Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Voices of Experience

Almost a decade ago, when I first started blogging about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I wrote a post that introduced my Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.

It was a brief article, but one of the first blog posts ever written about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Despite the shortness of the article itself, it did make quite a stir. In fact, that early post received 71 comments. Recently, while taking a look back at where we started, I came across not just that early article, but those many comments.

First, a refresher.

What Exactly is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

It’s growing up in a household that under-notices and under-attends to the feelings and emotional needs of the children.

CEN happens in legions of homes, in virtually every culture, and every social stratum. It even happens in homes that are otherwise loving and in which the parents are trying their best.

All it really takes for CEN to happen is for the parents to be unaware of the world of emotions, what they are, what they mean, and why they matter. This renders them emotionally blind to the feelings of their children.

Because CEN is caused by a lack of response and is not caused by overt action on the part of the parents, many CEN sufferers have no memory of anything going wrong for them as a child. Instead, they may recall a nice childhood and wonder why, as adults, they feel so empty, unfulfilled, lost, or alone.

Since you can’t easily know or remember whether you grew up with Emotional Neglect, I created the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. Instead of asking you about events in your childhood, it asks 22 questions about how you are experiencing your adulthood.

The test was initially introduced by my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It has now been taken by many hundreds of thousands of people and has been translated into many different languages.

Below is a sampling of the comments shared by readers. In them, you will see the reactions of people who were finding themselves touched by CEN awareness for the first time.

Comments Posted on the 2014 Blog, “Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test”

The Power of Neglect

Neglect doesn’t have to be intentionally practiced in order to cause harm. For instance, a child prodigy whose parents “neglected” to ever provide a piano will be, if not derailed, certainly behind all the other prodigies. There can be a whole range of reasons for the neglect of a child’s developing ego and worldview, but a developing child has no way of remotely grasping those reasons. That’s why one child can still thrive in the same situation another becomes stunted because not every person needs the same amount of information to make judgments of this life. Internal processing of experiences is actually quite sacred to the individual, as it should be for humans.

Being a grown-up isn’t something that humans are just awarded for turning a certain age, it’s the system of processing experiences in a manner that engenders healthy expressions of and responses to Life. If we have skipped a step of learning who we are somewhere along the line, making processing information rationally difficult, it helps the healing process a lot to know where that step is

Vulnerability

I got all 22. This explains so much! I have subconsciously known for a long time now that I have suffered from CEN, but this clarifies it. I probably wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to being manipulated by others if I hadn’t experienced CEN.

The Impact of Generations

I circled most. Studies are finally finding that children need emotional care and love more than was previously thought, yes we survive without it or with less, but my goodness it cripples us as adults. And Yes the parents are responsible for this. They are the adults, we were the children. Children are innocent and they take in everything. Adults now have access to infinite information like this book. It’s time to end this cycle and hand me down of pain and neglect. I’m stopping it on my branch of the family tree, no more. It’s the best thing we can do for ourselves, our children, and the whole world to heal this.

The CEN Marriage

I circled 16 and three of them with double or triple circles. How is one supposed to deal with and heal the scars? I am married to a man who is negative and enjoys very little. I have been blessed with talents (so I’ve been told as an adult) but have barely been able to use them. I am 55 and sometimes feel trapped and stifled. At the same time, I am afraid to go it alone. The only thing that seems to make me feel better is being around those less fortunate and trying to be of help somehow. Life is too short for learning from mistakes. Parents need to encourage and empower their children or don’t have them in the first place.

The Culture of CEN

Hmmm…interesting. I wonder if race adds yet another dimension? Do some ethnicities and cultures experience more societal neglect that may add yet another layer of neglect for a child growing up in it?

You are Not Alone

Well, knowing that I may be an emotionally neglected child makes me somewhat at peace knowing that there are others like me, that I’m not the only one feeling like this, cause I feel guilty sometimes when I feel sad and dissatisfied with my life when there are others who have it worse than me.

The Healing Journey

I am the product of severe CEN and abuse. I have been working on healing for years. To others who are struggling with this: Don’t give up, things can get better! It takes time. Just keep learning how to tune into your own feelings and honor them, and know that you have every right to do it. Your needs are as important as anyone else’s, and treating yourself as well as you treat the other people in your life is a very good thing! AND it FEELS good!

I learned to bury my feelings deep down from the time I was a toddler. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; now I know it was necessary for my protection. As a result, it took me many years to be able to access my feelings about anything! I went into an abusive marriage—probably because it felt familiar—and after 20 years of that finally began to realize that something was really, really wrong. I left the marriage and have been on a healing journey ever since. It has taken a lot of work, but it is so worth it.

