Help For the Emotionally Neglected at Thanksgiving

It’s that time again, the holidays are coming. First comes Thanksgiving so let’s start preparing now.

Since Thanksgiving is generally a family holiday, you may be excited about Thanksgiving or not-so-much. And that is likely determined by the type of family you have.

How do you feel when you get together with your family? Is it enriching and enjoyable? Or is it more draining and challenging? Or is your family experience somewhere in between?

If your family has any kind of abuse, grief, or addiction in it, for example, this family-focused holiday may be extra challenging for you.

There is one very large group of folks who either look forward to Thanksgiving and then find themselves disappointed every year, or have learned to dread it because of its draining, disheartening nature.

This large group of people struggles to identify why Thanksgiving is disappointing each year. And the answer is not anything that happens at Thanksgiving dinner. It is actually because of what does not happen when their family gets together. 

What’s missing is a real, substantial emotional connection.

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Growing up with CEN is essentially growing up in a family that has “emotion blindness.” These families are not able to see and respond to the feelings of the children enough. They may avoid meaningful discussion and tamp down or negate strong feelings instead of responding in a helpful, instructive, and supportive way to emotions.

CEN Families at Thanksgiving

  • In a CEN family’s Thanksgiving gathering, things may appear to be normal and fine. But there is a sense that something is missing. Some vital ingredient that’s hard to name.
  • CEN families avoid talking about the most important things: things that are conflictual, painful, or difficult. If a topic like that comes up it may feel awkward or somehow wrong or unacceptable. This can make your holiday either awkward, superficial, or boring.
  • Thanksgiving, a holiday in which you are supposed to be thankful for the good things in your life, can end up actually emphasizing what’s missing. So if you do not have a healthy family, you are destined to end up disappointed.

Recent research studies have found that feeling gratitude makes people happy. So Thanksgiving is a special opportunity to focus on what you are grateful for.

And there is a silver lining to growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Being raised in a family that ignores your emotions forces you to adapt. You learn some life skills that will be useful throughout your lifetime.

So now, at Thanksgiving, you have some valuable things in your life to be thankful for. And when you do, I hope it will help to bring you some of the happiness that you deserve this holiday season.

5 Things You Can Be Thankful For When You Have Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. Your inner guide for directing you. Having grown up without adequate emotional attention and personalized guidance from your parents, you had to learn how to make choices for yourself without much outside help. So you learned. Making decisions may be a struggle for you now. But on some level, somehow, you often do make good choices. I have seen that most CEN people, even if they agonize over personal decisions, even if they make some mistakes in their choices, generally have good judgment and common sense. And a good gut sense, if only they would listen to their gut more. Your helpful inner guide is something to be thankful for.
  2. Your ability to do what needs to be done. As a child, you couldn’t be confident that your parents would provide you help when you needed it. Now as an adult you are remarkably capable. You learned how to take care of things as a child and you are still good at it. These useful life skills are something to be thankful for.
  3. Your willingness to help others. By overlooking your feelings as they raised you your parents inadvertently taught you how to overlook your own feelings and needs as an adult. This leaves you too focused on other people and their feelings and needs. But there is a silver lining to this. You are there to help others, and you likely ask for little back. Other people can see your good heart and they appreciate how giving and reliable you are. You can be thankful for possessing this lovable quality.
  4. Your parents for the things they did give you. If your parents were abusive or extremely neglectful to you then you do not owe them any thanks. But perhaps they struggled to provide you with life’s necessities; perhaps they loved you in the only way they could. Perhaps they gave you more than they had in their own childhoods. You can be thankful for what they did give you while also recognizing what they did not.
  5. One person in your life who has understood and supported you. Was one of your parents more emotionally responsive than the other? Was there a teacher or friend who showed you understanding or a friend who validated you? A therapist who has guided you through some painful moments or transitions? You can feel thankful for this one special person who offered you something vital when you needed it.

