4 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Take a Toll on Your Physical Health

mind body

In recent years, medical and psychological journals have been exploding with studies showing the close relationship between our bodies and our minds.

Study after study shows that the way we think and feel each day has a powerful effect on our health.

For example, carrying around negative feelings (like sadness, anger, hurt, or stress, for example), has been shown to increase the amount of inflammation in your body, which then affects the strength of your immune system which makes you more vulnerable to getting sick. — Jennifer E.Graham-Engelanda, et al.; Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 2018.

Another important study showed that people who are better at regulating their feelings, or in other words managing them, have overall better physical health than people who are not skilled in this way. — Yiying Song, et al., Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 2014.

And yet another study that looked at how couples argue confirmed what has been shown in multiple other studies: being prone to angry outbursts makes you more prone to cardiovascular problems; and holding in your anger or hurt feelings in a conflict, (the researchers call this stonewalling) over time, is highly associated with back and muscular problems. — Robert Levenson, et al., Emotion, 2016.

This is only a very tiny sampling of the large body of research that proves the close relationship between how you treat your feelings and many aspects of your physical health.

This, of course, begs the question: Why aren’t we all actively trying to get better at managing our emotions so that we can improve our physical health? What’s stopping us? What is in the way?

As a psychologist, just like other therapists, I face these questions every single day. I see how people struggle with their own emotions, and I watch the effects of it all.

I also see that the most common reason people struggle with their feelings so much is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. It is common and even happens in loving homes.

We are all born with our emotions biologically hardwired into us. They emanate from the base of our human brains and travel through special receptors into and through our bellies.

We all have emotions, whether we like it or not. We cannot choose to have feelings or not have feelings, and we cannot choose what we feel.

This is why, if you grew up with CEN, you may be unknowingly living with the effects of CEN, destined for physical problems that you could have prevented if only you had known.

Don’t be worried as you read this. Because you are about to know. And once you know, you can reverse it all.

3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Harms Your Physical Health

  1. Internalization of anger can cause heart problems. As the Levenson study above shows, holding in your anger takes a toll on your heart. If you grow up in a household that is intolerant of your anger, ignores your anger, or fails to name, discuss or validate the reasons for your anger, you learn only one way to deal with it: wall it off. This may allow you to cope as a child, but it can harm your heart.
  2. Sensitivity to stress can cause back problems or headaches. What makes you sensitive to stress? Not dealing with your feelings. When you wall off your fear, your insecurity, your uncertainty, your anger, sadness, or hurt, those feelings do not go away. They simply pool together on the other side of the wall, waiting for something to touch them off. Then, when it happens, they all surge at you, making you feel overwhelmed and stressed. So going through your life with your feelings blocked makes you more sensitive to stress.
  3. Lack of self-awareness makes you vulnerable to poor habits. Families who don’t notice what their child is feeling miss getting to know their child on a deeply personal level. So they sadly remain unaware of who their child really is. I have seen, over decades of treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, that if your parents don’t see you, you do not learn that you are worth looking at. You grow up to be unaware of your own needs, and deep down you don’t realize that your needs even matter. You then are vulnerable to eating or sleeping too much or too little, drinking too much, or engaging in other behaviors that can harm your health.

3 Steps to Stop Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) From Harming Your Health

  1. Start paying attention to your feelings as you go through your day.
  2. Learn more emotion words and make an effort to use them, including naming your own feelings see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect for an exhaustive list of feeling words).
  3. As you do steps 1 and 2 you will start to feel more. Now it is time to begin to actively take charge of your feelings. Work on learning the emotion skills: tolerating, identifying, and expressing your feelings.

As a therapist who specializes in Childhood Emotional Neglect, I help people stop allowing their unmanaged emotions to damage their lives and health every single day.

I have watched people go from a near-complete lack of awareness of their emotions and a deeply held belief that they don’t matter to not only feeling their feelings but being aware of them and actively managing them.

Amazingly, once we allow ourselves to feel, along comes with it a sense of being a real person with real needs, wants, opinions and value.

A real person who matters, and whose health matters. Someone who is worth caring for. And someone who cares.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, see the author’s biography below this article for a link to Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.