I have good friends and activities that I enjoy. The anxiety that was ever-present (without my even realizing it) is gone. I indulge myself occasionally without guilt and get real satisfaction and enjoyment out of recognizing what I need or prefer and saying so. I am kind to other people, and also kind to myself.

The Entry Point of CEN Awareness

Over the years since that early blog, I have received hundreds of thousands of comments like the ones above. In fact, some regular readers send their reactions and responses to CEN posts on an ongoing basis so that I actually get to follow along with their progress.

From taking the Emotional Neglect Test, which is basically the entry point of CEN awareness — to beginning to take some steps onto the path of CEN recovery and then progressing through the stages of reclaiming their feelings and learning how to use them for energy, connection, and direction, it’s incredibly rewarding to follow the evolution of progress.

Your Healing Journey

Now, here is an amazing thing. Once you realize that your own childhood did not fully prepare you to live fully and close to your own heart, you are free to shake off the chains of Childhood Emotional Neglect and open your arms to healing. 

You can know you are not diseased or damaged and that you can give yourself what you didn’t get. You can, like all those many readers who have shared their CEN thoughts, experiences, challenges, and triumphs, walk down the healing path to a warmer, more rewarding life, where you are running on empty no more.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects adults and families, and how you can strengthen and deepen your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!

I want to hear your comments too! Share your thoughts and experience with Childhood Emotional Neglect and I will be happy to publish them here.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Sharyn - August 27, 2021 Reply

I am now 60 years old and feel massively impacted by the triple whammy of CEN, emotional sensitivity and trauma. As a shy and sensitive child my father was mentally unwell and emotionally absent, my mother also unable to offer me the emotional warmth I needed. Then I experienced major trauma in my teens and 20’s including the loss of my father and brother and major sexual and psychological abuse, however I think I was unable to process what happened emotionally due to the CEN.

Now through learning about CEN I can see that my whole adult life has felt incredibly emotionally grim and barren because I’ve been unable to connect naturally with others since childhood, so there has been a dearth of people in my life.

For the first time in 20 years I recently got into a relationship with someone also affected by CEN but despite our best intentions we were unable to make it work and split after 4 months. I’ve also battled severe insomnia for 25 years and my theory is that it is because I’m emotionally unfulfilled. Functioning professionally is also very difficult because I suffer from huge performance anxiety. Since the loss of experiencing closeness with others I also developed a spending addiction which has left me financially vulnerable as well as being alone, aging and unsupported.

Life is tough and learning about CEN has been a very sobering experience for me. As I’ve put the pieces together its helped me understand why I feel so damaged as a person, but I understand its vital in order for me to to start the healing process. So I feel very grateful to have this knowledge thank you x

Sarah - August 24, 2021 Reply

I’m a 45 year old single woman. My mother was a covert narcissistic and my much older father (he was 59 when I was born) did everything to please her and make her happy. I was very much ‘seen but not heard’. Emotions were not discussed and my mother’s interest in me was limited to making sure I was healthy. My father was kind but emotionally absent and left my upbringing mostly to my mother. Reading Running on Empty and discovering the far reaching consequences of CEN has been life-changing for me and has explained so many aspects of why I am the way I am. I have a good circle of friends but I have never managed to sustain a romantic relationship, something which has hugely distressed me (having seen all my friends get married and have children). However, I am working hard to change what I now realise were very wrong and unhealthy thinking patterns and trying to be hopeful and optimistic about the future.

    Jonice - August 25, 2021 Reply

    Dear Sarah, I’m sorry you grew up with so little emotional nourishment. It’s wonderful that you are working to heal yourself and can see the positives of your work. Keep it up!

Pat - August 23, 2021 Reply

Since first reading this blog, I have come to realize that we have generational codependency and CEN in my family. This has made it much easier to reconcile my feelings of anger, resentment and hurt that I have felt towards my mother. I have come to realize that both my parents grew up with codependency and CEN. My mother now has dementia and is in a nursing home, and I am pretty much totally in charge of her care. What I feel most guilty about is unknowingly perpetuating CEN onto my children. I have both of your books and have read the first one and part of the second one but had to stop, because I was overloaded…I think it’s time to pick it up again, so that I can continue towards better relationships with my children. Learning about CEN has changed my life and how I relate to people. ( I am a work in progress) Thank you!

