5 Important FAQs About Childhood Emotional Neglect: Answered

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In all of the interviews and talks I have done about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), as well as the articles I have written, certain questions keep coming up over and over again. They are excellent questions that are natural for anyone to ask, especially if you have realized that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, but also if you are wondering if CEN applies to you.

First, let’s define what Childhood Emotional Neglect is. It’s your parents’ failure to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. This failure to respond enough emotionally can be difficult to see in many families, and it can be hard to remember as an adult. Yet its effects stay with you for a lifetime.

Once you realize this is you, it can be very, very unsettling, to say the least. Finding the answer of CEN can bring you understanding and great relief.  But it also raises questions.

How prevalent is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

Unfortunately, I do not have exact numbers on this, but I can answer based on my own clinical experience plus reports from my therapist colleagues. I believe it is very common among the general population. It varies in severity from mild to extreme, based on how pervasive the emotional neglect was in childhood. I think a large portion of the population has some degree of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

What effect does CEN have on the victim’s adult relationships?

Childhood is meant to be an emotional training ground. When your parents under-respond to your emotions as they raise you, they miss the opportunity to teach you how to handle your emotions. Since emotions are the most important key to healthy relationships, CEN sets you up to be at a great disadvantage in your primary relationship, with your family, and in raising your own children.

You may find yourself feeling confused about how to identify your own feelings and the feelings of others, put them into words to share them, manage conflict, and even respond in an attuned way to your children’s emotions once you become a parent.

It’s very difficult to give what you never got: emotional attunement and awareness.

What are the traits to look for to know if your spouse or partner suffers from CEN?

The effects of CEN can be very invisible, so it is indeed hard to see in a relationship. Yet those effects can be very harmful to the warmth and connection in a relationship, especially over time. Here are some signs to look for:

• A feeling of distance that you can’t explain.

• A tendency to sweep problems under the rug.

• He/she often misrepresents what he is feeling: saying, “I’m not angry” when is quite obviously angry, for example.

• Discomfort with strong emotions in the relationship, either positive feelings, negative ones or both.

• A tendency to talk about facts and events and logistics, with little ability to focus on what really matters in a relationship: feelings, struggles, warmth.

• A sense that you are leading separate lives.

How does CEN influence a person’s choice of partner?

You may be drawn to partner with someone who also has CEN: If you were raised to be uncomfortable with emotions, your own as well as others’, as an adult you may feel most comfortable with someone who treats emotions the same way. You will experience them as non-threatening and safe. This will likely lead to the two of you drifting apart over time.

Being out of touch with your emotions can leave you with a deep feeling of emptiness inside. That emptiness may seek to be filled and may lead you to marry or commit too soon before you fully know the person you are marrying.

If your emotional needs were ignored or denied when you were a child, you may have a powerful fear of ever appearing needy as an adult (I call this counter-dependence). This can make the act of dating and forming a meaningful relationship feel like a weakness, or just plain wrong. Some folks with CEN are not able to override this fear of needing someone, and they are never able to commit at all.

Since emotions are the spice of life (most people don’t realize this), when your emotions are walled off due to CEN you may feel a sense of blandness in your life. You may be drawn to someone who has intense emotions. This may work out fine, but it can backfire if the other person’s intense emotions are unpredictable or can be directed at you unfairly at times.

Part of CEN is a tendency to ignore not only your feelings but also your emotional needs. If you appear to take up little emotional space and to have few needs, you may be attractive to people who take a lot of emotional space and have intense emotional needs, like a person with narcissism. This can play out over time in a damaging and negative way.

What needs to happen for those struggling with CEN to repair their relationships?

It is very helpful for the person with CEN to become aware that they have the CEN emotional style, and of how it is affecting the relationship.

Sometimes the person who does not have CEN can reach out to their CEN partner and ask them to read this article or my blog or the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect or take the CEN Questionnaire (see below), to help them understand what CEN is and become aware that they have it.

Setting a goal of paying more attention to emotions in the relationship is very helpful. In the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, there are exercises and worksheets specially designed to help couples do this.

Structuring time for “meaningful talk” where surface topics are not allowed can be challenging but very helpful.

Sometimes it’s very helpful to get the support and help of a therapist to help the couple talk through old conflicts that have been ignored instead of dealt with directly. Old feelings of anger or hurt can weigh on a relationship even more than current ones.

Addressing CEN in yourself and in your relationship can have profound effects that go to every corner of your life. It changes your self-view, the quality of your connections with others, and perhaps most importantly, your parenting.

You can give yourself what you never got, and then you’ll be able to give it to the people most important to you.

If you’re not sure if you have CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To heal your CEN in your self and your relationships, see Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Debra Ducharme - September 4, 2018 Reply

Thank you Dr. Janice Webb for all that you write about CEN. You have restored my sense of sanity and helped me get back my strong sense of self and belief in myself that was lost to me after marrying into a family who had no use for emotional expression or emotional conversation. I use to laugh and tell my mother, “They talk a lot but don’t say anything.” It’s like they had their own language for everything and it was called “small talk.” Now picture married and raising children on small talk. I was only married for 6 years when my mother, my emotional support system and soul mate died. I am now 65 and unable to help my husband to understand any of this. This article states the reasons why. At least my self-worth was saved by you.

Cynthia Lyn Snook - August 29, 2018 Reply

Wow you really want to promote that book is all.

