Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect

13790103_f44dd462db_oSince Robin Williams’ sad and shocking suicide on August 11, friends, family, fellow stars, and even reporters have offered multiple explanations for the virtually inexplicable:

Why did he do it?

Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN causes untold numbers of people to question the point of being alive. People with CEN feel empty and alone. But they were trained in childhood to keep their problems and needs out of view. Because they believe that their emotions and needs are a burden, they not only hide them from others; they even hide them from themselves.

CEN folks live in a prison of self-blame, self-doubt and emptiness. Yet they are unable to ask for help. Some can have secret suicidal thoughts throughout their lifetimes. Some act upon those thoughts, leaving family and friends forever baffled and pained.

Unlike medical disease, depression and substance abuse, CEN is not noticeable or diagnosable. It hides from everyone, even from the sufferer himself. People with CEN do not know the source of their pain. They only know their most deeply-held truth: they cannot let it be seen.

Since CEN is so invisible, how can anyone say that it was a factor in Robin’s suicide? The truth is, I can only surmise. But I can say that several facts about Robin’s childhood, combined with his behaviors as an adult, point to CEN. Here is a list of them:

  1. Robin’s father was a high-level GM executive and his mother a fashion model. He grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege, but not by attention. His parents were seldom home, and he was raised mostly by the maid, who was also his primary companion.
  2. Robin’s description of himself as a child: “short, shy, chubby and lonely.” He described spending much of his childhood in the family’s huge house, playing with toy soldiers, alone.
  3. In 2009, Robin told People Magazine that in his childhood home, “the ideal child was seen, not heard.” This mantra is a hallmark of the CEN family.
  4. During a 2001 episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Robin gave credit to his mother for helping to develop his humor because as a child, he worked to be funny as a way to get her attention.
  5. All who knew Robin agreed that he kept his pain hidden, deep underground. Only those who spent considerable time with him or knew him well got glimpses of his true sadness and hurt. Carefully guarded pain: it’s the stamp of CEN.

Many people with CEN never have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. But I have seen CEN powerfully and significantly degrade the quality of life of many admirable, lovable, worthy people.

No matter where we go, no matter what we do, our child selves live within us. We feel that child’s joy, we feel that child’s pain. We feel as lovable as that child felt.

The father who loves his two beautiful daughters, but who struggles to feel that love.

The successful businesswoman who has everything but a feeling that she matters.

The much-loved man who never feels that he belongs.

The giving young woman who is there to help everyone, but who cannot ask for help.

The beloved funnyman who has everything but who cannot let himself be truly seen.

These are the many faces of Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Whether Robin grew up with CEN or not, let us make sure that we learn something from this loss. Let us break the silence that we were taught as children. Let us all stand up and do what Robin, sadly, could not.

Let us pay attention to our own secret pain, and reach out to those whose hidden pain we see. Let us take a chance and talk, and let ourselves be known.

To learn more about CEN, how it contributes to suicidal thoughts, and whether it may be at work in your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 



Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
LostChild - December 25, 2017 Reply

Some who posted that they are diagnosed with BPD (borderline) could very well be misdiagnosised. I definitely show signs. Counselors are human and make errors too. Also, I was abused by a malignant narcissist as an adult, since I was definitely seeking nurturing (validation). CED is very real.

Adrian - January 6, 2017 Reply

I just finished to watch “The final cut” movie and I can only say that, it’s another chance to recognise some of his symptoms, that you describe here as “CEN”.

JoAnn - December 4, 2016 Reply

More than once I’ve looked at his picture and wondered, “Who hurt you?”

NicoKen - July 16, 2015 Reply

This is just what an emotionally intelligent person told me he perceived about Robin Williams, another emotionally intelligent being.

we r many - April 1, 2015 Reply

i came into this world through a hell of a mother and have tasted not only hell but brimstone and fire.

Yet i have never thought of suicide as an alternative.

Something in me says…. as long as i am alive, i will find out what the hell they did to me. And that i will undo it. and that i will have my life back.

Long live life.
Long live my spirit

donna - March 11, 2015 Reply

Robin bought so much to so many it’s really hard still to believe that someone so talented is gone. I believe that everyone has the power to change their past with consistency and discipline which would be perfect if taught in primary school age kids. Daily affirmations and meditating helped Louise Hay. As a child she suffered but chooses to helps others overcome their demons by practising what she has learnt. Teachinng yourself to self heal, it is something that everyone would do well using.

I wish Robin had’ve been able to find this alternative.

