New Year’s Resolutions are a tricky business indeed. According to recent research, 80% of people drop theirs by the second week of February every year.
I think New Year’s Resolutions are even more difficult for those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And for some very good reasons.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions while they are raising you.
I know, I know, everything above sounds so negative. You may be feeling discouraged about setting resolutions for 2021. You may be wondering the classic CEN question: “Why bother?”
If so, good news! I have thought this through, and I have some answers for you.
First, set only one resolution. Trying to do more is distracting and can be overwhelming. Second, make resolutions that will be immediately rewarding and bring quick and positive results. That way, you will set up a positive cycle that will feed itself, becoming more and more powerful every day of the year.
— Research has shown that Emotional Neglect in childhood slows the development of the ventral striatum in the brain. The ventral striatum is your brain’s reward center, so if it’s under-developed, the concept of feeling joy may seem like a distant one for you. But a remarkable thing: I have asked many CEN people to start purposely seeking happiness and enjoyment, and I have watched it make a significant difference in their lives. You may find it in a small, rewarding task that you never gave much thought, a small child who smiles at you for no reason, or a beautiful orange leaf falling from a tree. At other times you may need to make something happen to bring yourself joy: call a friend, see a movie, schedule a trip, or take a day away. The more you choose joy, the more it will choose you. You will be setting yourself on a very rewarding path that will pay off in spades.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will find at least one moment of enjoyment in every day of this year.
— When you have CEN, one of the most powerful ways of changing your life is to simply learn and use more emotion words every day. Using a word like dismayed, despondent, incensed, blissful, morose, bland, raw, depleted, wary, strained, deflated, perky, free, quiet, devoted, or feisty adds dimension and realness to your life. Both are necessary things that you were denied in your childhood. Making this change in the way you speak on the outside will change the way you think and feel on the inside. It will also carry the added bonus of improving the quality and depth of your relationships. It is a win-win-win at very little cost to you. You can find an exhaustive list of Feeling Words in the book Running on Empty, or you can download it from the Running on Empty Page of my website.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will use one new feeling word every day of this year.
— I designed this exercise to help people with CEN develop the pathways for self-discipline in their own brains. I do not have brain scans to prove that it works, but I can honestly assure you that it does. It is a way to give yourself the ability to make yourself do things you should do and to stop yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. These two skills together form the foundation for all self-discipline. Overriding what you want to do or not do 3 times per day, in some small way, trains your brain to be able to do so in situations when you need to. The overrides do not need to be big. They can be very small and still count. You can learn more about this exercise in the book Running on Empty.
Your 2021 Resolution: Every day of this year I will, three times, in some small way, make myself do something I don’t want to do, or stop myself from doing something I should not do.
No matter where you go, and no matter what you do in 2021, you can re-program your brain and take control of your life. Keep it simple, take control, and find your joy. Take your needs seriously, and let yourself feel.
This will be your way to treat yourself to a changing, more positive life through 2021.
This will be your way to finally, definitively, realize, and believe that you are worth the effort. And you matter.
To find out if you have CEN, Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and how to heal it to improve your relationships, see my first book Running on Empty and my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
What is survivor’s guilt? Google dictionary describes it this way:
A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died. For example, “He escaped with his life but suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
This is the definition most people think of as “survivor’s guilt.” But mental health professionals and therapists know that this concept applies far more widely than this description would suggest. Because we see survivor’s guilt in our offices every single day, but it’s a slightly different type.
The guilt people often experience as they make healthy choices and take steps to heal themselves emotionally, as each step takes them farther away from the dysfunctional people in their lives.
For many hard-working, well-meaning folks, there is no way around it: in order to heal yourself, you must leave someone behind.
Healing from abuse, trauma, or childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is accomplished by taking a series of small steps. As you make healthy changes in yourself and your life, each of these small steps takes you somewhere. You are literally moving forward.
Subtle shifts in your perspective on what happened to you, the sharing of your experience with another person, or the validation of your feelings; as you take these steps, bit by bit, you change.
