Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
Growing up this way leaves you with some significant challenges throughout your entire adult life.
As I have said many times before, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be healed. Even beyond that, therapists and laypeople alike are realizing that taking the steps to heal CEN is a powerful way to change your life from the inside.
One of my greatest goals in writing and speaking and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect is to give both mental health professionals and CEN sufferers a common language to talk about what failed to happen, the gaps that are left by that, and what it takes to fill them.
This route to healing is both validating and compelling for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. And more and more therapists are finding that walking their clients through the 4 CEN Recovery Steps is remarkably rewarding work.
Looking For a CEN Trained Therapist?
If you are looking for a therapist who is familiar with the CEN concept and is trained in the recovery process, see my Find A CEN Therapist Page. It lists almost 500 licensed therapists located all over the world who have either read my books or have attended one of my CEN Therapist Continuing Education Trainings. And if there are none located in your area, many of the therapists on the list do Skype treatment.
Want Your Therapist to Learn About CEN?
If you are in treatment with a therapist who is not trained in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can share this article with your therapist as a way to introduce him or her to the CEN concept and the kind of work you would like to do together.
Become a CEN Specialist: You can find many more Resources and Tools For CEN Therapists on the For Therapists Page.
Fill out this Brief Form to apply to become a CEN Specialist and get listed on the Find A CEN Therapist Page.
The 4 Steps of Childhood Emotional Neglect Treatment
The treatment of Childhood Emotional Neglect is a process of 4 steps, all of which build upon each other. When you are aware of the natural progression of these steps you will be able to guide your client through them in a meaningful way.
CEN Therapist List: Clients can find a CEN trained therapist near them. If you are a therapist, you can request to be added to the list to receive more referrals of CEN folks, which I am sure you will find to be some of the most rewarding people to work with.
Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect: This book presents the concept of CEN in depth to readers, how it happens, why it can be so unmemorable, and how it affects the child, plus many aspects of the recovery process. It also has a special chapter for therapists.
Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children: This book is all about how to identify and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in couples and families. It also offers lots of specific information for parents on exactly how to emotionally validate and respond to their children. I wrote this book to use as a guide for clients and therapists to go through together. It is especially helpful for Treatment Step 4.
Whether you are a CEN sufferer looking for a therapist who understands you in this deep and meaningful way or a therapist who wants to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to walk your clients through the 4 Stages of Recovery, there are many answers and resources for you.
One of my biggest goals is to provide a well-trained therapist who is passionate about treating Childhood Emotional Neglect to every man, woman and child everywhere in the world who needs one.
Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?
If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.
Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.
Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.
Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.
Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.
Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.
Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.
But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.
Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.
A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.
Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?
If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”
My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.
Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.
Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.
I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.
Do you feel like I do?
On The Outside
There’s a deep, draining feeling that many people carry through every single day of their adult lives. But few are consciously aware of this feeling, or ever actually put into words. So please allow me to do it for you, using the words I have heard many people use to describe it.
It’s a feeling of:
Deeply different from everyone else; somehow flawed
Alone and disconnected
On the outside looking in
Empty or numb
This is a feeling that saps your energy and your joy. It lurks in the background, making it hard for you to believe that you fit in anywhere, or that you are okay.
This feeling colors your world gray and holds you back from many of the most rewarding parts of life.
When you live with this feeling you are most likely not fully aware that you have it, yet it drags on you and weighs on you day after day. This feeling can become such a constant in your everyday life that you experience it not as a feeling, but as a fact of life.
Woven into the fabric of your existence, you naturally assume it’s a basic part of the human condition.
Doesn’t everyone feel like I do?
Until one day you look around, and you see that other people seem more comfortable in their own skin. Other people seem to feel that they belong. Other people seem to be living lives filled with passion and joy and heartbreak and hurt that you, in some inexplicable way, for some unfathomable reason, seem unable to fully experience.
“What do all these people have that I lack?” you wonder. Why do they seem to be so connected, so comfortable, so driven, so fulfilled?