To learn much more about how to feel your emotions and show yourself better self-care, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More.


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carol - September 21, 2021 Reply

Hi, this resonates with me. Most of my abusive childhood has been repressed by my brain and I’ve really struggled with emotions and attachments because I just don’t have the conscious memories but do have the unconscious triggers. I notice that my asthma gets very uncontrollable the more stressed or depressed I am.

Elaine - September 21, 2021 Reply

Have very little childhood memories &
as a child excelled in school & sports w/no recognition of those achievements & as adult found myself in stage 4 cancer b/c of how ignored all signs-really feel my childhood played an important fact in that

    Jonice - September 21, 2021 Reply

    I’m very sorry to hear that, Elaine. I hope you’ll be paying more attention to yourself from here on. Take care!

Chris - September 19, 2021 Reply

I don’t remember much of my childhood. Some key moments have survived, but that’s it. So what does that mean?

    Jonice - September 21, 2021 Reply

    A lot of CEN people say this. I think it’s because emotion is the anchor for memories. If emotion is banned or ignored, your memories are not anchored. I hope this makes sense.

Black - September 19, 2021 Reply

I’ve learned the hard way that CEN has caused me to neglect my own self & my own Health. I neglected my body’s need for a mammogram and let a lump in my breast progress to Stage 2 cancer. If I had known that I deserve & need routine health care, I could have spared myself surgery, chemo, & radiation. I now know that I am allowed to take care of my own health!

    Jonice - September 21, 2021 Reply

    Yes you are! And you must. I’m so glad you realize this now.

Michigan Senior - June 16, 2019 Reply

Good timing for a stressful year for me.
I was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis in 2016
(systemic inflammation).
I never really had many emotions until I quit drinking 30 years ago at the age of 36. The first couple of years of sobriety were mind-blowing. I began to recognize when I was feeling and give it some kind of name. The WHY of my feelings have taken a lot longer.

It was still hard for me to “allow” my feelings let alone process them. Gradual improvement through the years.

It’s only been in the last 5 years or so that I’ve felt safe enough to share some feelings with those close to me. Even my husband of 28 years….I’ve finally been able to share some new emotions. I Shut Down so easily rather than deal with some situations. I’m grateful that this husband – my 3rd – doesn’t try to fix me or control me. Now if I Shut Down it doesn’t last very long and I can explain it to him. He just rolls with it and at least I’ve always been vocal about how much I love the people that I love.

I recently realized that many triggers put me in REACT mode and I am so proud to finally have feelings….I can be ?? Irrational ??

I just found the responding vs. reacting concept and haven’t found what creates the quick reaction mode.
I’m beginning to believe that I’ve been reacting to other people my whole life and have never been true to myself.
Who would I have become with a different family and different childhood?
Do I make any sense?

