Emotional Neglect and Emotional Deprivation are Not the Same

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Most people, even mental health professionals, do not think about emotional deprivation and emotional neglect as two separate things. And I understand why. In some ways, these two childhood experiences are very much the same. But in some very important ways they are very, very different.

And I’m on a mission to make sure everyone knows just that.

Childhood Emotional Deprivation: Happens when there is an extreme absence of emotional attention and/or response given to an infant or child by her primary caretakers. Has been documented in orphanages, and in families where there are extreme physical absence of caretakers, abuse and trauma.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when a child’s primary caretakers (usually his parents) fail to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. Happens often in normal homes all over the world, even when the parents are physically present, and all the child’s material needs are met.

So both emotional neglect and emotional deprivation involve a shortage of emotional attention and response from caregivers, but they tend to happen in different types of situations, and can play out very differently in the children’s lives as they grow into adulthood.

If you think about it, almost everything is most noticeable in its more extreme forms, right? It makes sense that emotional deprivation would be noted and studied long before emotional neglect is identified as a true issue.

Emotional Deprivation

Emotional Deprivation was first identified as a problem in Romanian orphanages, in 1952 by Dr. Rene Spitz. His heartbreaking video taken inside an orphanage, shows the devastating effects of emotional deprivation upon infants. 

The Symptoms

Since that time, multiple studies have found negative effects of emotional deprivation upon the infant brain. They include reduced brain volume, changes in the prefrontal cortex, and high, disregulated levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in their brains.

In 1999, Megan Gunnar studied the effect of emotional deprivation upon post-institutionalized kids. She found that they tend to have difficulty with executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. They are often impaired in their ability to understand the mental states of others and regulate their own emotions. She found that many of the children suffered from high anxiety.

The Great News

Happily, studies have also found that many of these neurological and social effects are reversed over time for emotionally deprived children when they are adopted by loving, emotionally attentive parents.

Emotional Neglect

During ten years of working in my private practice, talking with client after client, I began to see a specific pattern of struggles emerge. I saw the pattern in clients who had grown up wealthy or poor, who were married or single, successful or struggling, men and women alike, and regardless of age.

The Symptoms

Here is the pattern I noticed: A deep feeling of disconnection from self and others, feelings of emptiness, extreme independence, low self-knowledge, low self-compassion, excessive self-blame and shame, low emotional awareness, and struggles with self-discipline.

The clients in whom I saw this pattern seemed to have little in common other than this special group of symptoms. After seeking answers in my clients’ childhoods to no avail, I realized I was looking in the right place, but for the wrong thing.

I had been asking what had happened to them in all of these people’s childhoods to lead them to feel this way in adulthood. But what I actually found was that something had failed to happen for them in childhood.

Each of these folks had grown up in households that somehow, for whatever reason, were not attentive or responsive to their feelings enough.

It’s hard to believe that a non-experience like this can lead to such significant effects, but believe me, I and many others have now seen that it does.

The Great News

In the last 5 years, since I became aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have helped scores of people recover from it. I have seen, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can fill the gaps left by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

I have watched lovely people work themselves from a place of living their lives in a CEN bubble, feeling isolated, disconnected, alone, and in some indescribable way, deeply flawed, to a place of feeling alive, feeling their feelings, feeling the warmth of connection, and seeing the bright colors in their world.

Emotional Deprivation vs. Emotional Neglect

In my opinion, the primary difference between these two childhood experiences is that one is more extreme than the other. Emotional deprivation happens when a child is literally deprived of emotional nurturance during his formative years. This has happened in institutions where children are left on their own. But sadly, it can also happen in families. Real homes, real parents, completely ignoring their children and their needs for comfort and happiness and love.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is a milder version of being emotionally deprived. It happens in homes all across the world, often inadvertently delivered by otherwise loving, caring parents. It can be subtle when it happens, but it usually leaves the child feeling, in some indescribable way, deeply inconsequential, and deeply alone in the world.

Is the emotional dis-regulation, impaired ability to understand the mental states of others, and difficulty regulating their own emotions that Megan Gunnar saw in the severely emotionally deprived children simply a more extreme version of the lack of emotional awareness and low emotional intelligence of those who grew up with Emotional Neglect? It’s a question that I hope will, one day soon, be answered with research.

I do strongly believe, based on the research combined with my own experience as a psychologist, that in one important way, Emotional Deprivation and Emotional Neglect are alike. Just as the effects of emotional deprivation can be reversed by a loving adopted family, the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed by purposely making a decision to treat yourself as if you matter. By listening to your own inner voice, caring about your own feelings, and attending to your own needs, you become your own emotionally attuned, and emotionally attentive parent.

Since emotional deprivation and emotional neglect are not the same, affecting different people in different ways, my goal is to make more therapists aware of the far more subtle, far more widespread effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how to identify it in their clients, and how to heal it.

One thing that I can say with confidence true and clear is that if your brain can recover from emotional deprivation in childhood, you can reverse the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your adulthood.

The most important uniting quality of these two painful childhood experiences is that they both can be healed.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 


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Jamilah - May 26, 2022 Reply

Hi Jonice!