As you change yourself, you are, in an important way, saving yourself. You may be pulling yourself out of a deep hole that you have shared with some important family or long-time friends. You may be taking steps out of an addiction or a depression or a dysfunctional social system.
Whichever it is, you will probably not be able to save everyone (more on that later in this blog). At some point, you may face a fateful choice. Do I save myself? Is it wrong to do so? What about the people I have shared dysfunction with all these years?
This is the petri dish in which your survivor’s guilt is born.
There are no words for feelings in my family and I have always been astonished when I read what you say about the role of parents in educating children as to emotions–that they’re valid, they have names, they’re normal and they can be appropriately managed without making kids feel bad about themselves.
To this day, bringing up anything emotional–and after all the self-work I’ve done, I’ve gotten bolder and more forthcoming about my feelings–is like shouting at a wall. “There’s no there there.”
My parents have zero words for emotions. No response capability. This stuff does not exist. And at last, I am seeing how it has made me feel: nowadays, pretty darn frustrated! (In childhood, just plain awful.) Learning about CEN and working on it is like finally emerging from the edge of the dark woods and seeing the sun at last, and realizing my entire family is deep in the woods, still. Do I step out, without them? that’s the choice I feel, and it’s painful either way.”
This reader describes what many people feel. And it illustrates, in some very important ways, what an unfair situation survivor’s guilt is. When you have the courage to face your pain and the fortitude to take steps to save yourself, you truly have nothing to feel guilty about.
Is it hard to leave people suffering as you gain perspective, make better choices, and feel stronger? Yes. Should you try to pull your people forward with you? You can try. Will it work? In some cases, it may. But here’s the key question.
Is it your responsibility to pull your people forward with you? Unless they are your dependent children, the answer is NO. It is not.
This will be a very short section because the answer is very simple. It is a straightforward truth that can nevertheless take a lifetime to learn. It is this:
You cannot save another person. You can give them a boost, but ultimately, they must save themselves.
In reality, the best way to bring another person along is to give them the information they may need to have in order to take the steps themselves. Then, save yourself. In doing so, you provide them a role model, and an example of what courage, strength, and healing look like. You show them what they can do if they so choose. You make yourself available for support if they decide to follow.
There. Your job is done. Keep taking steps. Keep making yourself happier, healthier, and stronger. Fight back that survivor’s guilt.
I am having to (and had to) let several relationships go including family (not so easy) and friends (not so easy when you still have other friends (who are worth keeping) in common. Like Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” I would rather not have family or friends if they are toxic and not good for me. What is wonderful is being able to tell the difference and developing the feeling of indifference over past relationships (or even ongoing) that are not worthy of me. At any rate, all worth it.
As I became more determined to heal from childhood emotional neglect, I learned that telling the truth was essential. To my surprise and grief, telling the truth has cost me virtually all my friendships. It finally struck me that all of my friendships had grown out of my dysfunction. As I gained a clearer picture of myself, CEN, and dysfunctional coping strategies, I realized all of my “friends” were severely disturbed individuals (“misery loves company”). I was the only one facing the challenge of finding healthy ways of relating. Sick people run from healthy behaviors. When we turn and face the truth, and begin to choose different behaviors, our relationships begin to look very different too. I see this as evolution but it’s hard to let go of old ways and old relationships that keep you from functioning. I now have several solid friendships that feel very, very different from the old ones. I’m trying to get used to it!
To find many more resources about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the author’s Bio below this article.
This article was originally published in psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the
permission of the author and psychcentral.
As most folks struggle and stress to get through this messy mishmash we call “pandemic,” there is a certain group of people who are living a whole different sort of life.
These folks are actually doing the opposite of struggling and stressing. There is, in fact, something about the current situation that makes them feel better in some deep and important way.
Some feel more grounded, some feel more focused, and some feel more valid than they always have. Some feel less alone, less lost, or less insecure than they have throughout their adult lives.
I know what you may be thinking: How could this be? Are these people selfish or self-centered or taking delight in other people’s struggle and worry and pain?
Absolutely, positively not.