Cynful - February 22, 2015 Reply

Thank goodness someone is finally talking about a real reason behind Robin Williams’ suicide. For those of us suffering with constant suicidal ideation, the newspaper and social media accounts that his suicide was because he feared Parkinson’s made as much sense as wadded wet paper towels.

I was a very loved child. Especially loved because, as the oldest child, I was able to fill the role of mother, which my own mother failed to do (and continues to avoid, to the age of 86 today). I made out grocery lists at the age of five, did laundry, hired maids (and talked to them in Spanish for company), and was taken out and displayed as an exceptional child. My photograph was on the cover of the L.A. Times, because I could read at the age of two. My father, a brilliant, disturbed, Bipolar and amazing scholar, whose love sustained me, was not home very much. He loved everything about me. He died when I was 29 and I continue to miss him twenty five years later.

My mother, on the other hand, found everything to criticize about me: my hair, my face, my figure, my gracefulness, my sensitivity, my anxiety, even my academic success (which was treated, horrifically, by promoting me three years ahead into a world of physically mature and abusive children). It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I found out my mother was left behind a grade in school, and never recovered from the loss of self-esteem. I finally heard how she resented what she saw as my ‘unearned’ brilliance (she assumed I inherited it from my father, as perhaps I did; I certainly got his Bipolar, although in my case it was Bipolar II).

Your parents can appear to love you, but if they put immense pressures on your slender child shoulders; if they are never home; if your mother cannot express love; if she finds you unacceptable in every way, where does the love go? It never finds its way to you.

My heart broke for Robin Williams. I am so sad he never found a therapist who could guide him to a better life. I have been lucky that, in my fifties, I have a stellar therapist who works with me to change my behaviors and expectations of the world. She helps me see the world as it really is, as well as my family as it is and was.

Thank you so much for this article. I cannot say how meaningful it is to find someone to address the true meaning behind an act as drastic as suicide in a person seen the world over as the pinnacle of success.

My own therapist, who will be unnamed because that is the way she will want it, is the best thing in my life, aside from my loving and supportive husband. I can honestly say I have moved as far from the act of suicide (I have attempted five times) as I have ever been. Thank God for committed and insightful therapists!

Carolan - January 31, 2015 Reply

I also never heard CEN described this way… makes SO much sense and puts the pieces together with an entirely different perspective!

I was one of 10 kids, parents were both caring decent people albeit frazzled with the obvious demands of such a chaotic crazy household, expecially with little money. No maid, of course and I suppose many kids of very large families might have felt similar, neglected. Basic needs for food, clothing, shelter met but emotional needs? Who had time for that?

It occurs to me that with the current trend toward ‘latch key kids’ who rarely spend much time with parents and are home alone a lot due to 2 income households and/or single parents – this affliction may be much more common than our culture recognizes.

lwh16 - December 31, 2014 Reply

I meant to type “they punish you FOR knowing”

lwh16 - December 31, 2014 Reply

What can a friend or loved one do for someone suffering from CEN? (It may actually be BPD.)

Being a friend who knows about this affliction is a double edged sword because counterdependents push away empathic friends. It’s hard to help someone with a “I never need help” mindset. They wind up punishing you of ‘knowing.’

I would really appreciate your thoughts on what a friend can do when the CEN sufferer is stuck in “withdraw” mode. Based on my own experiences, I suspect Robin Williams had friends who reached out and were ignored or pushed away from. CEN sufferers can refuse helping hands because of that early programming.

    Jonice Webb - December 31, 2014 Reply

    lwh16, you sound like a wonderful and caring friend. It may be that your friend is so self-contained that there is no reaching him or her. One suggestion that sometimes works, even with such folks, is to give them a copy of Running on Empty, and say, “I’m giving you this because you’re important to me. You can throw it away if you want.” But the bottom line is, if he/she doesn’t look at it, there is nothing you can do except be there for them if they become willing. I hope this helps.

The_First_Bob - December 26, 2014 Reply

Robin clearly did suffer with CEN.

I know, because I do.
I was so angry at the World, when I found out he took his life, why wasn’t anyone there for him? You could see he was in pain when he was on the Graham Norton show!

The World needs to know more about emotional abuse/neglect.

and Men who hold in the pain, need to be told that it’s called counter-depedence.

Only reason I was able to accept that so easily is because my childhood created me to be, someone who confronts everything.

… and guess what… record numbers of CEN/emotional abuse now, with the internet forming walls.

Something needs to be done about this NOW!

There is only so much we can take, before we snap. Add that to absence of social interaction…

If you think “trolls” are bad now, give it 5 years.