This was so eye-opening. I am an IB student who is writing an extended essay on emotional deprivation in infants, but after seeing this I rethought my whole thesis! Do you have any recommendations on sources in which I can research further into this topic? I am so interested in learning about how emotional deprivation (as well as emotional neglect) affect’s one’s cognitive development.

Erin - December 1, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice,
I just read your first book and it was really eye opening. I would say I exhibited all of the attributes on your test very strongly well into my 20s. It was impossible to live that alone. It wreaked havoc on my life and others as well. I didn’t understand myself at all, but I’ve done a lot of work on the symptoms over the last 25 years and now I’d say I retain about four of the attributes pretty strongly. I had never heard of emotional neglect until your book. Last year I learned that my mom is high functioning autistic which has explained a lot and led me to your book. My dad was always working and typically distant, but on occasion I got some connection from him, but never from my mom. They took very good care of us physically though. And my brother was very important to my developing connection but he died when I was 17 which was its own struggle and overshadowed everything else about my life until recently. The parts that still plague me are a lack of trust for virtually anyone and ridiculous standards for myself. I struggle most at this point staying in jobs…and it’s always me that quits because I don’t feel good enough when the bosses always want me to stay. I know I’ve come very far though. I’ve been married for 15 years. I have two kids which really blew open my desire to learn how to connect. It’s coming, but I can tell they would prefer to talk with dad about real things, like I make it awkward or don’t relate as well…but I’m trying and I know they know that. Thanks for all of your work. It’s very helpful for me to know where things come from so I can see that I didn’t make them up and I can try to change them.

Lisa - September 20, 2020 Reply

Hello. I am involved with a man who has said that his mother (who his a therapist) feels guilty because she knows that she neglected him as a child due to having a very difficult brother. As a result, he says he does not “have it in him” to feel in love. This is confusing as when he is calm and happy he is the most loving man I have ever known. But when he is stressed he completely shuts down and falls back on this idea that he cannot love him romantically. Can you give me some idea of how to gently, slowly guide him toward opening to his own emotional capabilities? Or shall I just give up. I adore him, but do not really know what to do.

    Jonice - September 24, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lisa, I encourage you to read my second book Running On Empty No More and also contact a therapist from the CEN Therapist list on this site. You deserve to feel loved and should not settle for less.

Linda - July 22, 2020 Reply

This article about passive and active CEN was eye opening. Yes the passive was there but the active was what I really remember, mostly from my siblings. Youngest of 4 in an alcoholic home, I guess we all just tried to survive. But now at 63 – 73 it is all the same. That’s why I’ve had to just stay away, too toxic. But I’m the sicko & the loony because I developed severe major depression & they are all “ok”. I’ve worked long and hard on me and can see I’ve still have a ways to go. It didn’t help being married to a man who was an even worse active EMOTIONAL NEGLECTOR for 35 years. I just want to give up but I can’t; I’ve made promises. But a lot of times it’s one day or one hour at a time.
Thank you

    Jonice - July 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Linda, never give up. Healing your CEN will happen in steps. It can be so gradual that you can barely perceive it happening. I hope you are actively working on it because you deserve to be happy and fulfilled.

Danielle Bernock - July 21, 2020 Reply

Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow!
This explains why I had such a hard time owning the truth of CEN in my life. I looked at it as CED and invalidated myself.

Thank you for making it your mission for people to know this and to know they can be healed. It is part of my mission too.
In fact, your line “the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed by purposely making a decision to treat yourself as if you matter.” is precisely what I teach. It’s the core message of my newest book Because You Matter: How to Take Ownership of Your Life So You Can Really Live.

THANK YOU Dr Jonice for your work!!!!!

    Jonice - July 21, 2020 Reply

    Dear Danielle, I’m so glad you’ve stopped invalidating yourself. You are a great example to others of what is possible.

Barbara - July 19, 2020 Reply

I think that I lived through a rather severe childhood of emotional (and other) neglect. Something you don’t mention directly is that there can be physical abuse and physical neglect that is present also. My point, here, is that I believe that, despite those events, the emotional neglect caused the most damage in my case–although there may have been deprivation as well.

    Jonice - July 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Barbara, yes abuse and physical neglect can definitely be present also! And I completely understand why the CEN might cause the most damage. I’m so sorry you had to endure so much mistreatment.

Amanda - April 20, 2020 Reply

I am so touched by learning about your work. I can see for the first time some forward movement in my relationships, now since I know about CEN. Baby steps, but steps forward. I feel extremely positive and extremely emotional about how clearly exact this is for me, given the history of my life and the life of my mom, and her mom before that.