In fact, most of the folks who are feeling better right now are genuinely caring people who, if anything, tend to over-focus on other people’s needs at the expense of their own.
Let’s take a look at the variables that explain all this.
If any single one of the above applies to you, even in some small way, it’s possible that you may have some feelings of guilt about it. You may be concerned that it’s wrong to feel better at a time like this.
I want to assure you that it is not! Since we cannot choose our feelings, you should never judge yourself for having a feeling. But it is your responsibility to use your emotions in a healthy way. More about that in a moment. But first…
If any of the first four apply to you, if you are prone to FOMO, a feeling of aloneness, were prepared for this pandemic by your childhood, or live with a numb or empty feeling, you may want to consider the possibility that you grew up with some amount of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. CEN can be quite difficult to see or remember, yet it leaves you with these very specific burdens to carry through your adult life. And one very good thing about CEN is that once you know about it, you can heal it!
Now, about how you can use your preparedness and your positive feelings in a good way right now. You likely have more time, and you may be feeling some relief. This is your opportunity to work on understanding yourself better, owning your childhood challenges — which perhaps also made you stronger — and accepting your feelings instead of judging yourself for having them.
It’s a tough time and, in ways we never imagined, we are all in this together. But, in another way, we are also each in it alone. What a marvelous twist it can be if you use this terrible time to heal yourself.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Free Emotional Neglect Test.
You will find lots of guidance and help for understanding what was missing in your childhood and healing it in yourself and your relationships in the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
James has always been confused by his family. He’s always sensed that it’s dysfunctional, but he could never put his finger on what’s wrong. Until he realized that his family is riddled with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now that he can see his own lack of emotional awareness, connection, and understanding, he also sees the CEN pattern of traits in his parents and his younger sister. But strangely, his older brother seems completely unaffected. Baffled, James wonders how he and his sister could be so deeply affected by CEN while their older brother is not. They were all three raised by the same parents, after all.
26-year-old Michelle sits at the table at her parents’ house for a family dinner. Looking around at her siblings she thinks about how different she is from all of them. Right now, two are laughing and talking with each other while the third sibling is having an involved conversation with her parents. Michelle has been working on her Childhood Emotional Neglect and has been paying closer attention to her family. Watching her family interact at the table she wonders why her siblings don’t seem to be affected by her parents’ lack of emotional awareness. “Maybe I don’t actually have CEN,” she wonders.
It’s the kind of parenting that pays too little attention to the feelings of the children. Kids who grow up in this kind of family do not learn how to read, understand, or express their own emotions. In fact, they learn the opposite. They learn that their emotions are irrelevant, a burden, or a bother. And on top of that, they do not learn the useful emotional skills that they need to become happy, connected, emotionally thriving adults.
So what were Michelle and James seeing in their parents? They were seeing an emotional void, avoidance of meaningful conversation, and a tendency toward superficial interactions. James and Michelle recall feeling very alone in their families as children and they still feel this way now. It is only after discovering CEN that they are able to understand what is wrong and begin to take the steps of CEN recovery to address it.
Of the thousands of CEN people I have met, a remarkably large number have expressed confusion about why one or more of their siblings don’t have it.
And I understand. How can two kids who grew up in the same family end up experiencing their adult emotional lives so differently? At first glance, it does not make sense.
But there are reasons. Real reasons. Let’s look at what they are.
Almost every child receives some form of attention from their parents. The questions that define CEN are: Was it emotional attention? And was it enough?
Some siblings who receive a different form of attention can seem to be CEN-free, but their CEN may emerge later. Or perhaps, due to genetic or family factors, they may not be affected at all.
If you look around at your siblings and you have difficulty seeing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in them, do not allow that to make you question your own.
Having grown up virtually emotionally unseen, you have been invalidated enough already without continuing to doubt your own emotional truth.
Learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it plays out plus the steps to heal in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Find the link below.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free and you can find the link below.
Watch for a future article about how to talk to a sibling about CEN.
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.
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.
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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
For centuries people have been baffled about why particular people in their lives continually hurt or manipulate them. For centuries they have searched for answers.