nobody - June 12, 2019 Reply

Families who don’t notice what their child is feeling miss getting to know their child on a deeply personal level. So they sadly remain unaware of who their child really is. I have seen, over decades of treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, that if your parents don’t see you, you do not learn that you are worth looking at. You grow up to be unaware of your own needs, and deep down you don’t realize that your needs even matter. You then are vulnerable to eating or sleeping too much or too little, drinking too much, or engaging in other behaviors that can harm your health.
I finally came to the realization…that niether of my parents “know me”. I am 50. That makes me cry, because at 50 I am discovering….I don’r know me. I have lived a life – some of it amazing – but all of it under the auspices of someone elses idea of who, what and how I SHOULD BE.
All my hopes and dreams vanished. I have been diagnoised with ….a lot….but the one that really hit home and stuck and somehow I can’t get out from iunder is LEARNED HELPLESSNESS. Adding to that, I have trauma compounded by trauma be it physical, finacial, emotional or social I fail at protecting my self. Known as a fearsome advocate of others I have failed myself repeadtly. Now, at 50, I am no longer able to power through daily headaches and chronic back pain but I would still try to accomplish something if it were not for the ever present brain fog.
I have blamed a lot of my disconnectedness (disassociation) on my parents, saying they taught me that my body will lie to me…..I have to go potty…no you don’t! I’m gonna throw-up. No you won’t. I’m still hungry. You have had plenty. I ‘m tired. Not until you finish your (bible)reading. And when my body won…and I pee’d on my step-dad and puked all over mom’s car….I got in trouble. I don’t remeber the peeing incident, but I heard about it plenty.
The last conversation I had with Dorothy (mother)was in the middle of a grocery store. I felt like I was twelve, I felt too skinny, short, my hair felt tight as if it was in pig tails…but there I was, at 49, pleading, crying almost sobbing, “when is it my turn?when will i be impiortant to you?” and then angry tears and accusatory ” If I was Janelle (best friend) or Carol (daughter given up for adoption) would you have done it by now? Would you? Would you?” and in true mom form….what was i expecting???? true to her form she locked eyes with me with this look she has perfected just for me, often she will include the words, but even if she doesn’t the expression clearly states, “You disgust me.” She didn’t say that in the grocery store, she picked something more fitting…considering….she said, “Grow up.” and walked away.
Usually, it is “grow up and take responsibility for yourself”. In my head I have these high-five -BLAM, in your face conversations…where I say stuff like….”Me? I was the only responsible one in the hosue from second grade on….” “Ha, ya sure. Can you remind me which day you taught me that- you know …being responsible…for ones self….” There are a lot more I actually wrote ….if you wanted a better kid, you should have been a better parent…to my dad this past week.
The fact is I was a great kid – to which my mother actually laughed and said “you?”- but yeah…until I wasn’t. Top of my class, high school reading skills in the 4th grade, polite, knda nerdy…i was the “weird kid” and the most the tiem the teachers didn’t know waht to do with my famiies religious do’s, don’ts, can’ts….mostly I don’t remeber much of my childhood.
I have given Dorothy the benifit of the doubt and diagnoised her with mental illness, it explains a lot and allows me to have, not much, but some empathy. My biological father has pretty much skated through on “good guy” status my whole life, and then I moved in, I was 48. It was supposed to be an open-ended, temporary living place for me. Today, I honestly wonder if I will make it out of here alive. and then I wonder, why would I. And then long pause as I ponder that word – want – I gaze at my life as I type this – it looks like the t.v. scene a huricanne or flood or fire. not one sliver has been left untouched by this force of destruction. The well mastered persona of pleasant, helpful, concerned skillfully , masquerading the necessary arrangements of the narcissit, that is my father.
I just needed a place where I could “get my feet back under me”. Recovering from a illness, loss of my pet that I loved and treated like my child, loss of my job, where I lived…I just needed to get my feet planted on firm ground again. The car I arrived with caught on fire while I was driving my replacement vehicle was just stolen. The cash I had litterally starved to sock away ($2,000) gone out of my room. And, Shyla, the little dog that was going to give me reason to smile again – dead.
And still, I bring this to a close becasue I can hear my dad pacing. It is almost 3pm. It is past time for me to start cooking dinner, rather, his dinner. Becasue when I let him treat me like stipid help or his crazy drug addict daughter, when I let him be superior and condecending, less bad shit happens to me. By the way did I mention that I am 50.
You probably know, that at some point I felt like I was writing too much, but then figured it doesn’t matter ‘cuz ain’t nobody gonna read it anyway….
Thanks if you made it this far!

    Jonice - June 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Somebody, much of healing ourselves involves putting our parents in their proper place in our minds and in our lives. I hope you’ll be able, at some point, to see that you are #1, and only you can treat yourself that way. All my best to you on your journey.

    I’m Somebody 2 - June 16, 2019 Reply

    Dear Somebody, This could have been written by me. I’m 47 and am just becoming aware of how my childhood has affected me and influenced my choices, most of which were misguided and unhealthy because I didn’t know any better. A part of me feels like it’s too late. A part of me is desperately fighting to change the future. The fighting part is winning by a hair and that’s all you need. That sliver of motivation to overcome the helplessness. Please get help if you’re not already. It works. You matter. WE matter. Sending you love and support.

    Carla - September 21, 2021 Reply

    Dear nobody, You are somebody, you’re you, you are important. I know you’re hurting, we all are in our own ways. You made the first step in healing yourself just by telling your story. I’m proud of you for taking that step. Just know that there are people out here in internet land that care about you. Hang in there, you are worth it.

