Childhood Emotional Neglect: Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet For Therapists and Clients

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In my office, as well as my online Childhood Emotional Neglect recovery program, Fuel Up For Life, I have had the privilege of walking hundreds of people through the 5 Stages of CEN recovery. Throughout these experiences, I have realized something remarkable.

I have discovered that the most difficult, painful hurdle in recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect happens at the very beginning. The stage that seems the easiest, the one most people want to sail through and “get on with it” is the first one. Yet Stage 1 is extremely important. Of the 5 Stages of Recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, Stage 1 is not only the building block for all of the others. It’s also the most difficult.

The 3 Parts of Stage 1 of CEN Recovery

  1. Accept that your parents failed you emotionally as they were raising you.
  2. Identify the specific ways your parents failed to meet your emotional needs. Did they pretend feelings didn’t exist? Did they punish you for having feelings? Did they treat you exactly like your siblings, even though you were very different? Did they seldom validate or name your feelings? Or did it happen in some other ways?
  3. How has CEN affected you through your adult life? Has it left you feeling empty, disconnected, or alone? Are you disconnected from your own feelings? How has that affected you?

Participants in my online CEN recovery program continually want to rush through the first module which is dedicated to walking them through Stage 1 in a deep, detailed, and meaningful way. And the CEN clients I see in my office often try to skip over this very important foundation.

Therapists also find Stage 1 challenging with their clients. They constantly ask me for help with getting their clients to do the work of fully accepting their CEN.

Realizing how your parents failed you emotionally and facing how it’s undermined your happiness, connection and sense of self is admittedly painful. But I have found that gliding through Stage 1 too quickly backfires later on, undermining the steps you must take to heal.

When you think about it, it does make sense. It’s hard to break down the wall that blocks your emotions when you’re not fully sure that a wall is there or why it might be there. And it makes it much easier to give yourself what you never got if you’re able to fully see that none of this is your fault.

When a CEN therapist emailed and said, “Can you please create a worksheet to help us therapists get our clients to see and accept how their parents failed to validate them? We need help with Stage 1,” I realized I needed to do just that.

If you are a CEN therapist here are 8 questions to use with your clients. I recommend that instead of asking these questions in the sessions, you send them home with your client and ask him or her to think about it and write down answers and bring them to the session.

If you are a CEN person who is not in therapy, you can use this worksheet to help you accomplish Stage 1 in a way that is deep, meaningful and effective. This will set you up for the 4 stages to come.

CEN Worksheet For Stage 1

  1. Describe a typical day in your childhood in as much detail as possible. Choose any age you’d like. As you go through the day, make a special point to think about what feelings you had at the time.
  2. Tell a story about a time your parents supported you through a difficult time. How did they support you?
  3. Describe a time when you felt one or both of your parents truly understood you. Were you surprised at the time?
  4. Did one or both of your parents use emotion words like “sad,” “angry,” “hurt,” or “afraid,” for example, very often or at all?
  5. Can you remember a time when you really needed your parents, and they were not there for you? Note: The reason is irrelevant in this exercise.
  6. Go through the Emotions List in the back of Running On Empty with your own childhood in mind and highlight the words that seem to fit it. Do not overthink it. Rely on your hand to know which words to highlight. You can go back and try to process it later.
  7. Read through the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Chapter 3: The Neglected Child, All Grown Up. Write down a list of the ones that you identify with as a problem in your own life.
  8. Now go back through your answers to Questions 1-6 and try to connect your childhood memories, experiences and feelings with the CEN struggles you identified in your answers to Question 7. Can you connect them?

My Number 1 Recommendation For Accomplishing Step 1

For CEN Therapists: Be aware that your CEN clients will naturally want to rush through Step 1. It is your responsibility to slow them down and support them to do the work. Support and challenge your client on this, and do not let them off the hook.

For CEN People: Be aware that this worksheet is not a simple solution of any kind. Step 1 often happens in layers, and you may need to revisit it over and over. Many of the members of my online program return to Module 1 over and over as they go through the other steps.

Take your time with these 8 steps. Look for a therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist List if you get stuck and/or could use some guidance and support.

My Number 1 recommendation for your first step in CEN recovery, whether you are a therapist or a sufferer, is this:

Do not rush.

Take your time.

Put your heart into this and do your best to face the pain.

You are worth it.

Download a PDF of the CEN Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet Here

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty 

A version of this article was first published on It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.