After years of being concerned about labeling people and causing harm, we mental health professionals finally realized that we were failing to educate people about how to manage these challenging and damaging relationships. By not talking openly about narcissism and sociopathy, we were failing to validate and protect the people who needed it the most.
Today, fortunately, you can find plentiful articles about narcissism and sociopathy throughout this entire psychcentral site as well as in many other sources on the internet.
But one thing you will not find much information about is the question of what makes some people more vulnerable to narcissistic and sociopathic people in their lives. What makes you unintentionally gravitate toward people who will manipulate you and use you strictly to fulfill their own needs? Why is it so hard to see how they are harming you or to say, “No more,
to them? Or why do you seem to attract them?
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is far more common than most people would think. It happens in homes that seem caring and supportive, but where the parents are simply emotionally unaware. It also happens in homes with addicted, self-absorbed, depressed, or personality disordered parents.
But no matter why it happens, its effects on the child are the same. It leaves behind a child who grows into an adult disconnected from her own emotions and her own emotional needs. It creates an adult who asks for little, and who unconsciously continues the pattern of neglecting himself.
This is a perfect draw for a narcissist.
If you saw yourself in the description above, then I have one thing to say to you: it’s time. It is time to make yourself less vulnerable.
And the good news is, you can! You can heal the Emotional Neglect from your childhood and this will help you stop attracting emotionally harmful people into your life.
You can start by beginning to pay attention to yourself in all the ways that did not happen when you were a child. To do this, pause for a moment twice each day and ask yourself some very important questions that you were not asked enough as a child:
What do I want?
What do I feel?
What do I need?
Your next step will be to start saying those words, “I want, I feel, and I need,” out loud to others, finally expressing your wants, feelings and needs more.
Through all of these steps, you will be creating your own limelight. A limelight of your own making. A reflection of your inner self that you are finally allowing to shine. A limelight that is healthy and real, and that has been there all along.
The more you pay attention to yourself, the less attention you will get from narcissists or sociopaths.
The more you like and care about yourself, the less you will feel drawn to narcissists.
The more you learn to express yourself, the easier it will be for you to say, “No more” to a narcissist or sociopath in your life.
Starting down the path of recovery from your Childhood Emotional Neglect is the start to your new life. A life free of manipulation and emotional harm. A life in which you are finally protected in exactly the way you were always meant to be.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to set limits with a narcissistic parent without feeling guilty, and also why CEN makes you more likely to enter relationships with narcissists see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
All therapists know that people can change. We know this because we have been party to so many remarkable transformations made by so many people.
We see people change their habits, their ways of thinking, work through feelings, and make durable adjustments in themselves and their relationships.
I have seen countless people alter their lives from the inside by overcoming the effects of their Childhood Emotional Neglect. I have seen people heal their depression, learn to manage and defeat their anxiety, and improve their marriages and parenting skills.
But let’s face it, change is not usually easy. It takes courage, motivation, and perseverance. But so do most things of value in this life.
Watch for a future article about the specific challenges that are built into the process of healing Childhood Emotional Neglect. But there are certain challenges that derail many people as they try to change many different parts of their lives. I have seen countless good people derailed from their heartfelt efforts to grow and change by three very predictable experiences that they encounter along the way.
1. False Beliefs Set You Up For Disappointment
2. Avoidance Beckons
Change is difficult in four specific ways.
A natural reaction to all four of these challenges is avoidance. Isn’t it pretty tough to take on all of those? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to simply put it out of your mind and not worry about taking on those battles? Of course, it would! But avoidance is the enemy of progress. Avoidance may beckon like an oasis in the desert, but it will leave you parched.
The only way to deal with a natural pull toward avoidance is to face it head-on. Take notice of those moments when your avoidance kicks in, then turn around and challenge it.
Remind yourself that avoidance will take you down a one-way street to nowhere. Remind yourself that all things worth having require effort. Then pull yourself back on track.
3. Discomfort Takes You Down
Change can be a very frightening thing. When you start to feel different from your old self, or when people start to react to you differently because of the changes you’ve made, it can feel like you’re living in an alien world.
