5 Unique Things People With Childhood Emotional Neglect Need From Their Therapists

Consider this brief exchange from Abby’s therapy session:

Abby grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, but neither she nor her therapist is aware of this. Abby has begun therapy with Dr. Simmons because her PCP became concerned that she might be depressed and referred her.

Abby: I don’t know what my problem is, Dr. Simmons. I should be happy to see my parents, but every time I go there all I want to do is leave.

Dr. Simmons: What exactly happened while you were there on Sunday? Something must be happening that makes you want to get out of there.

Abby: We were sitting around the table having roast beef for Sunday dinner. Everyone was talking, and I just suddenly wanted to get the hell out of there for no reason at all.

Dr. Simmons: What were you all talking about? Something about the topic must have upset you.

Abby: We were discussing regular topics, nothing upsetting. The weather, the increased traffic in our area, my parents’ trip to China. Same stuff we usually talk about.

Dr. Simmons: Did anyone say something hurtful to anyone else?

Abby: Not unless “It took me an hour to drive 5 miles yesterday,” could be considered hurtful.

Abby and Dr. Simmons have a good laugh together. Then they go on to talk about Abby’s new boyfriend.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.

Abby grew up in a family that did not notice, validate, or talk about emotions. Sensing that her feelings were useless and troublesome to her parents she, as a child, walled off her feelings so that she would not have to feel them.

Now, as an adult, Abby lives with a deep emptiness that she does not understand. She senses something missing where her emotions should be. She is living without full access to the font of energy, motivation, direction, and connection that her feelings should be offering her if only she would listen.

And, although Abby does not know it, she has lived through countless family dinners and myriad moments and days of vacuous, surface family interactions where nothing of substance was discussed, and anything that involved feelings was avoided like the plague.

In reality, unbeknownst to both therapist and client in this scenario, Abby is not actually depressed. She only seems depressed because she is not able to feel her feelings. And Abby didn’t “feel like leaving” the family dinner because someone said something hurtful. She actually felt overlooked, invisible, bored, and saddened by what’s missing in her family: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and meaningful conversation.

But she has no words to express this to Dr. Simmons. And Dr. Simmons, unaware of the syndrome of Childhood Emotional Neglect, does not know to ask about it.

Every day, I get messages from CEN people who are disappointed that their therapy is not addressing their Childhood Emotional Neglect. Even if they are pleased with their therapist, and also with many aspects of their therapy, they still feel that, in some important way, they are missing the mark.

Having talked with, or heard from, tens of thousands of CEN people, I would like to share with you exactly what CEN people need from their therapists.

5 Special Things People With Childhood Emotional Neglect Need From Their Therapists

Number 1: To finally be seen.

Growing up in a family that does not respond to your feelings leaves you feeling, on some level, invisible. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, if your own parents can’t see your sadness, hurt, fear, anger, or grief, you grow up sensing that you are not worth seeing.

Tips For Therapists: Make a special effort to notice what your client is feeling. “You seem sad to me,” for example. Talk about emotions freely, and ask feeling-based questions. Dr. Simmons’ question about the topic of conversation yielded nothing. A fruitful question might have been, “What were you feeling as you sat at the table?” When you notice, name, and inquire about your client’s feelings, you are communicating to your client that her feelings are real and visible, which tells your client that she is real and visible.

Number 2: To be assured that their feelings make sense.

Growing up with your feelings under the radar, you learned to distrust and doubt that your feelings are real. As an adult, it’s hard to believe in your feelings or trust them.

Tips For Therapists: As you notice your client’s feelings, it’s also essential to make sure you understand why he feels what he feels. And then to validate how his feelings make sense to you and why. This will make them feel real to him in a way that they never have before.

Number 3: To learn who they are.

How can you know who you are when you are cut off from your own feelings? CEN adults are often unaware of what they like and dislike, what they need, and their own strengths and weaknesses.

Tips For Therapists: Your CEN client needs lots and lots of feedback. When you notice something about your client, feed it back to him, both positive and negative — with plenty of compassion and in the context of your relationship with them, of course. This might be, “I notice that you are a very loyal person,” “You are honest, almost to a fault,” or “I see that you are very quick to give up on things.” Your CEN client is hungry for this self-knowledge and you are in a unique position to provide it.

