Childhood Emotional Neglect Took Your Voice Away: How to Take it Back

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Childhood emotional neglect in a family dwells in the echoes of what’s not said, what’s not asked, and what’s not done.

In my work as a psychologist, I have seen how the absence of meaningful talk about feelings and a shortage of personal questions in a family can leave its children with an internal emotional block. These children grow up to be adults who had something vital robbed from them in childhood. And very, very few of them even know it was taken or that it’s now missing.

It’s their voice.

Not literally, of course! Most emotionally neglected people have plenty to say and they say it. They are quick to say things like:

How are you?

Is something wrong?

I’m happy to take on that task. Go ahead and assign it to me.

Sure, I’ll do that favor for you.

I don’t need any help.

I’m fine.

All’s well here!

While all of the above may seem like a random collection of statements, they all share a common theme. They are all about “you” and none about “me.” They are all made frequently by people with childhood emotional neglect. They convey the life stance of those who grew up with their emotions ignored.

The Voice of a Healthy Child

If you are ever around a typical infant, then you are familiar with the infant’s voice. All the way from birth through the age of 2 or 3 they express themselves very freely. Before they have words, they cry or giggle to communicate what they feel. As they get a little older, they point and say nonsense words. They yell and point out the car window and say, “Truck!” as soon as they know how to say it.

My point is that children are born with a voice that they are innately wired to use. What a baby feels and thinks has no filter. It comes out automatically and immediately.

But sadly, too many children must start filtering their voices all too much and all too soon.

The Emotionally Neglected Child

Imagine being an older child who gets your feelings hurt (as all children inevitably do). Your face and body language show your feelings very clearly for all to see. But your parents go on as if everything is fine. They don’t even seem to notice.

Imagine going to your parent for help, but, too often, for whatever reason, they are not responsive.

Imagine walking through every day of your life as a child seldom being asked personal questions by your parents. Questions like:

What are you sad about?

Did something happen at school today to get you upset?

Is this scary for you?

What do you want?

What do you feel?

What do you need?

When you don’t get asked these questions enough, it is natural for your developing brain to assume that your personal feelings, wants and needs do not matter. After some time, you learn that you may as well not express them because no one really cares anyway.

Imagine going through every day of your life as a child receiving little feedback about who you are. Feedback such as:

You are amazing at math. But we need to put some time into increasing our vocabulary.

You seem to get bored and distracted at baseball practice.

You have a great sense of humor!

Your temper gets the best of you sometimes.

You’re my little pizza lover.

You like to help others. It’s so sweet to see.

I love how you want to make the people around you laugh.

You seem to be unhappy when your friend _______ is here.

When you don’t hear these observations and feedback enough, you don’t get to learn two vital things that you are meant to learn in childhood:

You don’t get to learn who you really are

And you do not find out that you are worth knowing.

The Voice You Were Born With

This is how, growing up in a family that did not notice, validate, or show interest in you enough, you learned that your feelings do not matter.

It is how, bereft of enough emotional response and care, you learned that you should keep your true self under wraps.

This is how, by asking for things and having your words enter an empty void, you learned that it hurts to speak up.

It is how childhood emotional neglect took your voice away.

You Can Take Your Voice Back

You were born with a strong voice, but your childhood took it away. So, you do not now need to create a new voice, you just need to recapture what you once had. Your voice is there, inside of you, waiting to be reclaimed.

  1. Learn everything you can about childhood emotional neglect. As you do you will begin to realize how it happened to you, and you will start to see it in many different aspects of your life. You will discover how disconnected you have become from your true inner self, and how that has disconnected you from others. Understanding this will help you see how there is a “you” inside that you have been ignoring all these years.
  2. Start tracking what you want, feel, and need. What do you like? What do you enjoy? Who do you want to be with? Where do you want to go? What bores you, annoys you, or troubles you? Pay attention.
  3. As you become better aware of who you are, you can learn the skills to express yourself. Learn all you can about assertiveness, which is the ability to say difficult things in a way that others can, and will, hear it. Practice saying, “I want…,” “I feel…,” “I need…,” and maybe even, “I think…” Each time you speak up makes it easier to do it the next time.

Send Healthy Messages to Your Deepest Self

Just as each time you speak up makes the next time easier; each time you pay attention to that small, quiet child within, you send him or her a powerful message.

By doing the opposite of what your parents did, by providing for yourself what they couldn’t give, you are validating who you are, and listening to what you need. You are saying to yourself and that silent little child within You Do Matter.

What do people do when they know that they matter? They express their feelings, their desires, and their needs. They speak up when needed to protect themselves.

What will you do when you realize that you matter? You will learn to speak your truth.

You will take your voice back.

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN can be subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

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


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
ottorino - November 18, 2019 Reply

As long as man continues to destroy all life forms, which he considers inferior, he will never know what health is and will never find true peace. The men will continue to kill each other as long as they slaughter the animals. He who sows killing and sorrow cannot gather joy and love. “

Lisa - June 7, 2019 Reply

Due to my not having a voice I have had so much trouble on jobs and in my marriage. I am 58, and still don’t feel entitled to a voice.