It can become hard to know how to behave and how you should react. Suddenly, things don’t feel as safe as they once did.
In my experience, most people are unaware of their discomfort. But they feel it. And then they naturally want to retreat from their new selves and go back to where they were before.
This desire to retreat is a completely natural feeling and a very normal response. But it’s just as dangerous as any of the factors above. It definitely has the power to send you right back toward square one.
For example, many dieters, after they’ve lost their first few pounds, suddenly feel different. Even if it feels better, it also feels strange, and that’s uncomfortable. So they lose momentum and their efforts fade. Be aware of the strong possibility that this will happen to you. Watch for it. Recognize that the feelings of discomfort are normal but destructive. Don’t let them take you down. Just keep going, and eventually what feels so uncomfortable at first will become your new normal.
If you are in the process of growth, I hope you will pause for a moment and give yourself credit. Many, many, if not most, people give in to the avoidance that feels so much easier than fighting for improvement.
Giving yourself credit for your efforts will keep you energized and motivated to keep advancing. Watching for small changes instead of demanding dramatic steps from yourself will prevent you from being disappointed. Be prepared for the uncomfortable aspects of change.
Whether you are recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect or changing some other aspect of yourself and your life, be ready. Keep at it. Don’t give up.
That is the way to make sure you won’t get stuck.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
What kind of parents fail to notice their child’s feelings?
Since this type of parental failure (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) causes significant harm to the child, people naturally assume that emotionally neglectful parents must also be abusive or mean in some way. And it is true that many are.
But one of the most surprising things about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that emotionally neglectful parents are usually not bad people or unloving parents. Many are indeed trying their best to raise their children well.
There are a variety of different ways that well-meaning parents can accidentally neutralize their children’s emotions. They can fail to set enough limits or deliver enough consequences (Permissive), they can work long hours, inadvertently viewing material wealth as a form of parental love (Workaholic), or they can overemphasize their child’s accomplishment and success at the cost of his happiness (Achievement/Perfection).
What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning Category 1 status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised. They were raised by parents who were blind to their emotions, so they grew up with the same emotional blind spot that their own parents had. Blind to their children’s emotions, they pass the neglect down, completely unaware that they are doing so.
Children of WMBNT parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN, a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame and guilt. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you often see a benign-looking one. Everything you can remember may seem absolutely normal and fine. You remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall what your parents failed to give you.
“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills, unless you have taught them to yourself throughout your life since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.
Struggling parents emotionally neglect their child because they are so taken up with coping that there is little time, attention, or energy left over to notice what their child is feeling or struggling with. Whether bereaved, hurting, depressed or ill, these parents would likely parent much more attentively if only they had the bandwidth to do so.
But these parents couldn’t, so they didn’t. They didn’t notice your feelings enough, and they didn’t respond to your feelings enough. Although the reasons for their failure are actually irrelevant, you have not yet realized this yet. You look back and see a struggling parent who loved you and tried hard, and you find it impossible to hold them accountable.
Children of struggling parents often grow up to be self-sufficient to the extreme and to blame themselves for their adult struggles.
This category stands out from the other two for two important reasons. The first: self-involved parents are not necessarily motivated by what is best for their child. They are, instead, motivated to gain something for themselves. The second is that many parents in this category can be quite harsh in ways that do damage to the child on top of the Emotional Neglect.
The narcissistic parent wants his child to help him feel special. The authoritarian parent wants respect, at all costs. The addicted parent may not be selfish at heart, but due to their addiction, is driven by a need for their substance of choice. The sociopathic parent wants only two things: power and control.
Not surprisingly, Category 3 is the most difficult one for most children to see or accept. No one wants to believe that his parents were, and are, out for themselves.
Being raised by Category 3 parents is only easier than the other two categories in one way: typically, you can see that something was (and is) wrong with your parents. You can remember their various mistreatments or harsh or controlling acts so you may be more understanding of the reasons you have problems in your adult life. You may be less prone to blame yourself.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Knowing the type of emotionally neglectful parents you have is tremendously helpful. It helps you improve your relationship with your parents, as well as protect yourself emotionally. Learn much more in my book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This post is an update of an article first published on PsychCentral.
