 Reply

Not only were my feelings, emotions and responses denied in my childhood. They were actively punished. I was blamed for inciting my raging father. I learned to stuff everything and not expect any kindness or support. I was 8. I married a narcissist who doesnt allow expression, opinion or feelings. Even in a traumatic event I am to remain null. Childhood abuse set me up to accept bullying.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 4, 2017 Reply

    Dear Karen, this is not an acceptable way for you to live. Please find a good, qualified therapist and get support and guidance to uncover your true feelings and needs and start expressing them.

Giang - December 4, 2017 Reply

Dear Dr Jonice Webb, am i right to think that if i have been emotionally neglected whole childhood as an adult i would need someone else to make it up for me. Literally it means i’d need someone to really listen and recognize my needs and emotions and respond to it in what ever way. I’m still in deep thought about this need for making up after reading your book. Much appreciate your response and advice. B. rgrds, Giang

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 4, 2017 Reply

    Dear Giang, that is a question I hear often, and I understand why you ask it. Imagine that the most important person in your life begins to listen, recognize and respond to you. It would make a tremendous change in your life. And that person can be you. When you start to care more about yourself and invest more attention in yourself, you’ll begin to fill that empty space and feel more valid. That’s how it works, I promise. Stay on the road to healing Giang!

      Giang - December 4, 2017 Reply

      Oh well, thank you Dr Jonice Webb again. I’ve got your message very clear. And i could imagine the very first step of recognizing my emotions is just to let it all or everyone of them come out too much perhaps (like what i’ve been working on these days) and people start feeling surprised and confused about me… It might take some time tho…Now i feel i’m in the right track. Thanks again.

        Jonice Webb PhD - December 5, 2017 Reply

        Great Giang! Keep up the good work!

Karen - December 4, 2017 Reply

Thanks once again Dr Jonice. Your insight into CEN is transforming my life. I love your articles and your book.

Flo - December 3, 2017 Reply

It’s empowering to detect and intercept CEN messages to oneself and replace them with messages we’ve longed to hear, true messages that recognize, honor and love who we are. Well worth the effort!

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 3, 2017 Reply

    So true Flo and very well said!

Goldie - December 3, 2017 Reply

I know that I’ve hid my feelings for many years. But sometimes they just burst out. At one time in my life, I felt raw with hurt. It hurt to even take a breath. And it continued for years. It bothers other people. They say I’m too emotional, I’m too sensitive. Since reading your articles, I have come to understand that I don’t know what I want… I don’t even know exactly who I am. I’ve tried to change too much to suit whatever person I’m with. Now I don’t recognize myself. I find that I’m beginning to feel a lot of anger. Sometimes my friend tells me that I have to rein it in. I don’t see it that way. I feel that, after just keeping my feelings to myself all these years, I’m finally letting people know when I don’t like something or somebody.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 3, 2017 Reply

    Dear Goldie, it sounds like you’re in that in-between place where you want to honor and use your emotions, yet you’re not sure how to do it. You can get a book on assertiveness, and also really work on learning all the emotion skills you missed learning in your childhood. You’re on the path to healing, it sounds like to me.

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