Stop pussyfooting in fear of covering your own a$$ and afraid of what your “peers” think of you. What is this, high school? That’s pathetic.

The World needs to know about CEN/Emotional abuse, and it’s affects.

Really push for mental health and psychology to be taught in schools as a mandatory subject. Sociology as well, because clearly parents fail to teach their kids that they matter, but so do others. The “brain not fully developed til late teens, in terms of awareness of others” is a poor poor excuse.

Alex H - December 24, 2014 Reply

Eerily enough, I recognized “growing up with the maid,” “short, chubby, and lonely” and “playing alone with toy soldiers” as vignettes from my own early life. No wonder I always felt such a wave of empathy with the guy, always thought he was a poet as well as a comedian, and surprised myself by how shaken I was at the news of his death and the manner of it. I didn’t make the CEN connection until just now. Thanks for the article.

Leon - November 15, 2014 Reply

Or maybe it was all that Divorce and Alimony he had to pay. Funny how nobody seems to mention that.

    we r many - April 1, 2015 Reply

    could be veeery true.
    All these add up to stress.
    I have some personal experince akin to this and only when i took active steps to deal heavy handedly with my molesters did things start to calm down.

    The molesters are still there.
    But they arent having a free ride at my expense.

portland17 - November 13, 2014 Reply

As a person who suffered from emotional neglect as a child, I can relate very much to this story. My parents seemed to be very caring, and I know they did love us, but they were both completely unable to demonstrate any kind of direct affection. I grew up hating myself and feeling anxious, depressed, and at times suicidal. I was fortunate to find a very good therapist who helped me get started on a different path, which I continue to travel today.

It irks me greatly that so many people are diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “bipolar” or “borderline personality disorder” when this is their real story. We do our clients a grave disservice when we don’t bother to explore their early childhood environment, because in my experience as a counselor, most adult distress has its roots in how we had to behave to survive as a child. So many cases of “endogenous depression” – depression for supposedly no reason – are really cases of childhood emotional neglect and abuse. And our ability to get away with smugly “diagnosing” our clients allows us not to bother to ask about the things that matter most to most of our clients’ welfare.

Robin was apparently taking two antidepressants and some kind of antipsychotic medication. Apparently it didn’t help much. I wonder if anyone bothered to talk to him about his early life as a source of his painful experiences later on?

—- Steve

larkin - November 8, 2014 Reply

He talks a lot more directly about his emotional neglect as a child in his “Shrink Rap” session. He was essentially sectioned off in part of the large house on his own.

aedelaossa - November 7, 2014 Reply

I always found it strange that I could never remember my mother or my father ever having held me and having them tell me that they loved me. To this day I crave having someone do that and to this day have never found one to do that for me.

    Jonice Webb - November 8, 2014 Reply

    Dear Aedelaossa, this is one of the aspects of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Your brain may have been trained throughout your childhood to keep a wall between yourself and others. I think there is probably more going on than you realize. You are most likely a lovable person who doesn’t know how to let love in. I hope you will look into this more. You undoubtedly deserve more than you are getting. I wish you all the best.

Rachel - November 7, 2014 Reply

I was deeply saddened but not surprised by Robin Williams’ suicide. I always believed the sensitivity for human suffering he demonstrated in many of his movies went far beyond his excellence as an actor but were instead a revelation of the man himself. I can only describe it as an exquisite agony of pain for all human suffering. I believe I can recognize it in others because I too have it and it would destroy me too as it destroyed Robin Williams were it not for my faith in a higher power who cares and will step in in the near future and fix it all and then undo the consequences that people like Robin have paid. As for the addictions, while I never had that problem, I get deeply angry with people who refuse to recognize that for some people substance abuse is an attempt at self medication to make the world more livable. I am not a clinician. Like Robin, I am a sufferer.

PLH - November 1, 2014 Reply

I had always suspected that Robin was bi-polar. I am deeply saddened by his loss. I was diagnosed in my 50’s and was very fortunate to find an excellent doctor. I told him that although I was doing quite well..but it had ruined my chances of being a stand up comedian. He really got a kick out of that. Unfortunately he has retired and as time goes by my symptoms have escalated and I have yet to find a new doctor that I trust.At 64 I still have problems buying clothes or feeling like I am properly dressed. I was very thin as a child and wore a safety pin at my waist for years. My mother’s voice resonates in my mind daily “do you always have to look like a slob?”. My weight has been appropriate for my height since adulthood.Sometimes I change my clothes 4 or 5 times then crawl in bed and stay home. I can’t seem to overcome this issue. My best friend has said she wishes my mother was still alive so she could her a good slap. What self esteem I possess came from a very loving father,who has also passed away.