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Sharon - October 5, 2023 Reply

I am so happy to have found you and read your book. I had an emotionally absent father and a mother who sent me to my room every time I had a feeling. It has taken me years to understand that I need to tap into my feelings , as feelings not only didn’t matter in my home , but were rejected.

I realize now his this has impacted me and my relationships , both personal
And work . My parents are not open to hearing any of this , as their parenting style is very “ because I said so “.

Thanks for the path and the validation.

Sheryl - August 9, 2022 Reply

I am not a practicing therapist or counselor but have a Master’s in applied Psychology. I am blown away by your insight into the struggles I have had all my life. I am going to read much more that you have written and plan to do any exercises you make available as I feel it will be most valuable to me and multitudes of others. Not having a concrete explanation for problems in our lives definitely makes solving those problems very difficult when the problems are born out of emotional neglect. I have dealt with issues by every means possible other than realizing and recovering from the actual absence of the emotional support from parents and grandparents in my childhood. I suffered from purposeful CEN and abuse physically and especially emotionally. I was ridiculed for showing any kind of emotions in most cases. I am alone in a crowd. I rarely ask for anything from anyone, especially family. I usually prefer to be alone but inside I would love to be around someone who understood. I was, if not the only one, at least the most severely emotionally neglected by parents and grandparents and in later childhood by siblings as well. My grands, mostly grandmother, was my primary caretaker and I’ve recently realized she had no skills whatsoever in emotionally supporting children. It’s a really sad realization for me but puts so much perspective on my life. It is even a bit more clear now some of the reasons my mother was the way she was, or wasn’t, throughout my entire life. That is not to say I can forgive her, but it goes a way to maybe understanding the reasons for her abuse and non-engagement. So without even reading your book yet, I feel a huge weight starting to lift from inside, hopeful even at this late stage, to be rid of the emotional chains that have held me back in so many ways. Thank you for that. I will be delving more into CEN through your books etc. Please feel free to send me any materials or suggestions you think might be valuable for my journey. Thank you again.


    Jonice - August 14, 2022 Reply

    This is wonderful to hear, Sheryl. It is folks like you who keep me doing this work!

Kristin Alvey - December 5, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice- As a therapist and an adult who experienced CEN myself, I have found your book so helpful in lining this all out from the perspective of a child and adult who had these experiences. I see a vast majority of my clients who have experienced this and in large part are in therapy due to the impacts of these experiences. I am EMDR trained and working towards certification and have used it to help clients work through these issues and maladaptive belief systems that develop as a result. In response to some of the folks comments about the difficulties accessing some of this info for themselves I’ve found that incorporating IFS into this work and exploring protective parts of self has been very helpful in allowing clients to understand why and how these parts developed in response to CEN experiences. I’m considering running a few groups with my clients specifically focused on their experiences of CEN. I appreciate some of the resources you’ve provided here. Any other suggestions you might have to incorporate into a group setting? Thanks so much-Kristin

kristy - April 9, 2021 Reply

I am so relieved to finally
have found you! I have been seeing counselors etc for over 30 years and nobody helped me! ROE is me and through this discovered my mother is also a narcissist. No surprise I married a phycopath malignant narcissist, we divorced almost 20 years ago and I raised 4 children while dealing with him spending every waking minute of his life trying to destroy me and when I fluked out and called his bluff on something realized this was a successful approach. But myself and my
Kids have been thru hell. They are now out of the house but I see them in your book so clearly. I want to help them so we can end the cycle as now their dad is working them and not thru me now they are over 18. I am terrified what he will do to them. I cannot find (as of yet) any therapists in Canada to help or any mention in your book about the parent with cen and dealing with a narcissist. Yes I protected them from their dad but I was in such a state of survival mode and living in constant fear for their lives I totally emotionally neglected them. Any advice?

    kristy - April 9, 2021 Reply

    I forgot to mention he is diagnosed as a narcissistic sociopath and I don’t remembers any of my childhood and neither does my sister so it is a challenge to do inner child’s work.

EILEEN - February 21, 2021 Reply

Hi! Running on Empty really hit home for me. Would EMDR help with CEN? I was working w/ a trauma focused therapist face/face (couple sessions) just before COVID when it came to virtual therapy my T preferred/could not to do EMDR remotely and I kinda felt like there was no direction/plan after that as far as therapy. Maybe she felt I wasn’t ready. I did reach out to one of the therapist you recommend on your website in my area but as you can imagine therapist are pretty booked up.
Thank You!

    Jonice - February 22, 2021 Reply

    DEar Eileen, EMDR is helpful at certain stages of recovery especially if you are experiencing feelings that are too painful to get past.. But the number one thing to do to recover is paying attention to your feelings.