    Jonice - August 29, 2018 Reply

    Dear Cynthia, contrary to what most people think, books are not about money for most authors, and the vast majority of authors do not make money from their books. For me, my books are a tool to reach people and help more folks learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect, which I feel passionate about. This concept has made a meaningful difference for thousands of people and I will continue what I am doing until my true goals are met. I will not stop until Childhood Emotional Neglect is a household word. Thank you for your comment.

      Cynthia Snook - October 16, 2018 Reply

      If you really wanted to help people then the book should be free

        Jonice - October 16, 2018 Reply

        Dear Cynthia, both of my books are available to check out free in libraries everywhere. Also, I wish I could offer all of my services and help for free, but unfortunately even well-intentioned, caring people must support themselves.

    RJB - August 29, 2018 Reply

    If you had the education, took the time and energy AND dedicated your life to a cause….you’d probably suggest people read your book as well. Instead of making comments on someone’s hard work. She’s trying to make a positive difference in the world.

      Diane Kahl - September 3, 2018 Reply

      I agree, Dr. Webb’s work is amazing and so precise. I am a CEN and had a narcissistic parent plus a codependent/CEN parent and have had two very abusive boyfriends and one husband with CEN. Through the years I tried to analyze my family of origin and my behavior, but at the time (pre-Internet) there was not as much understanding nor resources. The main issue discussed in the 80s and 90s was codependency. Everything was lumped into “codependency.”

      Dr. Webb has refined this psychological/mental health area with all her research and given us the information through her liberating books and blogs. Finally, after decades at age 69 I have a clear diagnosis!

      And I doubt all that writing and publishing bought you a yacht! You just improved a whole lot of lives. Thank you for your service on behalf of so many.

        Jonice - September 4, 2018 Reply

        I’m so glad to be helpful to you Diane. Thanks for your kind words!

        RJB - September 4, 2018 Reply

        Diane, kindred spirit,

        I’m 50 and the only daughter of a narcissistic mom. I was the scape goat. At the age of twelve I took a razor blade to my wrist. At eighteen I was pushed into marrying the man she was infatuated with, and for all intents and purposes, was her boyfriend. He treated me exactly the way she treated me. When I began dating him at sixteen I decided I didn’t like him (was afraid of him) but she had already fallen for him so there was no way out. They both told me I shouldn’t need any friends cause he should be enough and if he wasn’t that was on me because I was all he needed.

        When he tried to choke me to death she told me that I had always brought out the worst in people and took him shopping to comfort him while I walked behind them carrying their bags. At lunch she told him to not feel bad about it cause she knew how I could be – right in front of me, while I sat silently.

        Seven years in, at age 25 I left him in the middle of the night while he was at work. I lived with my mom for awhile as I had nowhere else to go. I paid rent. A few months after the divorce she cried and told me that I had no idea how hard this divorce was on her. I however, was never allowed to cry. Ever. If I cried as a child she would yell at me, “GO TO YOUR ROOM IF YOU’RE GONNA CRY! NO ONE WANTS TO SEE YOU CRY!” The only acceptable emotions were the ones she felt….or told me to feel.

        I’ve been looking for answers my whole life, but I always thought it was something wrong with me. Down to my very core being, as this is what my mom told me.

        You’re so right with the codependency umbrella back in the day. That’s all we had. I knew there had to be more and have continued my lifelong search for something more specific.

        If it weren’t for people like Dr Webb (and so many others) I wouldn’t have been able to put the pieces together of this incredibly complicated puzzle. I’m forever grateful for people like her who have dedicated so much of themselves to figuring out why so many of us suffer.

        So thank you Dr Webb, your work has made a positive difference in my life. Without people like you there couldn’t be people like me. Once broken and now whole.

      Cynthia Lyn Snook - October 16, 2018 Reply

      She can speak for herself and your comment is not making positive results to the world . If thats whats so important to to then you would be making positive comments

ML Farrell - August 28, 2018 Reply

If it is as prevalent as you say, then maybe it is not a problem. Maybe every body just needs to suck it up, quit whining, quit hiring therapists who don’t do anything, and accept that life is not that great most of the time.

    Jonice - August 28, 2018 Reply

    Dear ML, one could take that approach to many different problems and maladies that drag down the quality of life. I do not think that’s a good approach and I’m trying to offer a clear and helpful way for people who want to do the work to make themselves happier and healthier.

    RJB - August 29, 2018 Reply

    If you feel that way, why do you read these kinds of articles lol.

Bdan - August 27, 2018 Reply

Dr Jonice.

Can you please explain the difference between co-dependency and CEN? They sound similar.

    Jonice - August 27, 2018 Reply

    Growing up with CEN can make you more likely to become codependent, but they are not the same. Childhood Emotional Neglect is a way of growing up that leads to a constellation of symptoms in adulthood. Codependency is a style of being in relationships. You have given me the idea to write a blog on this topic. Thank you!

Carolyn - August 26, 2018 Reply

Thank you for this. Feeling desperate for love, I have been married several times – in many ways, always to the same man – each one emotionally unavailable and unstable to one degree or another. The last one was professionally diagnosed with NPD. When I followed the wisdom of my psychologist/ counselor and pursued a legal separation from him in an attempt to bring him to a willingness to work together, my ex converted that to a divorce. So – now I am fully in the grips of what you have called Counter-dependence. Oh yes, that is where I am, but hopeful to strike a new balance. Thank you again for your sharing your work.

    Jonice - August 26, 2018 Reply

    Dear Carolyn, maybe you can use your current state of counter-dependence to build up your love of yourself. Because others can only love you properly if you love yourself properly first. And I have no doubt that you deserve full and meaningful love in your next relationship.

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