    Jonice - August 25, 2021 Reply

    Dear Pat, remember that CEN transfers silently through generations. The fact that you are working to stop it is admirable. Keep on working!

Peter - August 23, 2021 Reply

I was wondering if “in locus parentis” [in the place of a parent] should be added to CEN. Specifically thinking of [Irish] nuns who taught me at primary school level. Author Julia Cameron described them as “whacking little kids was their idea of aerobic exercise”. Teachers had full legal rights to be as parents. {The law has substantially changed in my country New Zealand. It is illegal for parents and by extension teachers to physically punish children}

    Jonice - August 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Peter, when I talk about parents, let’s think of them as your primary caretakers, whoever they may be. It’s not necessarily biological parents, but the adults who occupy that space in your brain when you are growing up.

Randy - August 22, 2021 Reply

Hello this is Randy I am 56 years old in on the brink of my second divorce with my wife to say I’m just getting cold I’ve read both of the books running on empty and running on empty no more and cried through both of them I had very sick and absent parents my when I was younger from the age 8 to 12 or 13 CEN is given me understanding of my blankness or my placid emotions emotions are never really discussed in my family I’ve talked over with some of my siblings and some are more receptive and some don’t agree. I too have a lot of guilt and resentment against my parents. That I struggle with forgiving them. Healing is possible, and worth it, I hope!

    Jonice - August 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Randy, you are experiencing firsthand what it means to realize what you didn’t get. It’s so important and so powerful. Please stay on the healing path. Get some help if you need it to keep getting in touch with your feelings, listening to them and valuing them. Thank you for sharing your story!

Tallulah - August 22, 2021 Reply

What’s the solution for a person who was raised by one autistic parent and one bitter and angry parent?

    Jonice - August 22, 2021 Reply

    Dear Tallulah, that must make things very confusing for you. I recommend you talk with a CEN-trained therapist from my Find A CEN Therapist List. You deserve help sorting all of this out so you can find yourself and learn to value and listen to your own feelings.

    Cary - August 23, 2021 Reply

    Hey, Tallulah! Just wanted to say that I was raised by an autistic parent and in my case a codependent parent. It’s hard. Reading Dr. Webb’s books and connecting with other folks learning about it has for me been the road to recovery. Best of luck.

Olivia - August 22, 2021 Reply

This quote is what I believe and try to do:

“It’s time to end this cycle and hand me down of pain and neglect. I’m stopping it on my branch of the family tree, no more.”

I grew up having my emotions suppressed, disbelieved, mocked, believing I was too weak, sensitive, easily hurt. Emotions were not to be talked about or even acknowledged. With my own children, and my husband, we talk about emotions, feelings, problems and successes. If anyone needs help, they get it, either from us or professionals.

As Jean Luc Picard said, the line must be drawn here!

    Jonice - August 22, 2021 Reply

    Dear Olivia, What you and your husband are doing is such a wonderful thing. You are true “emotional heroes.” Thank you for sharing!

Gill - August 22, 2021 Reply

I’m struggling with the way I seemed to be singled out for CEN. My 4 siblings didn’t have the same upbringing as me. I was singled out as an ‘ugly baby’ and sent to live 100 miles away for at least the first 2 years of my life. Although I expect i was loved by my paternal grandma, my Mum never bonded with me. All my attempts to be a dutiful daughter didn’t help. I grew up very capable and left home early. I still have problems with abusive partners. The last one took his own life recently and I’m very anxious about starting out again. Any advice greatly recieved

    Jonice - August 22, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gill, I’m very sorry that all of that happened to you. I strongly encourage you to contact a CEN-trained therapist from my Find A CEN Therapist List on this website. Talking this through with a trained therapist is very important.

William - August 22, 2021 Reply

As a father, I have brought up, with my wife, two beautiful children. But I am worried that the mental difficulties my son is experiencing are due to me suffering depression and an inability to properly father him during his formative years, I really feel I have let him down due to my own unresolved CEN. I want to help him, and am searching for ways to do this, to explain it to him to allow him to understand both his and my situation, so that he and I can address it as fully as possible. I am, i must admit, suffering from a lot of guilt and hurt over this, blaming MY parents for what they brought on me – witnessing regular domestic abuse, etc. I really want to educate both my children as to good parenting…my son is now 27, and is intelligent, but i need to approach this sensitively. Any help would be gratefully accepted!

Many thanks.