Tara - September 30, 2020 Reply

Hi, I’m curious what kind of answers you are expecting. I literally can’t answer these questions very well at all, especially questions 2-5. In my memory I have no examples to be able to answer the questions. And I’m having a hard time bridging the questions with the ten themes of chapter 3. Please please advise! Thank you.

    Jonice - September 30, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tara, it’s wonderful you’re doing the worksheet! Please do give yourself some time to mull these questions over. They are meant to get you to think and focus inward on yourself. This is not about my expectations because everyone is unique. I do recommend you consult a therapist if you could use some input and support. See the list of CEN Therapists on this website.

Suzan - November 3, 2019 Reply

Very helpful info. Finishing Running on Empty, already bought ROE No More. There is huge overlap with Adult Children of Alcoholics.

    Jonice - November 3, 2019 Reply

    Yes, most ACOA’s grew up with Emotional Neglect. I hope you enjoy Running On Empty No More!

    Jo Ellen - November 9, 2019 Reply

    Suzan: I, too, could see the characteristics of CEN overlapping with the characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Alcoholism in a parent is very neglectful to children. In my case, it was my father. My mother on the other hand was very codependent plus she had eight children to take care of. She didn’t have much time to stop & validate feeling. I didn’t realize she was doing it to be neglectful until I until I started doing therapy myself.

    And, Jude Asphar, you are very spot on about how our parents were raised & their not knowing how to express feeling, etc. themselves.

    Jonice, where is the list of feelings you were referring to?

    Jo Ellen

      Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

      Hi Jo Ellen, It’s in the back of the Running On Empty book.

Joyce - October 31, 2019 Reply

Hello Jonice…thanks for the info. I relate to cen. I will work through the stage 1…

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    Excellent, Joyce!

Vickie - October 30, 2019 Reply

I bought your book Running on Empty. Thank you, I’m plodding through slowly but keeping the faith.

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    Take your time reading the book. It’s better to process it deeply and well. Good job Vickie.

Geraldine - October 30, 2019 Reply

I so connect with cen. I’m going to take my time and go through worksheet. At first glance I’m answering no no to all of them. Your work and findings bring such relief to me now knowing why I feel this way. Thanks

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    I am so glad Geraldine. Keep up the good work!

Nan - October 28, 2019 Reply

Thank you Jonice! This is a very helpful tool to get going on my life beyond CEN Journey!

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad Nan!

Nina Mentges - October 27, 2019 Reply

Dr. Jonice…. I am just learning about CEN and realizing this was my childhood. My problem, though, is that I am having trouble remembering ANY conversations with my parents. I know they loved me and probably did the best they knew how to do. I do remember thinking and even complaining to them that there was no affection, no encouragement, no praise, and them being upset that I would say such a thing and that they bragged on me all the time to their friends. They both died in a car accident when I was 20. How can I do this worksheet part 1 or any work on it if I can’t remember conversations or any connection? (I just started psychotherapy.)

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nina, CEN is all about the lack of important ingredients. The questions on the worksheet are made to help you think about this and put it into words for yourself. And ask your therapist to help you with it OK?

Tessa - October 27, 2019 Reply

I can’t remember having one conversation with my parents. Ever. I had 4 older brothers and sisters who were very close to each other. It was them conversing with themselves and my parents. I was always on the periphery. Never seen. Never heard. Never knowing I even had anything to say. I grew up on a farm and was always in nature and with my animals. Only. Pseudo intellectuals. Every one of the. Me, I chose the spiritual path, thank God. The only thing I regret was not knowing how to communicate, hence I never communicated with my children and cannot access words, even though I read extensively and understand everything. I’m great in everything I do today. I’m an artist, florist, shopkeeper, interior decorator and out the box thinker. My only sadness is I don’t know how to communicate and only realized this when I came across CEN last year at the age of 62. Non communication has taken the bit of power I could have had in all my narcissistic relationships away from me. Instead of being able to come out on top, I left without being able to speak my mind. Feeling powerless. Thank you for your help Jonice. I did buy your book although haven’t had time to finish it yet.

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tessa, it sounds like you are on the right track. You deserve to be seen and heard!

Jude Asphar - October 27, 2019 Reply

thank you for how generous you are, giving out this information to the many of us who fall into the CEN category—and — lets not forget how many of our parents suffered similar, or worse parenting — and in understanding them, blame less, or not at all.

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome Jude. I’m glad to be helpful to you!

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