    Claire - December 3, 2014 Reply

    I’m giving you a virtual hug

Izzy - October 28, 2014 Reply

Thank you for this! I have CEN, have done loads of work on it. Recently I did an exercise from Carnes’s book, A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps. I wrote a letter of forgiveness to myself for agreeing that it was my fault that I was not loved. I had unconsciously agreed that I was unloveable and that it was my fault. I pledged to withdraw that agreement and know that I was and am completely loveable. I felt the sadness of how mean this was.

    Jonice Webb - October 31, 2014 Reply

    A letter of forgiveness is a great idea. It’s so important that you’ve realized this and let it go. Keep up the good work!

      Vicky - December 4, 2014 Reply

      a letter of forgiveness to myself, what a labor of love, tis the season of gift giving..and the process starts with myself,,,walking, showering, living among others in this life we have been the book, Running on Empty…thank you, Jonice.. thank you..

Douglas Eby - September 15, 2014 Reply

Thanks for this important message. Trauma takes many forms, and has different sources and levels of impact on our mental health for each of us. See quotes by and about many artists who have experienced rape, physical abuse and other traumatic and emotionally challenging experiences, and use creative expression to help deal with them – including Alice Sebold, Allison Anders, SARK, Halle Berry, Lady Gaga,, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonathan Safran Foer and many others, in my article “Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health.”

su2 - September 6, 2014 Reply

ever since the Actor’s Studio, I have known that Williams’ humor was both hiding, and a coping mechanism for, a huge abyss of emotional despair. it was startling to recognize, just with a few offhand comments (same as those outlined in the article) a fellow sufferer of this whateveritis, the shame that can’t be named (and how has been, in the article) and must be hidden at all costs. some of us are not so adept at hiding it as he was, and thus it leaks out as a constantly semi-depressed state, a kind of hopelessness that there is anything ‘better’ or that improvement is possible. one learns to just try to keep their chin up and soldier on, until the end. if you are an existentialist in any way, or atheist or agnostic, you don’t even have the hope of a fulfilling afterlife to rescue you. having been suicidal when I was still young (when the emotional neglect was ongoing, and when I was old enough to start thinking elaborately enough that I was beyond simply ‘surviving’ and started to actually -feel- the feelings of it), what you really want is for the pain to end, and suicide seems the only option out. after all, the people who were supposed to love and support you don’t, and you are powerless to change that. you have been rejected in a deep way, and it leaves a mark on you for the rest of your life. I would love to learn how to move past this, but doubt that a book can help me. some of us intellectually understand it, and where it came from, and even why our parents might have done it. we still can’t change the affective aspects of it. the best that can be hoped for, I believe, is to launch oneself into other things and simply try to stay too busy to notice those feelings. examining them leads to only more pain. I’ve done it long enough to know!

    Learningtofeel - February 23, 2015 Reply


    you said…..” I would love to learn how to move past this, but doubt that a book can help me.”

    You’re probably right about this. One book cant help. But as a fellow sufferer of CEN, after reading numerous books and seeing a therapist, I am happy to say progress CAN be made in dealing with this sad “affliction”.

    You also said….”simply try to stay too busy to notice those feelings. examining them leads to only more pain.”

    This really saddens me. For so long that is exactly what I was doing. But what I’ve learned since then is that walking straight into that pain, head on, not resisting it, fighting the fear of that pain, CAN AND WILL, allow one to heal that pain. Trying to avoid those feelings is what we’ve been doing all of our lives. And it only makes it worse.
    Forgive the glib sound of this but, you need to break a few eggs to make an omlette.
    I hope you can someday lean into the pain. The more we learn about it and really FEEL it, the less power it has over us.
    Be well 🙂

    Sliceo'pie - June 18, 2017 Reply

    I don’t know if you will see this reply as it’s several years after your comments. I found this book incredibly helpful-it has actually changed my life-setting me on a path of discovery and freedom. Once you read the book, you will find yourself seeking out more information about the subject matter contained within.
    I do not need to carry the story of my childhood deep in my soul – repeating it over and over. Today I can live in the day and forgive the people that hurt me. I can have empathy for who they are, the pain they carried, their clumsiness, their inability to really love and parent me. They had limitations that I can not really understand, born from their childhoods and the childhoods of their parents. The pain is handed down.
    This has been a lot of work but I much prefer the work to the years I spent languishing in a horrible depression, suicidal, alcoholic-in so much pain and lost. Today I have choices.

