How Childhood Emotional Neglect Works and Why It Transfers Through Generations

And how it affects your day-to-day life now.

Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.

To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.

First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened.

Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.

My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.

We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.

Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.

An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:

Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.

This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.

So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.

In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.

And now back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.

As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning his own purpose and value.

This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”

These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.

In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.

When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.

My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.

I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.

I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another. I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.

A version of this article first appeared on It has been reprinted here with the permission of YourTango.


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Gladys - January 14, 2020 Reply

Would this be an example of CEN? When I was growing up my mother consistently told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I always believed that to be true. When it came time for college though it was also made clear to me that there was no money and I was on my own to figure out how to pay for it. This was stressful almost beyond description. There wasn’t even a bottle of shampoo offered up and ultimately I dropped out of college. Eventually with the help of my then husband I did return to college full time (not easy with two kids – but husband was unconditionally supportive) and I succeeded in obtaining a degree and over time a good job and career. I feel less though because I had to ask for help and I don’t like to ask for help because it hurts to be turned down and know that once again I am on my own. So more often than not I try to figure it out on my own and often get angry that I can’t help or that people don’t see and offer help. So – I set myself up and disenfranchise people who have done nothing wrong. I am now 70 and while I would like to get out of this abyss – I give that desire a lot of lip service and not much action to getting healthy because I don’t want to be a failure, yet in many ways think I am – I am paralyzed with fear. I pushed away a good husband and married one I thought was better only to find out that I made another colossal mistake and not am losing more of the battles to get myself back than I am winning. I am trying to get healthy on my own because in retirement there isn’t extra money for therapy and very few therapists in my area accept Medicare. Perhaps it’s an excuse but the idea of worrying about how to pay for the help keeps me from seeking it and also in the past when I have sought help my husband has mocked my attempts. I don’t want that again either.

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gladys, please do not listen to your husband’s mocking. Many therapists accept Medicare! Please do seek a therapist to get help with all that you’re dealing with.

Dianne - January 14, 2020 Reply

I read this and l agree with what is said. However what does a person do when even as an adult emotional neglect continues? My parents are both dead my sister died recently. I have no contact with the remaining members of either my fathers family or my sisters. I do not work due to mental health problem. I am not married l have no children what about one’s like me? I canot afford a therapist and living in the UK l dont know if any know about emotional neglect. Personally l feel that emotinal neglect is a problem in wider relationships too. Look how many mistreat friends. I have your first book but l am reluctant to buy the second as l dont have parents, a partner or children.

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    I’m very sorry for your losses, Dianne. You sound like a good person and perhaps you could give yourself the attention you deserve and also try to get out and meet some people who can get to know the real you. All my best wishes.

Lou - January 13, 2020 Reply

I have read both of your books and they have explained so simply a complex set of feelings. ‘The hole’ is something I have been striving to find an answer to, as I parent my own kids. Being an empath I vowed to not parent as mine did. I now know why I felt that strongly . I have passed the book on to my older sister and tried to chat about it but it still sits on her book shelf, she’s not ready but I believe she is listening to what I’m saying as she is also an empath. My other sister is different, I see the CEN she puts onto her daughter and her narcissistic ways of my mother, this has led to estrangement between us, she listens to no one. I think CEN is fascinating and I am sharing your words with others as it should be. Thankyou.

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lou, it sounds like you have really worked to figure things out. You can’t make your empath sister understand, but CEN people do come to it when they’re ready. You’ve given her the info she needs and she’ll use it when she’s ready to. In the meantime, please focus on yourself and giving yourself all the validation and support you deserve.

Jim - January 12, 2020 Reply

It’s taken so long for me to realize that this is a big part of the
problems I’ve had all my life. Thank you for your work!

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    You’re welcome, Jim! Keep reading and learning about CEN. There are lots of answers for you.

Catherine - January 12, 2020 Reply

For my generation, (I’m 67) I feel that just about ALL children were emotionally neglected. The general thinking at that time seemed to be children should be seen and not heard, obey their parents, and NEVER express any negative feelings about their family life. There seems to have been a revolution in child care norms since then and I am JEALOUS!!!

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    There is some truth to that, Catherine. Your generation had much more CEN than now, although it is still rampant in today’s world, unfortunately. I hope you’ll turn your focus on yourself and the steps needed to heal.

Carolina - January 12, 2020 Reply

I can see the sun) however I’m still unpacking emotional pain as they crop up..however..I’m a work in progress..I feel so good to hear that some one of the therapeutic community has the knowledge of unresolved emotional neglect..that is hard to find..I believe a lot of people from all walks of life experienced let’s continue to raise the awareness..thank you blessed..

Avi - January 12, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much…..your a Godsend….I never knew why or what was bothering me until I had a existential crisis then all the kings horses n all the kings men couldn’t put this humpty dumpty back together again….I now understand n now the pieces come together in art form to make a beautiful mosaic egg

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    Yes, Avi! I love that analogy.

Carolina - January 12, 2020 Reply

Wow!!it’s so good to hear someone acknowledge what God revealed to me some years ago I was so in denial until God opened my eyes through a dream of the unresolved Anger pain and hatred I had hiding in my heart fur to childhood emotional neglect..that was 10 yes ago..No one understood what my heart was trying to say..not even thank you for understanding

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    I’m happy to validate your experience, Carolina. Now you can take the steps to heal.

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