Think about whether there might be one person in your family you can connect with more; it may be a sibling, a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or in-law. Just one person you can perhaps share your CEN experience with. You can ask them to read this blog or the Running On Empty books. It helps enormously to have an understanding person in your family.

Wondering if this blog applies to you? Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable when it happens in childhood so, as an adult, it can be difficult to know. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect left its mark on you. Yes, it will color your holidays gray if you let it. But there is a silver lining to your CEN. And now, at Thanksgiving, you can set your sights on healing and give yourself the emotional attention you never got. You are worth it.

Warmest wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving from me to you.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Lise-Marie - November 23, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr Webb,
Thank you for this. I have chosen for the last many years to separate from my family at Thanksgiving and celebrate the way I enjoy. Most often i get up and take a walk, watch the parade and some football and eat what i prefer. Pizza or Chinese food. This is how i am take care of myself and it works wonders.

    Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

    That’s excellent, Lise-Marie. Thanks for sharing your solution. I’m sure it will inspire self-care in others.

Rose - November 22, 2020 Reply

My Holidays are exactly the way they have been for the last 11 years: non-existent. All of them. My life took a bad trajectory from the day I was born. Fifty-nine years ago, I was born to a mother, 42 and father, 47 years old. My mother clearly did not bond with me, her only child. By the time I was 3 months old, she had a nervous breakdown, by 5 months old she attempted suicide. By the time I was 5 years old, she suicided by gunshot. From letters and accounts she was a perfectionist and I just wasn’t the child she had imagined. I briefly lived with my aunt and uncle and then my father took me back. While I am grateful for his commitment, it is also where the CEN began. With a disinterested parent of the ’60s, I was left to my own ‘devices’ and was trained how to cook, clean, launder for myself at age 7. He never spoke my mother’s name, ever. Through my childhood I was lonely and tried to ‘buy my friends.’ It was something as simple as giving out gum back then, but it continued into adulthood where I would do magnanimous gestures and favors (like painting their house) and thinking: surely they will like me now. I always thought myself an introvert and melancholy, but it is the result of the lack of attention. My life has been constant rejection from the beginning. My husband cheated and left me for another woman 11 years ago, and that left me without any family. My Holidays ceased to exist. I had an aunt and two cousins 1000 miles away. Now my aunt has passed too. I have no one. No children, no grandchildren, no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews. I have a really hard time asking for help, but I have RA, and it is getting worse. I am in constant pain, as I have been for 20 years now. Depression, yes. I dearly the Holidays of yesteryear with my extended family. I am off the charts on your CEN questionnaire. I just keep on trying, in my mind, to pick up the pieces of my broken life and put it back together again…but there are pieces missing, so it never fits back together.

    Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Rose, I’m very sorry for all of the trials and losses you have experienced in your life. It is, however, never too late to turn a corner. I hope you are working on honoring your own inner self and getting to know yourself better. You are worth it and you deserve it.

KS - November 22, 2020 Reply

“You are there to help others, and you likely ask for little back. Other people can see your good heart and they appreciate how giving and reliable you are.” This…can be a bad thing. Often is. Asking for little in return is definitely not healthy, and leads to being taken advantage of.

    Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

    Very true, KS! So very true. Thanks for making that important point.

