How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:

  1. Self-centered, Abusive or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. This might be financially, emotionally, or with caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT – Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their child and give him everything they can. But they are not able to give him enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. 

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when you parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first, or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame, and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty so that they can read about it for themselves. 

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents 

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.

To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.


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Lorraine - September 26, 2019 Reply

I told my parents about CEN and they flipped out. Both are WMBNT and could not process that they were anything but perfect parents that did everything for their kids. They are now calling me a bad person who conjured up this hurtful story against them and said that I’m just a needy person.
I don’t know how to fix it and I wish I could take it back. It’s just made me miserable.

    Jonice - September 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lorraine, I am so sorry this happened. You showed great courage by talking with your parents. And you are not alone! CEN parents can have a very hard time seeing it in their own parenting which is why it’s so very important to remove all blame from the picture. If you were careful about this when you talked with them, then their reaction probably has to do with them blaming themselves. Have you read my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships? It has lots of good information and support on how to deal with this. All my best to you!

    Chris - October 11, 2019 Reply

    I had the same recent experience as you. I too regret having that talk.

      Jonice - October 14, 2019 Reply

      Dear Chris and Lorraine, I’m very sorry your talks did not go well. Did you use Running On Empty as a guide? Because there is a lot of useful guidance in there! Sometimes a talk that goes badly leads to a better outcome in the end, even though is very painful and hard. I admire you both for your courage in trying to talk about the untalkable.

luisa - September 25, 2019 Reply

Ok so my issue is my mom home schooled/home schools me and adopted me back when I was 5 but I was scared when she got me so I rejected her of which I have apologized numerous times but it doesn’t matter to her, her saying is “it doesn’t matter how you meant it it only matters how i received it.” So with that being said my mom and I have never been able to get along because she thinks she’s fat and ugly and is jealous because I am skinny and pretty and she somehow makes the fact that she is over weight my fault and me being skinny and pretty also my fault. So when the time came for me to start school she never wanted to teach me and she never tried and still doesn’t try to understand how I think and why some things that make sense to the rest of the world don’t make sense to me. When I was younger and sometimes even now she calls me to stupid to understand or blonde things that really make me feel like I will never be good enough for her. More often than not anymore I feel like she lives to point out all the wrong doings I have done and fails to see all the good things I have done for her and the family. Another thing she does is my brother left the beginning of this year in a very painful way he walked out of the house and pretty much wants nothing to do with us….well he did until recently where it feels like he wants to come back into our lives but of all the lies and all the things he’s done mom wants nothing to do with him so now she compares me and my little sister to everything he does so thanks to my brother my mom has raised the expectation level to IMPOSSIBLE and every failure that she’s done is someone else’s fault. So anyway with the schooling, I am 17 years old and there are some things that I won’t understand and shell be like,”you are 17 you should know that by now” and my thinking is you failed to teach me that so how am I supposed to know it if I’ve never learned it?

    Jonice - September 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Luisa, I am very sorry you are experiencing all of this, especially at such a young age. Please talk with an adult you can trust about all of this because you will need support and help to navigate it and to protect yourself. A counselor at your school might be a good choice. Or ask your dr. for a referral. It’s important!

Claire Holmes - September 25, 2019 Reply

My dad fits in category 1. He’s a chronic alcoholic and is dying yet he continues to drink. He was an abusive husband/father and i have no happy memories of him. All memories have violence, bullying, intimidation, drunkeness and deep sadness attached to them. My mum commited suicide when i were 16…i’m now 44. My dad has never cared for me and my siblings, his words are empty promises. He tells me he loves me, but to me he’s just saying fake words. The only person he cares about and is bothered about is himself. As my dad is getting sicker and more in need of care i can feel my self pulling away from him, and getting more and more angry with him. He did this to himself, he showed me and my siblings no love, and now he needs caring for. I’ve never been close to my dad. I can honestly say that i have felt hatred for my dad, but yet i’ve also felt love for him. But at this moment in time i’m feeling more hatred than love. He’s brought nothing but sadness and misery into my life, and in the past i have gone possibly years without seeing him, as i didn’t want him in my life and he never bothered to seek me out in my life. I only pray that his death is quick and painless, as i don’t want him to suffer. I have grieved for the father i never had for many years, and i’ve come to terms with the fact that i’ll never have “that” father.

    Jonice - September 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Claire, you are wise to grieve for the father you never had. That shows a willingness and ability to face a painful reality and that is a sign of strength and courage. Hold fast to what you know. And focus on yourself and caring for your feelings. You deserve it!

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