Number 4: To be forced to sit with emotions.

Your emotionally neglectful family avoided emotions, perhaps to the point of pretending they didn’t even exist. Therefore, you have had no chance to learn how to become comfortable with your own feelings. When you do feel something, you might find it quite intolerable and immediately try to escape it. Just as your parents, probably inadvertently, taught you.

Tips For Therapists: Be conscious of your CEN client’s natural impulse to avoid feelings (Abby did so by cracking a joke, which worked quite well with Dr. Simmons). Continually call your client on emotional avoidance, and bring her back to feeling. Sit with that feeling with her as much and as often as you can.

Number 5: To be taught emotion skills.

Growing up in your emotionally vacant family, what chance did you have to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, how to name that feeling, what that feeling means, or how to share it with another person? The answer is simple: Little to none.

Tips For Therapists: As you name your CEN client’s feelings and continually invite her to sit with them together, it’s also very important to teach the other emotion skills she’s missed. Ask her to read your favorite book on how to be assertive, and use role-playing to teach her how to share her feelings with the people in her life. Freely use the Emotions Monitoring Sheet and the Emotions List in the book Running On Empty to increase her emotion vocabulary.

Why We Need More CEN Trained Therapists

As more and more people become aware of their Childhood Emotional Neglect, more are seeking therapists who understand the CEN they have lived through and are now living with. On my Find A CEN Therapist Page, I am referring clients all over the world to CEN therapists near them. 500 therapists are listed so far in locations all over the world. The demand is great and more CEN trained therapists are needed!

As a therapist, once you learn about this way of conceptualizing and treating your clients, your practice will be forever changed.

Therapists, I invite you to join my CEN Newsletter For Therapists and visit my Programs Page (scroll down to see the trainings for therapists) to see how you can learn more about identifying and treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, and also apply to be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Fan (Linda) Wu - July 5, 2019 Reply

I kind of feel like no matter what your mental diagnosis or problem is, the common thread of every mental problem has to do with the feeling that it’s hard to be a winner, to be a solution seeker and not the noticer of problems, wanting to solve problem after problem. It’s like how I wanted to be a peace maker because I notice the fighting, the pain, the things going wrong, but is it really there? Is it okay to fight, to not be okay, to have life be messy? Unconditional love means you don’t expect anything in return. That means we need to be skilled, right? We need knowledge enough to not feel helpless in a difficult situation; otherwise how would we give unconditional love while being helpless? When we are helpless, we start relying and blaming. So where is our source of power is the ultimate question.

    Jonice - July 5, 2019 Reply

    Dear Wu, why are you so concerned about unconditional love? That is meant only for parents toward their children and is not healthy in other relationships. I suggest you focus more on yourself and seeing, knowing, valuing and loving yourself.

Fan (Linda) Wu - July 4, 2019 Reply

Hello. I have read and reread this article. And something is like jumping out at me. I realize right now that I am not good at expressing emotions with everyone. I wonder how would I ever accept my boyfriend’s feelings for other girls, since I know he has a history of being somewhat of a player. It’s like I have to take a step back and not get personal. Something about unconditional love where I am not the center of attention, but more of a guide. Perhaps real virtue is unconditional love. Except things get personal with a lot of people and they want to force me to be a certain way. I’m wondering where is the line between making myself feel validated emotionally and helping someone else. Seems like I can’t do both. My boyfriend is an extreme CENed person. My feelings for him are so involved that I need to be validated sometimes. But he needs it more. It’s like with my CEN parents and CENed boyfriend, traditional roles are nonexistent. I have to make up an altogether new role. Like being a maverick or thinking outside the box. I’m not just a girlfriend or daughter and they’re not just a boyfriend or mom or dad. There seems to be a pattern of CEN or CENed people, same thing, not being able to be consistently being in their role and it mixes my roles up.