Jennifer Rogers - November 22, 2020 Reply

Jonice: It’s like you can read my mind and know me personally! My father was profoundly emotionally absent, and my mother had BPD mixed with NPD. Mom got involved in the struggle for school desegregation in VA the ’60s, thumbed her nose at the KKK when they threatened to harm us children and burn a cross on our lawn, and was generally a liberal badass. I respected her, but her own personality disorder also rendered her callous and superficial at home. Her civil rights participation was borne from a need to get attention from other adults for how “good” she was. At home, I was the oldest child who was parentified, watching after my siblings, and not supposed to burden her with my needs. I learned a dramatic, brave spirit from my mother, but I wasn’t really loved. It was so confusing and took me 20 years in therapy to sort it all out, the good, bad and the ugly. Mom’s “flexible” personality means she’s now a committed conservative who loves the current President (who also suffers from NPD. ) Mom shames me for being a liberal in passive-aggressive ways, even though she raised me as a liberal. I’m frankly relieved not to be spending Thanksgiving with her. This mix of good and bad traits that I got out of the experience that you describe is so spot on. I find you to be the only therapist who doesn’t over-dramatize what went wrong, and sees there was some good in it, too. I really appreciate that. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jennifer, I’m so glad to be able to validate your experience with your family. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Bridget - November 22, 2020 Reply

Nr 5- a person to be thankful for: Got to be you, Jonice! We don’t celebrate thanksgiving in my country, but christmas really makes me anxious. Too high expectations and the disappointment and dread felt afterwards.. I will lean into you comforting words when “the rollercoaster of mixed feelings ” starts rolling! CEN is real and I can get through this! I am allowed to give myself a break! Thank you!

    Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Bridget, I’m so glad you are taking my words and running with them! I hope your holidays are surprisingly good.

Barb - November 22, 2020 Reply

Thanks very much for your work Dr. Webb. I want to comment that I have a special flavor of CEN as the sibling of a special needs person. Because there hadn’t been enough information or intervention when I was growing up, I am just now getting answers. My parents have passed as has my sibling as has my partner of 12 years. I have wonderful friends and spend Thanksgivings with them usually, but with Covid this year will not be able to most likely. Your article doesn’t address people who are without families which makes me feel even more marginalized when looking for help. The gratitude points are right on, and I will make contingency plans to connect, but I wanted to post on behalf of any one else in my situation, and give a shout out to the unique situation of Siblings of Special needs people. There’s a great group called SibNet in case that is helpful. I’m active and in my 50’s so it’s not like I am a shut in elderly person. My parents were older when they had me and died younger leaving me as a caregiver in my 20’s and 30’s.

    Jonice - November 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Barb, I’m so sorry you feel marginalized. I would venture to say that you do have “family.” The chosen kind. Your wonderful friends you normally spend Thanksgiving with. I encourage you to think of them as your people and try to view yourself as a connected, loved, and loving person. That’s what matters most of all. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

      Barb - November 22, 2020 Reply

      I am a connected loved and loving person and do work to view myself that way. My friends are my chosen family and have been for a long time, however what I would also like to say is that with Covid and restrictions to numbers in households, my “family” is having to limit their physical gatherings to actual blood relatives and by circumstance that excludes me. That doesn’t mean they don’t love me or feel concern. I will make it work by connecting in other ways. It is just that with Covid it touches those issues of neglect and abandonment and I wanted to have a voice for others like me.

        Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

        Dear Barb, I understand. Thanks for expressing your experience with us. We feel your sadness with you.

Mechelle - November 22, 2020 Reply

I LOVED this! You are so supportive and honoring of both the positive and negative outcomes of CEN. Thank you!

Paul - November 22, 2020 Reply

This Thanksgiving will be difficult for most Americans, as we deal with the COVID pandemic. The traditional gatherings of family and friends, coming together to enjoy their connection to one another, and the life they share, will not take place in many households this year.

For me, my wife flew to California for in early November, to be there for her first grand child’s, first birthday. She self quarantined for 10 days, had a fast response COVID test, which showed positive. She then took the standard COVID test, waited a couple of days for the results, and it came back negative. Her daughter’s doctor suggested she take another test, just to be sure that she was truly negative. She did, and waited four days to get the results, and blessedly, it came back negative. She did attend her granddaughters birthday party, but had to watch it through a window. My wife was suppose to fly back to Michigan at the end of November, and then we were going to fly together in mid December, back to California, to celebrate Christmas with her family. Her son who lives in California, has a four month old baby, and we were going to all gather together for the grand kids first Christmas. Due to the spike and out of control spread of COVID, I made the decision that my wife should stay put and not return home. That way, she would not have to go through the whole COVID testing again on her return. I also made the choice to stay home and not travel, as that’s what’s being suggested by the CDC. It was not an easy decision to make for me, as I suffer from CEN. But it was the right choice, and that is something I have learned in my 66 years on Earth, is to continue working at making better choices. It’s not all about me, it’s about everyone, and caring for the health and well being of others, is the most important thing we need to do as human beings. Especially during this challenging time of COVID.

