How to Know if You Experienced Emotional Abuse or Neglect as a Child

AdobeStock 251759004 scaled e1589054940966

What is Childhood Emotional Abuse?


Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?


Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away.  “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.

While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.

It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.

But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.

Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.

To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.


At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.

At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.

Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.


At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.

People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time. 

Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect.  Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.

What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.

And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.

5 Tips For Healing the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or Abuse

  1. Accept that your childhood lives within you. There’s a legitimate reason why you’re not happier. It’s your childhood.
  2. The effects of the neglect are subtle and hide beneath the abuse. So it’s hard to see the neglect until you’ve addressed the abuse, which is far more obvious, visible, and memorable. It helps to work on the effects of the abuse first.
  3. If you grew up with emotional abuse, it’s important to work with a trained therapist. Almost everyone who experienced childhood abuse of any kind, in any amount, needs therapy to heal.
  4. If your childhood experience was pure Emotional Neglect, you may also benefit from therapy. But you may also be able to address many aspects of the effects on your own.
  5. Emotionally abused, neglected, or both: a huge step in your recovery involves learning to recognize, own, accept and express your feelings, and realizing why they matter.

And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire.  It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty

**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.

A version of this post was originally posted on It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Kate - June 10, 2024 Reply

Hi Dr. Webb, I am struggling right now with my siblings and wonder which of your books, or perhaps something on your website has a section dealing specifically with siblings. My siblings and I all suffered emotional neglect and my own case probably drifted into a little emotional abuse as well. Although I am the third child (of four), I am the child who my very elderly parents have turned to for help, but have also wound up as the villain, from my siblings’ perspectives. There is obviously more to the story, but at the moment, I am excluded from (extended) family events yet I do probably 80% of the work for our parents. Perhaps oddly, my own family is a joy and delight to me and I feel very very lucky in them. But I find that whenever I have to interact with my siblings I become depressed and a bit despondent and I wish there was something I could do to relieve these feelings. I do meditate daily and exercise regularly, and even journal somewhat regularly already. I know this is a lot of information, but what a relief to actually say it (virtually) out loud! Any advice or resources will be much appreciated. Thank you – Kate

    Jonice - June 20, 2024 Reply

    Dear Kate, your situation sounds difficult, for sure. The dynamics of a CEN family are complex and it helps very much to understand your own feelings. I recommend you read my second book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, because it describes how adults with CEN feel toward their parents and families and the process of overcoming that.

Pete - December 17, 2023 Reply

Hi Jonice,
thanks for your help on this topic…It is certainly opening my eyes.

I would like to share this with my siblings but it’s difficult when they believe we had a perfect upbringing I believe I was emotionally neglected by parents random business and milk bar and they spent a lot of time there and my mother said in her later years she feels she didn’t spend enough time with me and she was sorry for that so that was a big red flag to me and God bless her for being so honest she didn’t mean to do it he was busy with the shop I’m not sure how my brother and sister see all this I would like to open it up to the discussion possibly instead of pretending everything was perfect but it’s tough they call me a naval gazer when i bring up these things. i get told to move on and to be careful not to burn my bridges with family

    Jonice - December 19, 2023 Reply

    When a family tries to discourage meaningful discussion and personal sharing, that is Emotional Neglect. I encourage you to trust your reality and your own feelings. Learn everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Talking to a CEN trained therapist can help!

Sarah - January 18, 2021 Reply

Would you say that a mother that invalidates is abusing or neglecting? If when I was a child she blamed me mistakenly for something that wasn’t my fault I would try to explain and she would dismiss me, refuse to listen, tell me Im wrong and then get shout at me anyway or send me to my room as if I was to blame. It confused me. Looking back I felt stuck, helpless, empty and hopeless. It was like I had no way of connecting with her or getting her to hear me.
Now as an adult i divorced due to my ex’s psychological abuse and control. Mum doesn’t accept that reality and feels sorry for him, despite seeing me completely fall apart during the marriage. I asked her if she could consider that its true that he was abusive and wasn’t good for me and she answers ‘you should see a doctor’ thereby making me feel as though Im the problem in a similar way to which he did. She still doesn’t hear me or wont hear me. I can see the neglect in these 2 situations but would you say this is abusive behaviour too?

    Jonice - January 18, 2021 Reply

    Dear Sarah, Emotional Neglect can definitely cross the line and become abusive. I encourage you to tell your experiences to a trained CEN therapist from the Find A CEN Therapist List. You deserve support and help to get perspective on all of this.

Christy - October 5, 2020 Reply

Is it possible to suffer from both? I’m the oldest of three, my mother had me at 17 father was 19. They were narcissistic (both), they physically abused my sisters and I, emotionally abused and emotionally neglected us as well as general neglect. I’m 51 now I was told my whole life your childhood doesn’t matter … what a lie that is!!! I bought your book! I’ve tried my whole life to be open to learn and change and be nothing like my parents and I’ve been somewhat successful but I know I could be more successful and more happy and I feel a HUGE BLOCK like a wall…and this CEN is unlocking a lot for me!! But back to my original question, can you be both??

    Jonice - October 5, 2020 Reply

    Yes you can be both! Many people are, so you are not alone, Christy. Keep working on this, and please do allow a trained therapist to help you as needed.

Anki - May 11, 2020 Reply

At 58 I finally start to see the whole picture!
You helped me with so many pieces of the puzzle.
Your work is fantastic, I’m forever grateful.

    Jonice - May 15, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad, Anki!

Theresa - May 10, 2020 Reply

What is it when your mother let’s other people emotionally abuse you and laughs about it?

    Jonice - May 11, 2020 Reply

    That is serious emotional abuse, Theresa, which always has emotional neglect embedded within it. If this happened to you, I’m so sorry.

Madeleine - May 10, 2020 Reply

THank you so much for all your work to achieve progress with these issues, so much needed for so many struggling individuals. Thank you, you are an angel.

Heather - May 10, 2020 Reply

I think emotional abuse is easier to heal from and less damaging than emotional neglect, because abuse is easier to remember and easier to recognize that your parent was at fault and not internalsize it. Whereas, emotional neglect, you are left with a deep hole, thinking something is wrong with you but not knowing exactly what.

    Jonice - May 11, 2020 Reply

    Yes, exactly, Heather. I agree.

Leave a Comment: