Big Boys Don’t Cry: The Emotionally Neglected Man

CEN man

Luke prepares himself to walk into the office party. Despite his reputation as the most helpful and productive salesperson in the company, his self-confidence flies out the window when he has to face people socially. “I never fit in anywhere,” he thinks to himself.

Often they are referred to as, “the strong, silent type.” They are giving, reliable, stand-up guys. They may be excessively driven, but that drive is mostly to provide for their families. They are there for others but ask for little in return. They are baffled by other people’s emotions, and typically just want to escape when anyone cries, yells, or shows intense feelings of any kind. They live in dread of the moment when their wife says, “I need to talk with you about something.”

Feeling numb, isolated, empty, and alone, these men mistake their intense individuality for strength.  But since they are out of touch with their own feelings, they sense that they lack some vital ingredient that other people have; and deep down, they feel overlooked and unseen.

These are the men of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). They are men who grew up in households where their feelings didn’t matter.


A new study by Spalek et al., 2015 provided new evidence of how men and women process emotion differently. Men’s brains are less reactive to emotion, and men remember emotional images less well than women. This makes emotional responsiveness and validation from parents extra vital for boys. Boys who don’t receive enough grow up to be baffled by all things emotional.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to their child’s emotional needs.

Children are highly adaptive creatures. Boys who grow up this way do what is needed to get along in their family home. They push their own emotions and needs down and away so that they will not be seen or felt. As men, they live their lives virtually walled off from the most intensely personal, vital part of who they are, their emotions.

If you are a man and you see yourself in these words, or if you are a woman and you see someone you love here, do not despair. There are answers. Here are:

5 Vital Messages for the Emotionally Neglected Man

  1. Tear down your wall. The wall that you put up as a child between yourself and your feelings is still there. Sadly, it now also stands between you and the people who love you. It was there to protect you through your childhood, but you no longer need it.
  2. Allowing yourself to have emotions and needs will make you stronger. You may pride yourself on your unemotional nature and fierce independence. But as an adult, having few feelings or needs is no longer a strength. Real strength comes from knowing when you feel something or need help and being willing to accept it and share it.
  3. You do fit in, you just don’t know it. It is understandable that you so often feel overlooked. But it’s not because you don’t belong, or because you’re less interesting or vivid than other people. It’s because your emotions are a magnet that draws others toward you and connects you to life. Since yours are walled off, you are operating without enough of this vital ingredient.
  4. You may feel empty sometimes, but actually, nothing is missing. It’s your emotions, and they are there. They are behind the wall.
  5. You can fix this. You can be much happier than you are now. You can feel more connected, you can feel more love. You can feel more. Open your heart to the people who love you most: your spouse, your children, your siblings, and your friends. Allow them to care for you as you care for them. Let your loved ones help you break down your wall.

Going Forward

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and  Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free. 

**Special Note to Family Members: If you have a CEN man in your life, husband, father, brother, or friend, there are things you can do to help. Send him a link to this article, ask him to visit the website above, read Running on Empty yourself, and/or give him a copy. Tell him you love him and want to be closer to him.

Try to be patient because it’s not his fault. He needs you.

And he has some work to do.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
John - November 16, 2021 Reply

Thanks Jonice,

As has become my pattern I’m afraid I don’t come into your pages or closed Facebook group often.

I am very much a CEN man and two or three subtle experriences helped to intensify this.
1) A complex grief response to the death of an infant sister and then brother when I was about five.
2) Growing up from the age of 10 in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe after my parents emigrated there in search of sun from smoggy Liverpool, England.
3) Finding the love of my life with a girl who could not have children and then she eventually became alcoholic as I understand this floored by the general children focus of females around her. I could not handle the recovery/regression up and down life after 10 years of trying and divorced.

It becomes a long story but finding your work has been a turning point for me — but remains daily hard self-motivated work.

Maybe my ongoing work is to do something on CEN responses in the midst of post-world war/post colonial/post-liberation euphoria complexities in Africa.

Stephen - November 11, 2021 Reply

Very accurate, I would sit and meditate on how to not have emotions as a kid because they were a weakness back then. If I were vulnerable to my parents, it could be used against me. I became like a robot; never smiling, crying or being angry or excited or anything, I was just a listless zombie. Then I got more depressed because people just assumed that’s how I was inherently. I also suspect I may be on the spectrum and have difficulty with emotions anyway. So I was never expected to show emotions and it was kind of a joke that I was like Eeyore from Pooh and I was mocked at school as the “kid without a personality”. My parents called me the “one word man”. The only emotion I saw from my Dad was extreme anger or crying at commercials, and I hated his outbursts so much that so I refused to show anger, so then I had no outlet, so I turned further inward into depression and drugs and still no one noticed…

Jeff - November 11, 2021 Reply

The article / story mentions his wife. So as a gay man do I stop reading this? Interesting how being overlooked and unseen is mentioned as a common occurrence. So common that I felt it reading this article about the emotionally neglected man, and I am one.
I hope this example resonates because growing up gay is the epitome emotional neglect. And that’s just living in society in general. Add the emotional neglect that is felt in their own families, schools, workplaces, etc. and you have emotional neglect on steroids.
I have not read one article or story where you recognize this.
So the emptiness and invisibility just keeps perpetuating.

    Jonice - November 11, 2021 Reply

    My deepest apologies to you, Jeff, and to all other gay men and women who encounter this kind of societal neglect so very often. The last thing I want is to make you feel neglected in any way! I have switched to using the word “partner” much more often in my writing, and your message will keep me freshly mindful of that. Please know you are in my mind as I write every bit as much as anyone else.

Marley - November 9, 2021 Reply

What if I’m a woman and I see myself in these words?

    Jonice - November 10, 2021 Reply

    Dear Marley, that’s very normal and common. There is a lot of crossover between the genders!

Liu - November 8, 2021 Reply

I did your test last year and started to read your book last year. I’m a Chinese, working in Shanghai with limited English. I can see most of the words in your description.

    Jonice - November 10, 2021 Reply

    Dear Liu, I’m so glad to be helpful! Did you know that Running On Empty is available in two forms of Chinese?

Shaun - November 7, 2021 Reply

I’d add a big thing is more incorrect emotions by misinterpreting others intentions because of your own emotions in the way. What I’ve found is really a major problem with all or nothing thinking.. it’s either love or hate, it’s right or wrong – with no in between. At the end of the day it’s all just the want for approval that was never available growing up.

    Jonice - November 10, 2021 Reply

    Well-said, Shaun, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure many will identify with your description.

Nan - November 7, 2021 Reply

Hi, How do I get in to my son’s emotional life? We have generational CEN. He is a banker, married, with one son. He is passing on CEN to his son. His marriage is happy, but she and I don’t have a relationship. If I suggest he look at your book or website, he will ignore my request, become angry and will contact me less and talk less than he does now, which is infrequent. “They are busy.” I need a way to sneak in dribbles of information so I don’t lose complete contact. Thanks as always for your help.

    Jonice - November 7, 2021 Reply

    It doesn’t sound like your son is open to talking about CEN just yet. But you can keep checking in with him, making a point to ask him meaningful questions about his life and trying to really listen well, remember, and follow up on things. If possible, you can also try to share on a more meaningful level about yourself. When done with care, this can sometimes prepare an adult CEN child to come to it gradually.

      Nan - November 15, 2021 Reply

      Thanks. It’s at least good to know that I am doing everything I can, i.e. the ideas you mentioned. It helps me feel less guilty. I hope and pray for an eventual breakthrough.

        Jonice - November 15, 2021 Reply

        Dear Nan, no need to hope for a breakthrough. Just keep taking one step forward at a time, as that is how real progress is made. Most genuine growth happens slowly and quietly, no big breakthrough involved.