    Jonice - November 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Paul, I applaud you for making such sound and selfless decisions during these difficult times. I hope you will feel comforted all through the holidays by the knowledge that you did the right thing for all involved. All my best wishes to you and yours.

      Paul - November 23, 2020 Reply

      Thank you, Jonice.
      I am very grateful for discovering you, and the information you have shared about CEN. I took the CEN test about a year ago, I believe. I answered yes to 17 of the 21 questions, and the other four, I could not decide between yes or no, as being true. I needed a box that was for “maybe”.

      I’ve sought professional counseling for over 20 years, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my emotional pain, and begin to heal it. I always knew the pain was from my childhood, but could never make the connection that it was tied to emotional neglect from my parents. It was a huge relief for me when I finally made the connection, as it helped to answer do many questions I had about myself.

      Back in 1999-2002, I was involved on a website called, Divorce Busting, as I was going through separation and divorce after 25 years of marriage. My involvement on the website consisted of posting on the sires Forum, for “Midlife Crisis”. Myself and others, who were dealing with a spouse who we believed was going through a midlife crisis, were seeking answers to the cause of it, it’s symptoms, how to better deal with our spouse and looking for a solution yo the nightmare we were all experiencing. By sharing information and experiences, there was a group of us who were trying to solve the mystery of midlife crisis, and seek a solution to its cure. What we came to believe is, that a person going through mid life crisis, had childhood issues that had not been dealt with. It seemed that most often, the midlife crisis was set off by the death of a loved one or close friend of our spouses. I created the “Recipe for Success in Dealing With a Midlife Crisis”, listing all of the do’s and don’t do’s when interacting with your spouse. The biggest discovery of all was, that there was no, magic pill, that could bring to an end our spouses midlife crisis, and that only time could heal those wounds. Unfortunately, we realized that it would take years for our spouse to go through their crisis and come out whole on the other side. And for some, they would remain stuck, never facing and dealing with their childhood trauma. For most of the left behind spouses, they moved on with their lives, and did not wait for their spouses to return to the marriage. From the reading I have done on marriage, divorce, relationships, psychology, midlife crisis, transitions, human development and including spirituality, I’ve come to the conclusion that, a person going through a midlife crisis, is dealing with the emotional, physical and spiritual parts of themselves. In my opinion, it may be an attempt by the person in crisis, trying to make themselves whole again.

      About 18-20 years ago, I read a book titled, “The Silent Son”, who’s author I cannot remember at the moment. I balled crocodile tears while reading it. It brought out all my emotional pain that was trapped within me. The book was written in a way, where I felt it was written about me. That is why it had such an emotional impact on me. If you have not read the book, I would suggest that you do, as it brings awareness to all the things a child experiences, that brings about what you have coined, CEN.

      Thanks again, for the gift you have given me, a name for my childhood experience and an explanation to why I have acted the way that I have and the emotions I have felt as an adult.

        Jonice - November 23, 2020 Reply

        Thank you for sharing your story, Paul. Sounds like you are on a healthy journey to figure out what’s wrong and fix it. Good Work and Happy Thanksgiving.

Jane - November 22, 2020 Reply

Did not realize how much I needed to unpack these looming feelings, Thank you, Dr. Jonice. I would greatly value another version of this for the upcoming holiday season.