    Jonice - August 22, 2021 Reply

    Dear William, there are many considerations in having a talk like this with your son. Asking him to read one of my articles or sending him a copy of Running On Empty can be options. I encourage you to read my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It has many thoughts and ideas on the subject on reaching out to an adult child who you fear you’ve emotionally neglected.

kayfer - April 30, 2020 Reply

Hi
Ive only just seen the article on CEN today and I answered yes to 18 of the questions on the questionnaire.

currently on the verge of separating with my husband, have 2 boys 9 and 12 and im feeling very drained with all this. Im hoping I can change as not been able to so far and its been making our lives a misery throughout our 25 years together.

I wont type much now but will be coming back to this when I have more time later on. My husband is very supportive of me and has kindly ordered the book for me when I showed an interest in it. Running on Empty. I am hoping that I will finally get help with this as I owe it to myself and my lovely family to be a happy and normal person.

M. Makuye - March 8, 2020 Reply

Neglect of the really rather clearly expressed attentional, emotional, social needs of children may not be the only factor with which we must come to terms and overcome when we approach adulthood.
I think you all will notice how much resentment is expressed within the comments.

In a couple previous comments I’ve alluded to such resentment.
Here, I hope to make the problem yet more plain:

Our parents grandparents, and others involved in family interactions in which CEN may arise, were, as Dr. Webb indicated, THEMSELVES very likely or certainly exposed to this familial failure.
Blame, it MUST be emphasized, is INAPPROPRIATE, lest you merely continue the failure of loving communication, replacing it with mere violent resentment, forever modeling it to children for as long as YOU live.

Culture, after all, occurs not at some erudite formal educational level, but right HERE, right NOW, in modeling behaviors. Having long been involved in the study of the culture of mammals – even the most seeming asocial species still transmit culture to offspring in this way, if only through the mothers in some cases.

I cannot emphasize this enough: For so long as you model blame, and resentment, you can NEVER model the necessary love and validity so obligate, so required, by ALL who are exposed to you.

My own family remains fractured, avoidant, cold due to continued expression of blame and resentment, due to the failure and “neglect” modeled to us within our extended family by elders largely gone.
Blame and resentment are the OPPOSITE of asserting the natural love one feels in life.
I have placed neglect in quotes because the word itself may have made you quite automatically attribute blame and resentment, to exteriorize all attribution of responsibility outside yourself.
For more than two years, I’ve attempted to ease siblings away from this response, so far failing utterly.. Courage, exposing oneself, is so easily replaced by this exteriorization of adult responsibility, of acting in a profoundly miserly manner in one’s life.

The wreckage goes on, compounding into THEIR children.

Daniel Kahneman and Abel Tversky conducted experiments in which they found that people made a common cognitive error – they allowed themselves to replace actual questions, their minds eliding smoothly into framing a different question entirely, to which they could more easily attach an answer. This is essentially what we’re seeing in many comments. they did not use the word dogmatism, but hard, simplistic, frozen dogmatism it is.

Dogmatism, that most common method of avoidance of a question, replacing it with some other construct in one’s own mind, is the solipsistic refuge that many of us enter, denying the possibility of change, which is the essence of life, of attention and care and functional expression of love itself.
Please do NOT sink into blame and dogmatic denial of the most important capacity you have – attention, awareness, inclusion, love.
The young really immediately know: “You cannot hear us. You are unwilling to see us. We are unimportant to you, because you have no ‘time’.”

I think it was Paul Simon, who sang, long ago, “Silence, like a cancer, grows.” The breaking down of a family, of sensitivity to the life and lives around us through this avoidant silence and creation of eternal, fictional resentment instead, is the curable cancer of which Dr. Webb speaks.

Comments have the capacity to help others. They also allow the commenter to gain insight and to less precariously begin to approach the seemingly impossible barriers that may appear to exist between each of us and those we love.

I have so far failed; my own mother retreated into simple puzzle-solving, emotionally exhausted from the severity of multigenerational modeling of that Neglect. I signal normal feelings toward siblings, and try to trace for her why brothers and sister fell into such dogmatism and blame.. I certainly do not feel that i should aggressively approach them,, even as she reports to me their continuing assertion of bias, blame, resentment to THEIR children.

But the spreading of blame and resentment into scapegoats (please look that word up – it involves “magically” placing all negative emotions or “sins” into an innocent, who is then cruelly sacrificed. While it does periodically relieve those who participate, its final result is cultural cruelty of immense scale), merely perpetuates.