    Another book which helped me deal with the pain I’ve experienced from a mother who was unable to love me. This was a tremendous help.
    I think this book can also be helpful to men.


      Steve - June 19, 2017 Reply

      Good for you for facing up to and clearing your attention from the past! That takes a LOT of courage and persistence!

      David Bowles, Ph.D. - June 19, 2017 Reply

      Christina, I was very touched by your message. I am so glad you found your way forward, through all this depression, etc. Its brave and an inspiration to others who will read this. This happens to so many of us and when we make it through we become more useful to others still in its grip. Good for you….

Jennifer Anderson - September 6, 2014 Reply

Wow, didn’t know there was an actual name for this! I am the youngest of three kids and our childhood was a living hell. Having both parents total alcoholics and living in a very rural area, we pretty much had to raise ourselves and try to hide the shame of our family life. Every single day of living in that house was a nightmare of which we were threatened if we told anyone they would kill us. I think I am ok but my sister has always suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. My brother turned out a drunk and drug addict and is now dead because of it. Recently I told my sister that I should write a book about our childhood and she said no one would believe you! I still find it very hard to talk about and I didn’t realize that was a bad thing!

    Dolly - November 12, 2014 Reply

    If you can find it, read the book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” It is one of the best books ever written on the subject. It was very helpful to me.

    we r many - April 1, 2015 Reply

    hey your family was like ours.
    Only we may be different continenets and races.
    Ours was so full of shame i do not remember
    taking any of my childhood friends home.

    My mother was the queen of shame.

    I estraged the family a while back to try and make something for myself.

    Everyone is still massively damaged, into some religious cults, prostitutuion, alcoholism or something else psychologically sick.

    But what to say? Here i am and i am to do the best for myself and my future. Thank you for sharing

Jill - September 6, 2014 Reply

Is this not the “abandoned child” which can create borderline personality disorder. How is this any different?

    Jonice Webb - September 6, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jill, good question. While Abandoned Child gives a nod to emotional abandonment, its primary focus is physical abandonment. CEN is not about abandonment (although in some situations it could be involved), but about growing up with parents who may be very present physically, and even loving, but who do not respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. For this reason, it can be very subtle and almost impossible to see. The CEN child pushes his emotions down and away to cope, and this is the cause of most of the problems in adulthood.

      Jill - September 6, 2014 Reply

      Yes. However it is the same in BPD, it’s not always that the parents are not physically there. They are too busy, or too stressed to tend to the emotional needs of a highly sensitive child. Left is a child and an adult with a lost self , an emptiness , abd destructive behaviors. My parents never “physically” left. I was just not seen or heard and felt invisible. My emotional needs weren’t met. My diagnosis -BPD.

Julia Kristina - September 5, 2014 Reply

Hi Jonice,

Thank you for this article. I didn’t know CEN was a “thing” with an actual title. I’ve worked with clients who felt neglected as children, and I’m happy to see more research is being done on this. Do you have a specific or favourite approach for treating CEN with your clients?


Julia Kristina

    Jonice Webb - September 5, 2014 Reply

    Hi Julia, yes I have developed a treatment process for CEN. In a nutshell, it involves both giving the client what he didn’t get as a child, and walking him through giving it to himself. See my website for more information about it. And thanks so much for your interest.

David Bowles, Ph.D. - September 5, 2014 Reply

Jonice this is a very sensitive and interesting view of Robin Williams’ life and sad, early departure from this world. I think you are really on to something which makes a lot of sense given his own comments. Thank you for this valuable contribution to our understanding of this wonderful man.


K - September 5, 2014 Reply

There are 4 videos of “Shrink Rap” on YouTube where Robin talks with a former actress now a psychologist Pamela Stephenson. Not sure if I can put links here, but they can be easily found.

DPM - September 5, 2014 Reply

Beautifully written and I thought this about Robin also. If you go back and watch Mork and Mindy there are lots of references to suicide done via jokes and many of his reports to Orsen spoke volumes about his past and at the time, mindset. Also consider how much he ad libbed, more references and all someone had to do was to look in his eyes…google the 9-11-14 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, if someone didn’t know Robin, they would never dream the man in that photo could be so hysterically funny. His eyes look completely vacant and there is no spark at all. Kudos for bringing up CEN, I myself struggle with it’s effects daily. I hope your commentary opens the eyes of all parents. We still love you Robin, the sad, lonely little boy is finally at peace.

Misses - September 5, 2014 Reply

In Robin William’s Oscar acceptance speech, he references his father’s skepticism of his career choice. It seems to have a hint of anger in it.

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