    Jonice - November 22, 2020 Reply

    I’m glad to be helpful, Jane. Have a good holiday.

Paula - November 22, 2020 Reply

Here’s a different take on this strange year and holiday. I get to do what I want !!!! So many family holidays left me feeling lonely because the language I used was not culturally accepted in my family. I became very astute in watching faces and knew when “ I crossed out of line by not adhering to the jovial family script”. This year my immediate family is having Chinese food, playing a mystery game and making Christmas cookies. This year the emphasis is on being with each other without expectations for an amazing event. Freedom !!!!

    Jonice - November 22, 2020 Reply

    That’s wonderful, Paula! Perhaps covid will lead to a new family tradition for you that feels much happier and freer. Thanks for sharing and Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    vel - November 22, 2020 Reply

    exactly what I feel, Paula.

Meriel - November 30, 2019 Reply

We don’t do Thanksgiving in the country I’m in, but this time of year I always find myself realizing how thankful I am for the people I DO have to support me emotionally.
Some of them are doctors (I realize I pay them for their help, but they do still often go out of their way to be there for me), some of them are elders in the community, some of them are good friends. While I have always had very little emotional support from my family, I have been blessed with enough people who care enough to get me through. So every year when this time comes around I sit myself down and write a short message to those who’s support I am most thankful for. That makes me feel better and I hope it encourages them to keep being as wonderful as they are.

    Jonice - November 30, 2019 Reply

    Dear Meriel, it’s so great that you have developed strong supportive friendships to replace the ones missing in your family. I like your idea of yearly notes of appreciation.

Beth - November 29, 2019 Reply

This was a great blog. The 5 characteristics are spot on and I have recignized these strengths in myself for years. As I read this, I reflected on past Thanksgiving. When I left for college decades ago, travel home for Thanksgiving was prohibitively expensive and I became the adopted Thanksgiving orphan. I remember my first T away from home so clearly. I was with my roommate’s family. Dad watched football (my father abhorred sports),, many of us helped in the kitchen prepping a delectable meal (my mom was never a cook), the next day the young ones went skiing. It was a pleasant, comfortable weekend and I remember that it was one of my first ahas of what a “normal” family looked like. One word I use to describe mine was cold. Since then, I have been greatful to have been adopted by many families at Thanksgiving. Some lovely, some odd, some cold. Thank you for putting words and understanding to these memories….

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Beth, it’s so good that you were able to experience a warm family in college, and were able to identify how it was different. It is so impactful on children growing up in an emotionally distant family. I wish you many warm Thanksgivings to come.

Nan Hamilton - November 27, 2019 Reply

Thank you Jonice! You have put words to the phantoms that have stolen too many of our Most Special Days – when Family is Gathering. I love knowing 5 TRUE things that are mine and were harvested from that long string of sad holidays. Today I can start Anew and feel Awake to my feelings – thank you thank you for putting CEN out here for us to Find and Grow Beyond!

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nan, I am sorry for all of your sad holidays. And I’m so happy that now, with a new understanding, they will be much better. No doubt, you deserve it!

Mimi - November 27, 2019 Reply

I too never knew there was a name to how my childhood affected my life. At age 6 or maybe even earlier, I had to be responsible for my mother who as a war bride from the UK came to the US and was both physically and emotionally abused by my alcoholic father. She had no one to talk to or share her grief and homesickness with but me. But this has made me very self reliant, a great listener and a person with compassion and empathy for others. Thank you Dr Webb and for all these comments because now I understand myself so much more. I have always been the fixer in my family and the person they all turn to when there’s a problem. I can finally accept my parents for their shortcomings and be grateful for the gifts they inadvertently gave me.

    Jonice - November 27, 2019 Reply

    I’m very glad to have helped you understand your parents, your childhood and yourself. You can keep all of your great strengths and also put more time and effort into yourself, perhaps shifting the balance a bit. All my best wishes!