GWOR - April 3, 2019 Reply

As a CEN commenting periodically just one day we must be “ you doing you”
It is due .We lied for others, we hid, we took the sickening comments day after day
we were bullied, we got left out and then one of our parents to keep control would put the icing on your cake “ no wonder no one likes you” Everyday control then we ran away or left broken and found out this is not the way it is out there.
Wow there is life even starting over again at the bottom. We got our own rental room, established our worth at work to our self eventually. Then we get called home emergency and we go realizing it was a game of control. We left the money on the table as they were out so we had no contact. Did we get a call of thank you ?. Of course not! Then we realized we had escaped and gave thanks we were finally free to breathe our own air. So you do you today for you because it is your due as you did for others breathing their toxic fumes while they brought you to their ground level of narcissistic control. Just take this one day for you, you deserve it yes you do. And just breath for you ……….and you will do you because you are you.

    Jonice - April 3, 2019 Reply

    I love your phrase, “You do you.” It is the antithesis of Childhood Emotional Neglect. Thank you for your comment GWOR!

LU - April 3, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb, thank you for this article. I am interested in your book.

For 30 years I’ve known that I was emotionally neglected by my parents. What I struggle with now is that the people closest to me- husband, friends, supervisors also get angered when I express feelings or attempt to minimize them. I use “I feel” statements and phrases that state my needs, that are met by the other person attempting to place blame on me, and ultimately not taking responsibility for how they can improve the given situation. I seem to be a magnet for this and am exhausted by my relationships.Thank you for listening. ~ LU

Jonice - March 26, 2019 Reply

Dear Ch, It sounds very clear to me that you are neglecting yourself simply because it’s all you know. I think your journey is to begin to pay attention to what makes you happy, and to feel your feelings more. Your feelings will give you the direction and energy you need to get going on a path that is true to yourself and your own feelings, wishes and needs. I hope you will activate yourself now, as time is passing you by.

C. - March 26, 2019 Reply

Dear Dr. Webb ,

I cannot tell you how much your book has shifted my entire being since reading it last year – I recognized for the first time that I have lived a life build on shells of identity meant to cover better and better my true self and smother at every corner its feeble voice. I started out in life with a clear and strong message that I am not worth really seeing or hearing. Invisibility and emotional detachment were the only things I felt would ensure my survival and hiding everything about myself slowly but surely, and very early on, became my default MO. My earliest memories are about wanting all of it to be over – although I was never suicidal, I escaped countless times in a fantasy of death and liberation. I did not want to live in all that pain.

Believe me, I spent all the years of my life trying to figure out why I am at the losing end all the time, why I am and feel so excruciatingly lonely, why I feel so empty, why I am so scarily unlovable, what is so inherently wrong with me and why all my efforts to do better, to be better, to be there for others, to imagine a future for myself and try to reach it, made me feel worse and worse. The work to connect, for the first time ever, to yourself is unbearably hard at times. I have vivid memories, as early as four, how I was deliberately trying to stop myself from crying and talk reasonably to my struggling mother and make her see how the fighting, she and my father engaged in daily, in full view of their two kids, is scary and that I cannot take it anymore… but I have no memories of who that little girl was, what she needed, what she dreamed of, what she felt other than fear, loneliness and darkness. All I know about that girl is that over the years I looked at her, in a corner there, and felt nothing but pity and shame and anger for its mysterious ugliness and gruesomeness. I can share from my personal journey that recognizing and observing for the first time ever the magnitude of one’s deep abyss of pain is hard to describe – the self-loathing, the everyday self abandonment and how hard I struggled just to take up a little bit of space, the enormous amount of shame I carried like a lead blanket all my life, is heart-breaking to say the least. There are days when I cannot but go back to some mind-numbing habits just because it is so hard to bear. I blamed myself for being alive, and I am ashamed of having been alive without actually living. I built a religion around my vast emptiness and loneliness but didn’t quite build anything else.

However, being here, in this exact spot, feels right – I look at my little fragile self, and I am glad to see that at least I cannot punish her anymore for being alive all this time and for just trying to be a human being. I cannot give her too much love or accept her all too much, I am learning day by day to take up space and to show up for myself. Now seeing her and hearing her, with the compassion she always deserved, well, is the scariest thing I have ever had to do.

(Everybody’s personal journey is different, it’s true, but I wanted to share how intensely I feel some aspects of my journey, in case somebody out there feels alone in their struggles. Please believe me you are not. Some days I marvel early in the morning how my resting default state is always so conflicted, how I am constantly and relentlessly on the lookout to find fault at every corner of my existence and in every single thing I do. I tried these first decades of my life to run and hide as far as I could from these flaws, this ugliness, this shame. I guess I just give up hiding and running. I heard some guy on a TED talk say that „It took an awful lot of time to sound like myself” and that’s exactly how it feels)

    Jonice - March 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear C, you are very good at conveying your own experience, both external and internal. I have no doubt your story will help many others realize they are not alone and that there are answers. Thank you so much for sharing!

Lydia - March 25, 2019 Reply

I am just beginning in life (46 years old ) to say ‘no actually I don’t like that’ or ‘I don’t want to do that’. It’s taken me all these years to realise what I do and don’t actually like and I don’t have to do what other people suggest I do.