Jennifer - June 11, 2019 Reply

I feel too much and its overwhelmingly intense and I don’t know what to do with it but disconnected in some areas

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jennifer, those feelings are messages from your body. Try to write down what they are, naming each one individually. Then think about what your body is trying to tell you. Please see a therapist if it feels overwhelming.

Tim - June 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this insight, and for your first book, I’m learning so much from it. I have come to recognise that I do not feel strong emotions, even in quite extreme circumstances (i.e. death of a loved one). My way of trying to feel, since I was an adolescent is through self harm, and risk taking, including dangerous sports. I also cold water swim, and have done for years, without realising until recently that it is only when exposed to such extremes of cold that I can actually feel something. Does this pattern of behaviour make sense?

    Jonice - June 10, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tim, yes it does make sense. Very much so. Your feelings are there inside of you, and it’s important to chip away at the wall that blocks them. Do the Identifying & Naming Exercise every day, more than once if possible. You can heal.

Bev - June 9, 2019 Reply

I am reading the first book and have the second to follow. I certainly see the effects on me, but also see what my parenting could be affecting my son. Both are distressing. My son is 29 and has 2 boys of his own. He deals with depression as did I and is married to a narcissist. Worried.

    Jonice - June 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Bev, in my second book, Running On Empty No More, you will find many answers for how to change your relationship with your son, and help for deciding whether to talk with him about CEN. Just remember, Emotional Neglect is not your fault, and all of the effects can be reversed.

      Beverly - June 16, 2019 Reply

      I feel CEN is the root of my emotional problems and how I deal with others. Parenting was just glossed over in my years of therapy. This is what I needed all along. Now it makes sense and I bought a second set of books and sent them to my brother.

        Jonice - June 17, 2019 Reply

        Excellent, Beverly! Follow the CEN healing path and it will make a big difference for you. And hopefully for your brother too!

Donna Whaley - June 9, 2019 Reply

I think that I could probably feel my emotions, if I could only find my emotions. I feel dead inside. I feel nothing. I lost my mom, dad and Godson within six months of each other and I’m a stone. I don’t feel anything about the loss. I’ve been working with a therapist for quite some time on this and it seems to be futile. I guess I’m just a dead person who will never feel or grieve. I guess I’m just a freak!

    Jonice - June 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Donna, I’m sorry you’ve gone through this. You are not a freak at all. Your brain is protecting you from your pain. Is your therapist CEN trained? Doing the Break Down Your Wall exercise will allow you to access your feelings a little at a time. You can do it.

      Linda America - June 18, 2019 Reply

      Hi Dr. Webb
      what book has the break down your wall exercise? My single mother was type 1,2 and some type 3 neglectful parent. I can empathize with everyone else feelings but my own. I guess that makes me a good friend sibling employee daughter and wife. (On third marriage ). But I am consistently afraid to express myself to others. And i suffer from back, fibroid, thyroid and fatigue issues. I’m TIRED of being in pain. Your blog has really hit home. In fact my fibroid pain went away when I read your signs of neglect!
      I’ve worked a 12 step program and with a therapist for 4 years. So there is some joy in my life but something was still missing. ..ME! Thank you.

      Robyn - September 21, 2021 Reply

      Hi how to find a cen therapist?

        Jonice - September 21, 2021 Reply

        Hi Robyn, see the Find a CEN Therapist List on this website, under the HELP dropdown menu.

    U. - June 15, 2019 Reply

    For most people (me included) it is difficult to handle one situation of grief, I can not immagine three of it.

    I know how it is to feel like a stone. But I learned the importance of self compassion. Not to be judgemental to myself.

    To admit that you feel like a stone is helpful because it shows where your problem is. To judge this feeling like “I am a freak” or “ I am cold hearted” (my case) is destructive because it offers no motivation or hope, because in your head you “know” already what you are.

    It really helped me to see my situation of grief with more comprehension, patience and kindness towards myself.

    Donna I hope you don’t give up on your healing. My best wishes to you.

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