Nancy - November 27, 2019 Reply

Your articles are always insightful.
This one was astounding. I sort of knew about those points but I hadn’t completely figured out exactly why.

The comment about being thankful for what my parents did teach me was the one I’ve known for quite a while. My family gave me ever so much, including those things to be thankful for in your article. They didn’t know about emotions. And from the wealth of things I got from them, I have forgiven them for all their innocent errors.

    Jonice - November 27, 2019 Reply

    That is lovely Nancy. Just be sure to fully acknowledge the effect that it had on you to grow up in a family that doesn’t do emotions. Your parents sound so well-meaning, but the effect is still important. Happy Thanksgiving!

Cheryl - November 26, 2019 Reply

OMG! I was struggling with the very question of is there any good that comes with this CEN! I was looking at the flip side of wanting to be a hermit—it might not be healthy to disconnect forever and always from people because the noise of emotions hurts but it is also true that I can indeed be on my own and not be lost in the world. I have friends who don’t know what it is to go to a movie alone, or eat happily with a book or journal. My husband is not into Downton Abbey and I wasn’t going to miss that movie so off I went with me, myself and I. This article is SO on time for me! I want to start a conversation with my children about what I know about my own childhood and what I wonder about theirs. This gives me a positive place to start. So this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for YOU Dr. Jonice Webb! Thank you!

    Jonice - November 27, 2019 Reply

    Dear Cheryl, thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s great that you are comfortable alone but also wanting to connect, especially with your kids about childhood. Keep up all the great things you are doing! And Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Susan - November 25, 2019 Reply

Thank you for explaining everything. I didn’t know there was a clinical term for my childhood conditions and experiences. I can relate to all of these stuff. I have a strong gut feeling and everytime I listen to it. I put myself in trouble whenever I don’t. Your article makes me feel stronger than ever.

    Jonice - November 26, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad to be able to validate what you already knew deep down, Susan. All my best to you!

Sam - November 24, 2019 Reply

One thing I have the opportunity to be thankful for this year is all the generous and insightful help you, Dr. Webb, have given me, in print and in person. It has enabled many other good things to be thankful for. I think you understand how significant that is. Thank you. And, hey, have a happy Thanksgiving!

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    That is wonderful to hear, Sam. I’m so very glad to be making a difference in your life. Keep up the good work!

Karen - November 24, 2019 Reply

Thanks Dr Webb for pointing this out. Yes definitely I’m very self reliant and very competent, both being qualities that have helped me greatly in life. I never linked this to CEN before, but wouldn’t have it any other way. Much better than the opposite!! I can see now how these qualities have helped me so much in my healing from CEN.

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    That’s so good to hear, Karen. You gave me the idea for another blog: how to use your CEN strengths in your healing. Thanks for sharing!

    Kelli - November 22, 2020 Reply

    This is so true. Both my parents have CEN. At a very young age, I learned to navigate the world and care for myself. No one taught me right from wrong, and no one was there to comfort, protect, or guide me. From the outside, our family looked picture perfect. Both parents had good jobs, house with a pool in the suburbs, nice cars, good education, always had food on the table, and access to healthcare. Growing up, I became a very strong, independent person, who didn’t rely on anyone for anything. Luckily, I’m very intuitive and made healthy life choices along the way. Without help from my parents, I put myself through college, became a successful business owner, and I’m happily married. Life hasn’t always been easy, but growing up with CEN taught me to fight for what’s important, to never back down, and do what’s best for ME. Sadly, my parents aren’t involved in my life, much the same growing up. They live 10 minutes away, rarely call, come by, or spend time together. Thanks to Dr. Webb, I now understand my guilt and anger towards my parents and have a much better understanding of my childhood.

Abby - November 24, 2019 Reply

That was such a wonderful and kind post. You just cheered my morning up and gave me some things to feel grateful for. Thank you!!!!

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome, Abby. I’m glad you enjoyed this article!

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