Karen - December 23, 2019 Reply

Hi Dr Jonice. I’ve wondered for years about my upbringing and how it’s affected my life. I had social anxieties from age 13, was scared of my first boss and struggled to cope with job interviews. I hayed the evening pub scene and had few friends. I think it was emotional deprivation as my Mum never seemed to make the time to talk to me yet she always had the time for my older siblings. She never hugged or kissed me nor told me she loved me. She complained to my older sister that I had followed her round the house. She had no interest in my whereabouts during the day. I never asked for much at all but on the few occasions I did she would just complain or shout nastily at me. I felt unloved and think she hated me. She belted the living daylights out of me when she thought it was me who had been reading in bed with the light on. The pain was more the fact that there was no conversation, no love or hugging the day after being punished for something I didn’t do. Life just carried on as normal. Dad was never around, he went straight to the pub from work and when he eventually come home there would be big arguments. I’m 60 now and had a brain and spinal injury 6 yrs ago in which I lost my job and home. I think this has killed off what was left of my emotions. There’s only anger and numbness left inside of me now.

    Jonice - December 29, 2019 Reply

    I’m so sorry, Karen. I hope you will seek out a therapist for support in coping with all of this.

The Doc - June 16, 2019 Reply

Thank you for throwing light on an otherwise unrecognized topic. If we are trying to help our close ones who go through CEN or deprivation, what material would you recommend we read in order to be better equipped in helping our close ones?

Once again, thank you very much. This has been very helpful

    Jonice - June 16, 2019 Reply

    Dear Doc, I recommend my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. I wrote it for exactly this purpose.

Summer - October 6, 2018 Reply

This speaks to hope in the brain being changed in childhood if the child is adopted by a loving, safe family but it doesn’t speak to hope the same can occur if they are not… if emotional deprivation is what they grow up with. Can you pls comment Dr. Webb on the outcome & what can be done/how much it will impact the brain etc if a person has grown up with emotional deprivation their whole childhood; I am trying to learn what degree my brain can change, to have a sense of hope as you’ve given others here but is not addressed in the specific situation of not being adopted out but having to live with it. Thank you.

    Jonice - October 7, 2018 Reply

    Dear Summer, I can only tell you that I see tremendous progress in people who grew up in Emotional Neglect once they start doing the treatment steps I have identified. I hope you will start them yourself, and then let us know your experience.

Myra Barr - January 12, 2018 Reply

I was adopted at birth. I had a perfect( so I thought) childhood till 8 yo when my mother was diagnosed with breast Cancer. She died when I was 11.Until he remarried when I was 12. She was a brutal woman and I left home at 14 and was alone till 18 I have always felt alone. I am 70 and have no family and few friends.I can’t wait til it is over.

    dfk - April 27, 2018 Reply

    Yes, I think when you are neglected, you believe you should be alone, so even when some person tries to show you some attention, it doesn’t feel right. It feels like you have done something wrong if you even approach someone else in order to try to make any kind of social connection with them. And then our own instinctive feelings of wanting to make a friend or be included are also making us feel bad, because we are not socially involved. I find that whenever I feel at all listened to, like what I say is actually tolerated and I feel that someone has some natural interest in what I say, that I feel good for a while. So, I wish there was some general encouragement to those who try to help, to become good listeners. The worst people you talk to give you advice, like they want to solve your problems in just a few minutes. How I feel is that they are just trying to stop you from talking because they aren’t interested, and it is making them uncomfortable, and they believe that the thing to do is give you a solution. But what you needed is to be shown that you are actually interesting and a real person.

      Jonice - April 30, 2018 Reply

      Hi dfk, yes that sounds exactly like the effects of CEN. But many who give advice are honestly wanting to help, so please consider the possibility that not everyone who is trying to help is motivated as self-centered disinterest. I hope you’ll keep trying to share and take risks in this area!

        dfk - December 7, 2018 Reply

        I always accepted that they were trying to be helpful. It’s dealing with the feelings at the time that they are sort of recoiling in discomfort just because it’s me. My parents always brushed me off with “just do the best you can” whenever I had something I wanted them to know, so for someone to listen to me feels wrong, like I am putting an unfair burden on them.

    Jan - May 24, 2018 Reply

    Dear Myra, I thank you for taking the risk of writing. Your life and your feelings are so important. I share your feelings about loneliness and no one caring, and am also in my 70s at age 74. I also have few friends. I just want to let you know that you are not alone. My therapist tells me that he cares but I have trouble trusting him because what I think is caring is not the same as what he means. I am currently trying to figure out what it is and whether it exists for me. I wonder whether we could try this together and correspond about it? Please let me know.

    Richard - November 16, 2019 Reply

    Hi Myra, so sorry about what happened to you. I’m the same and I’m only 34. If I’m not busy for a few hours I start having suicidal thoughts although it’s unlikely that I’ll do it. Doesn’t seem like there’s any way I’ll be able to feel love for someone else or receive it so line is really hard. Looking forward to reading the book and print the principals to use

Norbert N Steiner - December 29, 2017 Reply

I have written before about a different subject. I am a CEN patient largely due to the Holocaust. I do not know why my own children treat me as worthless. My wife has a similar background to mine and is not treated that way. She grew up in the USA while I grew up in Austria among the purpetrators. How may I overcome my own children?

thomas k miller - November 12, 2017 Reply

c.e.n. soumds like my early days dad gave nickname hard head told everybody he spent more money on me it was all about money he could never talk to me as a dad his actions toward me was about money instead of being a father

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