Tess - June 30, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice,

First, thank you so much for all the articles you write and your books about CEN. They have already made so much difference in that I now understand what is going on with me and what has made me who I am.
Your story above about Abby rings so true for me. My mother is probably a ‘well meaning but emotionally neglected herself’ parent and very low on empathy and sensitivity. We live a few hundred miles apart and my weekly phone calls with her are draining, as it feels like she doesn’t really take an interest in my life and what I say, and instead our ‘conversation’ is her giving me a full run-down of her week. I reach the point that I have no energy to tell her about my week even if I get the opportunity, as what I say meets with little emotional response or validation; she just moves on to the next thing she wants to say.
My husband says I should talk to her about the way she is as he can see it upsets me, but I’ve tried to explain how I feel in the past to her and she just gets very upset and actually doesn’t understand… to the point of denying there is an issue. As far as she’s concerned she loves me so what’s the problem? So, I feel it’s better and far less stressful to just say nothing and suck it up.

So my question is: In your experience is it ever worth talking to parents about CEN?

A heart-felt thank you!

    Jonice - July 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tess, I think there may be more going on with your mom than CEN. CEN people tend to take up little space, and it sounds like your mom takes up a lot. Please get a copy of Running On Empty No More, and read it. It has come very helpful guidance for you in your situation.

      Tess - July 2, 2019 Reply

      Thanks for replying Jonice; I will do that!

Aish - June 26, 2019 Reply

Hi, Jonice.

I discovered I had CEN like 2 to 3 years ago and was able to manage it through your book. But something happened last week where I still couldn’t understand why my mind reacted that way and my inability to handle it.

I worked in a typical fast food restaurant and was stationed to serve the customers during peak hours. Because I have CEN, I need to TAP and FEEL my emotions constantly and be intuitive about customers needs.

I was stationed there for one and a half months and boom. Suddenly my brain pulled out all of its wires and if it can emit a sound, it will sound like an alarm of a spaceship going down. The indescribable feeling was so intense that I was in lockdown mode – fetal position. I was trying to protect myself really, and others too. I am afraid I could harm my colleagues.

But the intense feeling don’t end there. When I went home, it doubled and my body couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to shut down. But my spirit to live won’t let me. For 3 days I was in constant struggle trying to take control of something I could not understand. whatever that feeling is, it tried to kill me. It was scary and I went to see a therapist.

I’m still trying to understand what the hell happened to me back then. I suspect me trying to connect with customers causes my brain to fry because the wire that taps onto emotions is not there, or very frail. And I think stationed there serving food for customers during peak hours really did damage to me.

Thankfully the management understand and pull me out. The next question is, how do I connect to people if my emotions are tuned way took low to even feel anything. I can feel my feelings yes. I just don’t force my feelings to come out just so that I can connect to people. I’m sorry I’m just confuse at myself right now….

    Jonice - June 27, 2019 Reply

    Dear Aish, the process of CEN recovery requires consistent and regular attempts to get in touch with your feelings using the Identifying & Naming Technique. It’s described in the book Running On Empty and if you were to join my online program, Fuel Up For Life, I will walk you through it. It’s important to deal with your walled off emotions in a controlled way and with support and help.

Suzie - June 25, 2019 Reply

Finding your work has opened up my eyes to why I have continually been stuck in the loop of destructive patterns and beliefs. As a therapist myself I can’t wait to share it with others who have also felt like they are separate and outside looking in most of their life like me. It all makes so much sense now. Thank you so much Jonice – just starting on your second book now.

    Jonice - June 27, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad Suzie. I hope you enjoy Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Anonymous - June 25, 2019 Reply

Your emails and discussions on CEN have helped me tremendously to realize That feelings are important and central to who we are as people and how we relate to other people. Thank you. I am so glad and feel relief to know it’s OK to have feelings…and to realize I had CEN…

Lori Crockett - June 24, 2019 Reply

The feelings I had at family gatherings were definitely those you listed, but also feelings of betrayal, distrust, anger, and feeling less than and not good enough. I was a walking emotional target for more hurt, neglect, and being dismissed.

    Jonice - June 25, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lori, I am sorry that happened to you. I hope you have taken, or will take, the steps to heal your trauma and neglect.