Why do I seldom feel like I belong? Why am I living on the outside? What makes me different from everyone else?
Believe it or not, when you ask these questions, it’s actually a good sign. It means that you have finally moved beyond your lifelong assumption that everyone feels this way. You have progressed forward and reached a realization.
Everyone does not feel like I do. I am missing out on something important. Something that truly matters.
Now some good news. Keep reading and you will find that you can overcome this feeling. You don’t have to live with it anymore. But first, let’s talk more about what caused it in the first place, and also what it means.
What Causes This Feeling? Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood Emotional Neglect is, unfortunately, a common childhood experience. It takes place in many unsuspecting homes and is perpetrated by many unaware adults. It’s often invisible, usually unmemorable, but yet it leaves an enduring mark upon the child.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to notice your feelings enough and respond to them. So it’s not exactly something that happens to you as a child; it’s more like something that fails to happen for you as a child.
Your emotions and feelings and emotional needs go unnoticed, unvalidated, and essentially ignored.
This was the experience that caused the feeling that you live with now.
What Does This Feeling Mean?
When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you learn that your emotions are a useless burden, and you continue to treat your own feelings in exactly that way as you move forward in your life.
Going forward, whenever you have a feeling, you either question it or doubt it or minimize or reject it. You assume that your feeling is wrong, or selfish or excessive or useless so you override it or ignore it or both.
Every time you do this to one of your emotions, you are doing it to yourself. You are pushing the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are down, and away. In doing so, you are minimizing and marginalizing yourself. You are making yourself an incomplete version of yourself. You are squelching yourself.
What does this feeling mean? It means that you are continuing to neglect yourself.
How Can You Get What Other People Have?
In a way, the answer to this question is remarkably logical. To get what other people have, you must reverse the process of the Childhood Emotional Neglect you grew up with. You can start by absorbing and embracing the Emotion Facts below.
5 Emotion Facts
Once you understand and accept the 5 Emotion Facts above, you can make a vow to yourself that you will stop the pattern set up for you in childhood. And then you can fulfill that vow by treating yourself in a different way.
So when that inner voice says, “It does not matter what you feel,” you do not accept it; you talk back.
“It does matter what I feel,” you insist. “I will accept and pay attention to this feeling. I will listen to its message, I will take responsibility for it. I will manage it or, if needed, share it. I will own it as the deepest expression of myself.
No more, “Do you feel like I do?” No more “on the outside.”
My solemn vow to myself: I will not hide anymore.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect keeps you feeling disconnected from the most important people in your life, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Fortunately, it’s quite easy.
But unfortunately, it’s also easy for Emotional Neglect to take over your marriage, leaving one or both partners feeling empty and alone. All it takes is for one or both of you to grow up with it in your family.
When Emotional Neglect happens in a marriage, it doesn’t look the same as other relationship problems, like conflict or fighting. Instead, it’s more likely to look like nothing.
Failing to notice when your partner is upset.
Failing to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Refusing to answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”
Ignoring the problems between you in hopes they will go away on their own.
Keeping your festering anger to yourself.
Failing to notice or respond to your partner’s emotional needs.
Emotional Neglect in a marriage is like a quiet monster hiding under the rug. It’s not a “problem” so much as an empty space; an absence of some essential ingredient that no one knows about, but everybody misses.
If you or your partner grew up in a family that was blind to the feelings of its members, there’s a good chance that one or both of you didn’t have the chance to learn what true emotional intimacy is.
Emotional intimacy requires emotional work; like paying attention to your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, being willing to fight things out even when it hurts, and being vulnerable to the other person: all things that are NOT done in an emotionally neglectful family. All things that are NOT learned by the child growing up in it.
As a specialist in marriage therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples, many of them experiencing Emotional Neglect in their relationships.
In these ways, the emotionally neglectful marriage gradually emotionally starves its members. Some husbands and wives feel it happening to them, while others seem to go through their days blissfully unaware.