Scott - November 7, 2021 Reply

Timely article for me, too, Jonice. Two things I would add for readers is that since men typically learn that anger is the only acceptable emotion, the people in our lives sometimes think we have anger issues rather than emotional restriction. The second issue is that overreaction to any criticism or complaint is common for those of us with long-term childhood trauma because it triggers the child part that imagined we might receive love if only we were good enough. It’s a lot to ask of a partner to stick by us while we find our way.

GWOR - November 7, 2021 Reply

Big Boy’s Don’t Cry – No Time To Cry vs
The James Bond Movie “ No Time To Die “

As mentioned at five years of age, a drunken violent father and a mother devastated & broken small towns can be cruel vs being just another body living in a city of nameless ness.

You see In small towns people know your business and one gets labelled as problems and the nicknames can be deathly .

Fortunately our local police and the judge knew the home situation so it made my life passable.

There was no time to cry , the chores of life had to be done and going to school listening to everybody’s trips, cottages , summer camp and skiing separated who was on first from from those who never got up to bat . Or ever asked and cut as a mommy’s boy and labelled names I can not repeat here . So if I was out visiting a friend whose
parents took me in they faced polio and many set backs but they must have saw potential In me somewhere and walking home at night I always took a different route knowing I was always one step away from having the crap beat out of me and ware the crown continuously a “ loser!”

Fortunately the police station was enroute and visible and our local police were extremely forgiving to children from broken homes . And saw
we got home safely . Most were war veterans and recently one had a street named in his honour & heroism .

By 19 I knew I had to get away and did enrolling in a college program suited to my poor academic record as questionable and riding the teeter totter of up occasionally going mostly down.

Not easy but after taking a sociology of the family in the evenings being enrolled in science not arts it was clear my father wanted us out of the house permanently. My prof knew nothing of me just another face and assigned one of these people interacting things wondering why I was in the class.
So I asked him if I could do one of the old Steve Allen on NBC of the 1950s “ Man On The Street Interviews” in my home town.
Since I was not technically enrolled in Arts he looked at me like I was death warmed over and said looks like a science project better than nothing . Sure go do it .
So I did it back in my birth place and simply now being older and away from home I knew that by leaving this place I could return in the spring be like an unknown, forgotten because others went away as well and got realities I already learned from five years of age and eventually get a pretty respectable job in Agriculture & Food and move on wth my life and learning slowly what a living really meant and means and has meaning .
Plus making my own money my father knew what he did before he knew I knew the judge , the police regional and local as part of my summer inspection position as summer in service & training for the workplace in a few years after finishing the applied College program .

And dating girls for the first time most girls said I reminded them of their father always planning ahead and no fun. Well planning ahead was to keep my head and know I had a safe secure dorm room and now three meals a day n our dining hall plus access to the new gym where no one could care less who you are just hit the pool, the weights and shut the you know what up.

But in the end it is my military training that saved me as pictures of fallen soldiers, navy and airmen were hanging in the bottom floor of our students
residence .
It was the service to our country that kept me going and after getting my degree returning in later years seeing the war veterans who died broke my heart because society moved on apparently they were now forgotten and statutes destroyed as computers , technology & money status far over ruled those that served both the USA and Canada . Veteran’s Day is near and we remember 911 as well this year just who just gave without whining or asking why to serve for the purpose served

So we each have to find a way to get from there to here , now and in the moment that if we miss the moment the moment dies into the past and we must live in now and take one step at a time because we all have an ending and a story to tell. Never disarm a person of their story .

So this James Bond movie was designed to close off an exciting series of adventure movies that the good guys still win.

And being a 75 year old good buy I may not have lived the James Bond Life but found a life worth living there is no time to die just live now , be here , in the moment and just keep gong .

As far as crying you are absolutely correct because if they see you crying they attack and no matter
how much the verbal abuse just smile walk away and know never take a door that opens inward!

Just choose only the door leading outwards into the light no matter the hour of the day as the light of the sun , the moon and the truth rule .