Sue - June 24, 2019 Reply

Your research has been extremely helpful in figuring out past behavior and connecting that to current issues. Thanks for all of that! Any plans to frame things for those of us in the dating world? I am dealing with CEN, am long since divorced from a husband who also has CEN, but never knew or acknowledged it. I struggle with being open to new relationships, and really don’t have a clue how to proceed in a healthy way. Your 2nd book deals with relationships, but not so much with finding potential/new relationships. Any way to look for what is good for me and not fall into the same behaviors?

    Jonice - June 27, 2019 Reply

    Dear Sue, that is a good question! I’ll need to think about how to answer that and will try to write a blog on that topic soon!

Patricia - June 24, 2019 Reply

Dear Janice, I came across your email.about CEN about a year ago. I thought wow ! This is the main neglect, abuse I have suffered. Was like a neon light being switched on. As my 2nd husband is American and I am Australian, we are apart a lot due to finances and our marriage hasn’t been too good lately as we haven’t seen each other for 18months.I definitely saw CEN in him too. We’re in our70,s now and thought we would be together, and a bit more peaceful life, but no not like that. Anyway I can’t find a CEN Counsellor bin Australia and know it would be expensive. Thank you so much for your information. Helps a lot . Patricia.

Patty Bonomo - June 24, 2019 Reply

I have an incredibly gifted, compassionate, sharp and sensitive therapist. I sent it to her so that she could also be available to others. She certainly has the ability.
You have brought answers for so many, Jonice!
I no longer ask myself “what’s wrong with me?”


    Jonice - June 27, 2019 Reply

    Dear Patty, I’m glad you shared this article with your therapist. Keep up the good work!

Gwyn - June 23, 2019 Reply

Dr. Janice,
Thank you!!!! I just left my last therapist due to all you said! And this and the work you are doing is a gift from God!!!! You are a big blessing! I will show these great tips and more to my next therapist!!! God bless you! Gwyn Gilmore

    Jonice - June 23, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad to be of help, Gwyn!

Janie Maria De Vries - June 23, 2019 Reply

Dr. Jonice: The timing of this email couldn’t have been better!! I believe as an older adult, and not being aware of CEN in my life until, probably 2-3 years ago, each day that passes by, I am fully aware of the messes that need cleaning up, and not a significant support system. The affirmation I feel this morning regarding your post; 5 unique things…. is such a source of encouragement. I have a new therapist currently, 5 sessions so far. I cannot criticize her character, or her trying to help me, but I do not think our therapy time is helping me. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and this is what I come up with. Probably sounds silly, so I wonder if my subconscious is driving this. Because I had 0 connection with my mother, 0 attachment, especially as an infant, I feel the need for my therapist to be a little bit fluffy with me in her approach. It’s almost like I wished she was a little chubby and spoke slow and impeccable listening skills. Not Gramma like, but nurturing. This particular therapist is sharp, smart, skinny, and a little jovial. She “seems” to get me, but when I leave, I feel dissatisfied. She’s organized, meticulous in her attire, and quick moving.
(Maybe this sounds exhaderated). Where’s spell check? 😉 Am I being too demanding? I feel my pain just sits and brews. My prayer today, you could please take a minute and comment on my feedback. I know I would feel affirmed. I believe it’s your heart’s desire to help those of us who are suffering, to help us live out the remaining of our limited lives with purpose and ability to share with those still suffering or worse yet, unaware of their CEN. Thank you Jonice for your timely email today. May God bless you, and raise up therapists that have the same determination that you do. With this sort of disorder, we need special attention and most assuredly understanding. Thank you.
Jane De Vries
I do not want to die with potential.

    Jonice - June 23, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jane, I hope you will ask your therapist to read Running On Empty and/or this article, and talk with her about what you need from her. That is Step 1!

Halee Roberts - June 23, 2019 Reply

Great article Dr. Webb! I enjoy them all but especially this one. Thanks for all your work. I’ve been doing your CEN therapy for over a year now and having clients read your book and sometimes your second book as well when I see couples. Thanks for all you do.

    Jonice - June 23, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad to hear that, Halee! Thanks for your comment.

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