One thing is clear: if the Emotional Neglect goes unchecked, it will eat away at the heart of the couple’s love and passion, eroding that magnetic chemistry that brought them together in the first place. They are likely, after decades of living like this, to end up feeling more like roommates than love mates.
Strive to notice when your partner is upset.
Be sure to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Always give an answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”
Address the problems between you in a direct and honest, but caring and compassionate way.
Accept that conflict is a healthy part of every strong relationship.
Voice your anger to your partner so it will not have a chance to fester.
Do your best to notice and respond to your partner’s emotional needs.
Usually invisible in your childhood and in your marriage, Emotional Neglect has the power to drain your energy, dampen your joy, and make you feel disconnected, lost and alone.
But this means that you have the power to make the invisible visible and the unspeakable speakable. Drag the Emotional Neglect in your marriage out from under the rug, shine a light on it and say:
“ I love you and I want to be closer to you. Can we please work on this together?”
How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Ask your partner for help. That is what true love is all about.
To learn much more about Emotional Neglect in marriage, how it looks and how to heal it, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.
Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.
But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.
The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.
I know this because I see it in my office every single day.
Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.
But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!
Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.
You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!
For the realtor, the world revolves around Location Location Location. But psychologists, psychiatrists, and social scientists everywhere know that what really matters is validation.
And the absence of it.
A friend of mine woke up one morning and literally felt a bomb go off in her head. There was a sense of an explosion, cymbals, fireworks all in one split-second cacophony. Then, suddenly, it was over.
Needless to say, my friend was worried on the verge of panic. What was this? What does it mean? “Is this the start of some kind of neurological degenerative disorder?” she wondered. So she did what any of us would do in this situation. She typed it into google.
She only typed a few words, and the answer appeared under the search bar. Exploding Head Syndrome. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s unexplained and rare, but harmless. My friend read postings by dozens of people who have had the same experience. She felt immediately relieved, and never worried about it again.
Because she felt validated.
When my friend told me this story months later, it made me think about validation, and how powerful it is. It’s possible to go from panic to calm by simply being validated. Validation has the ability to save marriages, cement friendships, and decrease depression. It’s scientifically proven.
I recently came across a study by Marigold et al., 2014, which looked at how people with low self-esteem experience different kinds of support, compared with people who have healthy self-esteem.
The researchers found that both groups of people responded well to validation of their negative feelings. That’s these kinds of statements:
I would feel that way too.
Anyone who went through that would be sad.
Your feelings are normal.
Of course you’re angry.
But only the folks with healthy self-esteem also responded well to the kind of support that did not validate their feelings. That’s statements like:
At least you’re learning something from this.
I know someone who went through the same thing, and he’s fine now.
You’ll beat this.
Everything will be okay.
So the only kind of supportive statements that are helpful for people with all levels of self-esteem is the kind that validates their negative feelings. Across the board, we all need to know that the feelings we have are normal and reasonable in the situation.
We all feel better when we’re validated.
I’m sitting in my office in a therapy session with a couple who is on the verge of divorce. Karen and Tom are both lovely people, but they hate each other. Our work together over the past two months has been trying to figure out why.
On this day, one powerful reason emerges. Here’s the story Karen told me:
I was on the phone with my mother, and she told me that her doctor’s appointment didn’t go well. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I was so upset! I hung up the phone, and I was in shock. Tom was in the other room. I walked in and told him what I had just heard.
Tom stopped typing on his laptop and came over to me. He gave me a huge hug, which was just what I needed. Then he said, “OK, let’s stop with the tears and talk about this rationally. It’s not like anyone has died.”
Tom did several things exactly right in this moment. He gave Karen his full attention and a big hug. And he thought he said the right thing. Clearly, Tom’s intentions were loving.
But sadly, Tom missed the boat. His statement was intended to calm Karen, but instead it contributed to the pool of anger and rage that she already had toward him. What Karen heard in his statement was, “You’re wrong to be so upset. You’re over-reacting. You are irrational.”
