Answering The Question: How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child

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Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child?

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when the parent fails to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.

The truth is that parents fail to notice their children’s emotions in every family in every household in the world every single day. And that is A-Okay. No parent can, or should, be 100% aware of his child’s feelings all the time, and that is not a requirement to be a good parent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect only happens when the parent fails to notice the child’s emotions enough.

Every child is born with a certain threshold of need for emotional connection, validation, and responsiveness from his or her parents. As a child, your parents may meet your needs sometimes, in some ways. But they may fail you in small, everyday ways that add up over time. And this may leave the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect upon you.

First, let’s take a painful peek at Emotional Neglect in action, actually happening to a child.

Althea, Age 4

Happily skipping to her mother’s car, Althea gets distracted by the neighbor’s dog Bruno, who she loves, and in whom she takes great delight. Seeing that her mom is looking for her keys in her purse, she runs over to Bruno and says in a voice she usually uses only for dolls and dogs, “Hi Cutie, what are you gonna do today, huh Boy?” Bruno responds with licks and kisses and love, and Althea is instantly absorbed in the delight of Bruno. But this warm moment is disrupted suddenly by Althea’s mom.

“Althea!” she yells in a frustrated and impatient voice. “What are you doing? I told you it’s time to go! Get in the back seat right now. I’m tired of waiting for your distractions!”

Startled and taken from joy to hurt in the period of 2 seconds, Althea withdraws her hand from the licks and runs rapidly to the car, feeling ashamed. Strapped into the back seat, she tries to catch a glimpse of her mom’s face in the rearview mirror as they’re driving to see if she’s still angry. All she sees is a blank expression in the reflection, making it impossible to tell.

Althea, Age 11

Althea lies on her bed trying to do her homework but it’s impossible for her to focus. Her brain keeps replaying an incident that happened earlier that day in which her teacher singled her out in science class, calling her a “slow learner” in front of her friends and classmates. Althea knew she had an A average in the class, and her dream was to become a doctor. She was having a great deal of trouble swallowing the humiliation, disappointment, and unfairness of it all.

Through the walls of her room came the sounds of her father and sister laughing and talking. Everyone else in the world seemed happy and fine to Althea at that moment.

“I don’t understand. What did I do wrong? What should I do? What does this mean?” These questions kept replaying over and over and over in Althea’s head. Deep down she knew there were no answers.

Emotional Neglect is seldom dramatic. Instead, it is usually small and subtle and dwells in everyday events like those we just saw in Althea’s life. As you can see, Althea is not experiencing abuse or attacks. An outsider would see a typical mom in a hurry in the first scenario, and a typical “moody teen” in the second. But for Althea, there is far more going on.

The problem for Althea is that scenes like the two above do not punctuate her growing up years, they define her growing up years. Althea’s mom is usually irritable and almost always in a hurry, breaking up Althea’s joy as if there is something selfish or indulgent about being happy.

Initially a bright, happy child, Althea has learned that she should keep her joy under wraps, and her needs minimal. At age 11 she has already learned that she is on her own.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child? 5 Steps

  1. The child receives the message that all or some of his feelings and emotional needs are not tolerated or accepted in his childhood home.
  2. The child builds a wall to block off her emotions, so as not to burden her parents.
  3. The child realizes that he is alone in the world, and must solve his own problems and meet his own needs.
  4. Likely the child’s parents do come through for him emotionally sometimes, in certain situations.
  5. The child grows up recalling the times her parents were there for him. She has little to no awareness of the endless everyday moments when her joy was killed, her anger squelched or her needs ignored.

Emotional Neglect can happen in an infinite variety of different ways. But no matter how it happens in your household, Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit. Althea’s well-meaning parents worked hard and provided their children with all they needed materially. They took care of everything externally, but they could not give their children what they did not have themselves: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and true emotional nurturance.