Barbara - November 7, 2021 Reply

Thank you for this article. Both my brother and husband described herein. Neither open to doing „their work“. I feel it limits the depth and breadth of relationship I can have with them. I’m committed to my healing through therapy and other practices. Am getting to mit blaming them … being patient. Might be brave enough to share the article. Fear it will be rejected … again.

No Comment - November 7, 2021 Reply

That’s me. I’ve known it ever since the day I read your work. My SO uses my CEN at times to manipulate me. I don’t know if she does it consciously. She’s also CEN, but won’t admit it. We’re both ACoA. She refuses to read your books or go to counseling. We’ve been married for multiple decades.
I worked so hard to support our family that I physically destroyed my body, which eventually took a step toll on my mental health as well. I was forced to retire early on SSDI due to multiple injuries and I have to take high-end opioids to function at all. My therapist called my part in my marriage as “sacrifice of self.”

A - November 7, 2021 Reply

My father is a CEN man. He went to therapy many years ago, when I was still a child. Though it helped him, it was not the magic pill that an overly optimistic mind would wish it would be. He has been living with Alzheimer’s for the last few years, which is only exacerbating the unsaid emotions inside of him.

Manu - November 2, 2018 Reply

Wow… this really opened my eyes. I’ve always felt so isolated and lonely, even after moving in with friends. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere and I thought that there was no job in the world I could possibly like. I had neither identity nor passion and yet when I asked other people they found plenty of words to describe me. I also felt a deep sense of sadness and was depressed for years when I was younger. After a recent talk with my estranged mom I realised that despite meaning well she’s emotionally very detached and distant. She refuses to believe that she’s any bit responsible for my pain. Because of her (and my dad’s) emotional unavailability I build a wall between me and my emotions. All that’s left to do now, is to tear down the wall and feel all the emotions which are inside of me; they are inside of each of us. Thanks so much for this website, this helps a lot.

Natan - January 28, 2015 Reply

My wife and I, are both adult children of Holocaust survivors. My therapist is treating me as a CEN, but I believe that I am very emotional and perceptive to others’ emotions – as long as I am facing one person at a time, not a group of people. Yet, my therapist tells me that I am angry and “furious” much of the time. In truth, I hardly ever get angry. She says that I do not recognize my own emotions when I believe that I do. What is going on?

    Jonice Webb - January 29, 2015 Reply

    Hi Natan, it may be that you are very perceptive to emotions, but have a “blind spot” when it comes to anger. It’s not unusual to have one, or a few, emotions that are passed down in your family and so just feel normal. If you trust your therapist in general, trust her on this. Take care, and keep working on it!

Big Boys Don’t Cry: The Emotionally Neglected Man | Childhood Emotional Neglect | MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE! - January 28, 2015 Reply

[…] Big Boys Don’t Cry: The Emotionally Neglected Man | Childhood Emotional Neglect. […]

Survivor - January 28, 2015 Reply

Many women also suffer from Childhood Emotional Neglect. I’m an incest survivor whose mother married two pedophiles. My bio-dad and stepdad. She married these men after knowing what they did to her children. My older siblings, who have different fathers, were being molested by my dad before my mom got pregnant by him. She knew my stepdad was molesting us before she married him. Mom wanted to be a “stay at home” mother. These men gave her that in exchange for her silence and inaction regarding what they did to us. A grandfather and cousin also got involved. I’ve been in therapy for fourteen years. I am a classic case of childhood emotional neglect and saw myself in every word of this description.

    Jonice Webb - January 28, 2015 Reply

    Dear Survivor, I’m so sorry that these terrible things happened to you. You are, indeed, a survivor and I’m impressed that you’re in therapy, working through it all. And you are so right! This Page and my book, Running on Empty, are both written for women and men. CEN often stands alone, but it’s a vastly overlooked part of all child abuse. I wrote this article for men because men have a special hurdles in realizing their feelings and connecting emotionally. Thank you for your comment, and I wish you all the best.

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