Do not blame, and realize that the resentment you may express in commenting, is the real, deadly, problem, perpetuating.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Olivia, that is amazing! What a great example of emotionally attuned parenting and how it’s different from emotionally neglectful parenting. Keep up the good work!

    Bess - August 23, 2021 Reply

    M. Makuye, I’m only just reading your comment here more than a year after you wrote it, but it literally took my breath away. Your eloquence, your insight are incredible. I cannot thank you enough for sharing them here. I honestly feel as if your thoughts will change my life. Thank you, and all the very best to you on your own journey.

Olivia - March 8, 2020 Reply

I am really happy to say I am learning from your CEN information and advice.
Last week my daughter came home from school looking a bit odd, so I immediately said ‘you look a bit shellshocked, what’s wrong?’ She said ‘why didn’t you tell me I had an injection at school today?’ I said ‘oh darling I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I must have signed the form and forgotten. I’m sorry, I’ve had a lot on my mind over the last week.’ (health problems but she didn’t need to know what.)
I’m very proud that I noticed she looked odd, and I was able to identify her expression immediately and we talked about it.
If I’d come home from school like that, my mum would have shouted at me and stormed out of the room without trying to find out what was wrong. I know better thanks to your posts.

Amy - March 8, 2020 Reply

Ok so yes, I am definitely a product of CEN. That’s been established by every post I have read of yours. It’s kinda sad to know. But also could be empowering. Like, here’s the problem and u even have lots of ideas for solutions. And that’s great. But there’s one thing, the most important thing, that I haven’t seen u touch on (perhaps u have and I missed that one, if so sorry. Please direct me to it?), and that is, what about the fact that that is my learned behavior, and now every time I read ur blog, I get a sick guilty feeling in the pit of my soul because I believe I am now doing (or rather, did do) the same thing to my daughter. She is 17. You have a lot of advice for the victims of CEN. What about the accidental perpetrators? Please help me. The guilt is so bad I almost wish I never found ur blog. I feel like a terrible person. And I’m not gonna use this CEN diagnosis as an excuse., but how do I help my daughter. I have to tell her I did this to her? She has major emotional issues. Anxiety, depression, etc. And “sorry baby it’s mommy’s fault”? I can barely handle it. Please. Help.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Amy CEN is not your excuse but it is the reason. I have written lots of helpful articles and one book for parents. You did not choose CEN so it’s not your fault. Please read mySecond book Running On Empty No More. It will take away your unnecessary guilt.

Rebecca Hankins - March 8, 2020 Reply

After 60 years of failed marriages, a floundering relationship with my daughter, a lifelong series of dead-end and unsatisfying jobs, and desperately wondering “What is wrong with me?!”, my search led me to discover an article on CEN…WOW! Suddenly it all made sense. I cannot begin to thank you enough for what you have done for me. I began to feel the self-confidence and empowerment to refuse to accept being treated with verbal abuse by my husband, and at 70 have begun to have a much better relationship with my daughter.
My 95 year old mother recently passed away, for whom I had been caring. I continue to feel a LACK of feeling. I miss her presence, but all I really feel is emptiness. And guilt for that lack of feeling. I know that is understandable, given that I never learned how to identify and respect my feelings, but I am sad for what should have been.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Becky, you are on the path of healing! Feeling sad for what should have been is part of it. You can use that feeling to drive you to connect with your other feelings. The more you reclaim them the more whole and complete you will become.

Frank Troy - March 8, 2020 Reply

Great blog post, again. Thank you.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Thank you Frank.

Carol - March 8, 2020 Reply

I had a great childhood and great parents….or so I thought. I had always felt there was something missing. Through Dr. Webb’s writings I found that I have CEN. When I look back over my entire life I was never once hugged or comforted. Anything negative was swept under the carpet and I was left to myself to reconcile whatever happened. Even though I love both my parents, I do not feel that closeness. It was easy to detach emotionally from my mother when she was passing. Now my father is elderly and I am partly responsible for his care. Honestly, it’s a job and not a labor of love. It’s an awful thing but I couldn’t care less if I ever saw him again. He was never mean but the emotional closeness just isn’t there. CEN has caused me to be counter-dependent and avoidant. It has built a wall in my marriage that I just can’t fix despite what I read. Closeness just makes me too uncomfortable! I understand what has happened but I can’t fix it. CEN is a terrible thing and I am grateful for Dr. Webb for putting light on it.

    Jonice - March 8, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your cen story Carol. Now you can heal it. I hope you will take the steps for recovery.

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