To learn if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how CEN plays out over a child’s adult life and how to heal it, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Sheila and Don - June 20, 2022 Reply

Thank you for these articles on CEN. Both my husband and I suffered with CEN as children. My husband worse than me. He was the surprise baby and never wanted by his parents. They tried to give him and his brother away every weekend. Any money needed to be spent on my husband the father got really mean. This includes basic necesities. It began when he was not much more than a toddler and by age three he dad developed a severe case of Failure to thrive. By age 5, he wanted to commit suicide. His brother wanted to commit suicide at age 12. until age 67, he was alone and struggling with alcoholism. Our Lord put me in his life and with his studying And learned various self therapy and release methods and my praying over his therapy. He has came a long way in healing. Our Lord cured his alcohoism in 2012. We are now working on his Narcissism which entails exorcising up to 15 demons.
We have both learned A LOT from your writings. You are much apreciated.

jane - March 22, 2021 Reply

I am in love with this topic.I am a counseling psychologist who has dealt clients who have come presenting with CEN but they do not know what is wrong with them. I am doing a dissertation on impact of transitional effects of parental divorce on adolescents psycho social well being. Your work is very helpful as those children whose parents one or both remarried or involved them in inter parental child custody conflicts are likely to have CEN symptoms.kindly give me the reference or how to cite the article APA 6th edition.Thank dr Jonice you are a blessing to many. Jane from Nairobi Kenya.

Adrienne - November 21, 2018 Reply

I hate my mom. I’ve always turned to other people for nuturing and validation and I always knew something was wrong with our relationship. I feel so ruined, and like no one can love me

Trace - June 10, 2018 Reply

How do you not resent a parent for not being a parent? For the child having to be the parent and not having a healthy childhood? Can the damage be undone even though I’m an adult now?

    Jonice - June 17, 2018 Reply

    Dear Trace, you can allow yourself to resent your parent. It’s OK. Yes, you can undo the damage yourself. Follow the steps for healing Childhood Emotional Neglect. It will help.

      Trace - June 18, 2018 Reply

      Thanks. My dad died of suicide about 5 years ago and we never had a chance to talk about childhood issues. Not that he would have admitted doing anything wrong.

Sue F - June 3, 2018 Reply

Not seen and not heard. Emotions not really validated. I was told I was “too emotional”, “too sensitive” and “too needy”. Lots of carried shame from my mum and a father who enabled her behaviour. Bought up in an era where I was taught to “keep the peace”, “don’t rock the boat” and “you know what you mother is like” and to top it all off I was to be the “good daughter”. Lots of reading over the past few years on these issues. No more blaming parents who couldn’t give me what I needed but an understanding and acceptance that they just didn’t have the tools. I can now give myself what I never got back then and it feels good.

Anne - June 3, 2018 Reply

It’d be nice if you added share buttons (Facebook, Pinterest, etc) to your articles so your readers can spread your work.

Claudia Carlsen - June 3, 2018 Reply

I agree with all points except #5. I had a very great awareness of what was happening to me. I understood that my parents were not available for me in an emotional way. So I felt I had to keep quiet and silently endure it bc otherwise I would be verbally abused: yelled at, deemed unappreciative of their efforts 🙂

Teresa Fratangelo - June 3, 2018 Reply

I love your readings. I believe my entire life i have never been valadated as a guman with my parents. Feelings never ever shown, didnt matter, i am a 55 yr old female and i feel i am everything your articles describes. I have been aingle now 21 years was married for almost 17 with now 2 grown children. I trust No One i overeat etc. Its just hard.

    Sue F - July 31, 2018 Reply

    I hope Dr Jonice doesn’t mind but I just finished a book called “Unspoken Legacy” by Dr Claudia Black. It deals with abuse and addiction and has some wonderful tools for healing. I was one of five children and for me not ALL my emotional needs were met. I had a mother who had her own issues and my parents “did their best” but they did not have all the tools either. For me it was reading and researching and getting to know where it all came from. None of us wants to be living a life of sadness by things that have happened to us in the past. Healing is possible but it takes courage and commitment.

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