    Jonice - March 25, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lydia, it is amazing how hard it can be to see this in one’s own life. Good for you for seeing it and working to overcome it!

Claudette - March 25, 2019 Reply

Have you any articles on the correlation between Intimate partner violence (especially with narcissists) and CEN?

    Jonice - March 25, 2019 Reply

    Hi Claudette, no I have not written about violence.

Mark Geerlings - March 25, 2019 Reply

Absorbing your articulated expressed article, I seem to lean towards also mentioning that choosing the words that create, advancement, creative positive approach combined with real truth as you know it, will spark in the young and old alike a sense of, maybe, pleasure or happiness. Why, giving them a higher scenes of thinking and sparking areas of ideas that maybe light hearted or minded for them to further.

    Jonice - March 25, 2019 Reply

    Word choice and tone are both very important in expressing ourselves! The way we say something is more important than what we say. We all are responsible for “packaging” out truth to make it easier for others to take in.

Ava - March 24, 2019 Reply

Wonderful article. I have been working on this very thing lately.

“You were born with a strong voice, but your childhood took it away. So you do not now need to create a new voice, you just need to recapture what you once had. Your voice is there, inside of you, waiting to be reclaimed.”

I have come to realize, that I do have courage after all. As a child, it seems I was always being punished for something. I don’t remember why. If it was for some misdeed or broken rule, I would think that I would recall at least one instance of what I did to merit such treatment. I have figured out my spankings came about because of my voice. Because I said something that somehow wasn’t acceptable by my parents. Over and over, until I was silenced for good. I finally got it. Be quiet. The fact that I kept speaking despite the outcome that I must have known was coming, says I had strength, bravery and courage. This knowledge helps me now, as an adult.

Looking forward to next week’s article!

    Jonice - March 25, 2019 Reply

    Good for you Ava! I hope you will continually rediscover the voice your parents needed to squelch. You need it in your life now.

GWOR - March 24, 2019 Reply

Feelings anyone who lived through the CEN period badly was not allowed feelings!

And sharing with friends was pointless because some parents ratted out on their children. Consequences not pleasant! So we shut the f…..up. MDs handed out oh how I laugh take these nerve pills to be still, not restless or hyper in the classroom Duh! Next!

My best friend’s parents knew and I always had a place to go to experience temporarily the calm, music and sobriety and a meal because the next one may be next not now. .As an CEN we got labelled as having emotional and learning problems and unable to cope. The school nurse was our hero because she knew the small town talk and also worked at the hospital dealing with incoming patients with the “ DTs” and other alcohol and drug abuse problems just saying I understand. .
This gave us hope because we were not different only seen as different and problematic in the classroom.

Many found ways out by becoming better people and realized the lid was closed on the feelings coffin and buried. If going up the ladder it was not safe to share feelings with the medical community if trying to get into a school or after graduation because and just because word travels too fast within mediums to put a CEN in a both an unfair and worse light of being competent and worthy to work. Like being in a jail serving time and paying for it for the rest of our lives because of others parents and bullies.

Anyone who served in the cadets, militia , military etc…learned quiet and steadfastness on the parade square and looking back after many years in private industry my employees found out my horrible past and used it to magaphone around the industry , “ oh he has psychological problems “ which fit their perfect narrative and scenario to get me fired lose my pension etc…and blame and I can only surmise take over the properties and factory’s operation during the period the company was being sold ?

After many years when one of the betrayers came forward I suddenly got better quick because of the sick motives to get me sacked and did whatever they did so I was told in passing but can not verify because the person was and always will be one of the betrayers.

Lucky I had another person within hearing distant with me and I was councilled to say nothing and just listen. And I walked away.
Many years later I saw one of two instigators and leaders of the coup at a few trade shows within North America and golf business supplier tournaments and was able to toss it off and let it sink like the stupidity iof The Titantic taking on icebergs as unsinkable hubris. This is the way I viewed this person and hit my next shot on the green over the still water.

But it was enough to cool my disastrous upbringing and realize when someone or somebodies want what they want and wanted they will do anything to get it. And do and did! . Eventually I got my life back taking one step at a time over a ten year period saying nothing.and serving others in education .

In closing we must be open to that one bright light the beacon shows us the way out of our darkness and for some reason we finally get a wide screen view of our feelings and decide these are what are holding me down .and under as my awful feelings own and control me.I do not own them . This is an incentive to fire for cause those sickening feelings without severance. And reward the self first.
Then we get up and walk away putting those feelings in the garbage container to be hauled away as trash in the weekly pickup.

We never forget but we now never have to live and act on them because the light shows us the other side to move forward and be at one with self and others in concert in our journey knowing the trader’s metaphorical Titanic’s hubris can never overpower an iceberg where the lie is down under.and rusting.and never to see the light again.

We can say “ good riddance” and move on and on……..

    Jonice - March 24, 2019 Reply

    Dear Gwor, it seems you are describing your process of recognizing your feelings for what they are, and sorting them into current, relevant ones vs. old pain that you can let go. Thank you for sharing your story with us!

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