Karen’s anger toward Tom had built up over many years of such responses from him. Incidents big and small ended the same, with Karen getting MORE upset and walking out of the room, leaving Tom baffled and angry himself in return.
“She’s impossible. I can’t do anything right for her. It’s never enough,” Tom lamented in our session.
Fortunately, there was an answer for Karen and Tom, and the answer was fairly straightforward. In fact, Tom learned quickly and easily. He learned to say instead, in a situation like this, “Oh no, that’s terrible, Honey. I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.”
When Tom handled Karen’s feelings by responding to them instead of trying to minimize or banish them, Karen felt validated.
The Unvalidated Child
Imagine a little child growing up without the kind of validation that my friend got from google; without the kind of validation that the subjects got in the self-esteem study. Without the kind of validation that Karen was finally able to get from Tom.
Imagine this little child trying to understand himself, his world, and all the other people in it. Imagine that he doesn’t feel he can ask questions when he needs help. No one notices his feelings or emotional needs. No one says, “Let me explain this to you.” No one says, “Your feelings are normal.” No one says, “I’m here for you,” or “I see your emotions,” either by words or actions.
This child is being sentenced to an entire life of seeking answers. An entire life of feeling like a non-person. An entire life of feeling less-than. An entire life of feeling angry or baffled or untethered, or all three.
An entire lifetime of feeling invalid.
To learn more about validation, how it affects people who live without it, and how to heal, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
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.Continue reading
Recently at a dinner party, talk turned to the current news story about Bill Cosby. As the only psychologist at the table, everyone looked at me as one person asked with intense curiosity, “How could anyone victimize women all those years, and still live with himself? How could you sleep at night?”
Since I don’t know Bill Cosby, I can’t speak for him; nor do I know if he is guilty of the accusations against him or not. But generally, in an actual situation like this, there is an answer to the question. The answer is one word: narcissism.
In many ways, it seems like it would be fun to be narcissistic. Wouldn’t it be great to go through life feeling superior to other people, and with unwavering self-confidence? Yes!
But as we all know, there is a dark side to narcissism. That unwavering self-confidence is as brittle as an eggshell. Narcissists don’t move back and forth on a continuum of self-esteem as the rest of us do. Instead, they run on full-tilt until something taps that protective shell of self-importance hard enough. Then, they fall into a million pieces. Under that fragile, brittle cover lies a hidden pool of insecurity and pain. Deep down, the narcissist’s deepest and most powerful fear is that he is a nothing.Continue reading
Do boys and girls respond differently to the same childhood experiences? How do those differences play out as the boy becomes a man, and the girl grows into a woman?
In my work as a psychologist, I have seen remarkable gender differences in the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). First, a quick review.
CEN in a nutshell:
When children’s emotions are not validated enough by their parents, they minimize and push down their feelings in order to get along in their family. As adults, they lack enough access to their own emotions. Since emotions are a primary source of connection and richness in life, these folks end up going through their lives feeling vaguely empty or numb, disconnected, and confused about what is wrong with them. You can see other results of CEN in the table below. (To learn more about CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com).
When boys and girls grow up this way, are they affected differently? Does a CEN man feel differently than a CEN woman? The answer is yes.
First, two caveats: The masculine effects often appear in women and vice-versa, so please do not take these differences as absolute. Second, these observations are based upon my own clinical experience and have not been specifically researched.Continue reading
It’s fun being a psychologist. Just as an engineer is fascinated by the true mechanics of electrical circuitry, we mental health professionals are intensely curious about the human brain.
What people feel and what those feelings mean; why people do what they do; it’s all of interest to us. In the process of doing our job day after day, we can often pick up on patterns and connections that give us flashes of a bigger picture. We see causes and effects and develop insights, understandings and intuitions that tell us basic human truths.
Sometimes new research studies come out that make us say, “Aha! I knew it!” Below are four such psychological principles. All four are the common knowledge of most mental health professionals. All are currently being studied and proven, and all are immensely useful information that everyone should have.Continue reading