In all of the interviews and talks I have done about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), as well as the articles I have written, certain questions keep coming up over and over again. They are excellent questions that are natural for anyone to ask, especially if you have realized that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, but also if you are wondering if CEN applies to you.
First, let’s define what Childhood Emotional Neglect is. It’s your parents’ failure to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. This failure to respond enough emotionally can be difficult to see in many families, and it can be hard to remember as an adult. Yet its effects stay with you for a lifetime.
Once you realize this is you, it can be very, very unsettling, to say the least. Finding the answer of CEN can bring you understanding and great relief. But it also raises questions.
Unfortunately, I do not have exact numbers on this, but I can answer based on my own clinical experience plus reports from my therapist colleagues. I believe it is very common among the general population. It varies in severity from mild to extreme, based on how pervasive the emotional neglect was in childhood. I think a large portion of the population has some degree of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Childhood is meant to be an emotional training ground. When your parents under-respond to your emotions as they raise you, they miss the opportunity to teach you how to handle your emotions. Since emotions are the most important key to healthy relationships, CEN sets you up to be at a great disadvantage in your primary relationship, with your family, and in raising your own children.
You may find yourself feeling confused about how to identify your own feelings and the feelings of others, put them into words to share them, manage conflict, and even respond in an attuned way to your children’s emotions once you become a parent.
It’s very difficult to give what you never got: emotional attunement and awareness.
The effects of CEN can be very invisible, so it is indeed hard to see in a relationship. Yet those effects can be very harmful to the warmth and connection in a relationship, especially over time. Here are some signs to look for:
• A feeling of distance that you can’t explain.
• A tendency to sweep problems under the rug.
• He/she often misrepresents what he is feeling: saying, “I’m not angry” when is quite obviously angry, for example.
• Discomfort with strong emotions in the relationship, either positive feelings, negative ones or both.
• A tendency to talk about facts and events and logistics, with little ability to focus on what really matters in a relationship: feelings, struggles, warmth.
• A sense that you are leading separate lives.
You may be drawn to partner with someone who also has CEN: If you were raised to be uncomfortable with emotions, your own as well as others’, as an adult you may feel most comfortable with someone who treats emotions the same way. You will experience them as non-threatening and safe. This will likely lead to the two of you drifting apart over time.
Being out of touch with your emotions can leave you with a deep feeling of emptiness inside. That emptiness may seek to be filled and may lead you to marry or commit too soon before you fully know the person you are marrying.
If your emotional needs were ignored or denied when you were a child, you may have a powerful fear of ever appearing needy as an adult (I call this counter-dependence). This can make the act of dating and forming a meaningful relationship feel like a weakness, or just plain wrong. Some folks with CEN are not able to override this fear of needing someone, and they are never able to commit at all.
Since emotions are the spice of life (most people don’t realize this), when your emotions are walled off due to CEN you may feel a sense of blandness in your life. You may be drawn to someone who has intense emotions. This may work out fine, but it can backfire if the other person’s intense emotions are unpredictable or can be directed at you unfairly at times.
Part of CEN is a tendency to ignore not only your feelings but also your emotional needs. If you appear to take up little emotional space and to have few needs, you may be attractive to people who take a lot of emotional space and have intense emotional needs, like a person with narcissism. This can play out over time in a damaging and negative way.
It is very helpful for the person with CEN to become aware that they have the CEN emotional style, and of how it is affecting the relationship.
Sometimes the person who does not have CEN can reach out to their CEN partner and ask them to read this article or my blog or the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect or take the CEN Questionnaire (see below), to help them understand what CEN is and become aware that they have it.
Setting a goal of paying more attention to emotions in the relationship is very helpful. In the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, there are exercises and worksheets specially designed to help couples do this.
Structuring time for “meaningful talk” where surface topics are not allowed can be challenging but very helpful.
Sometimes it’s very helpful to get the support and help of a therapist to help the couple talk through old conflicts that have been ignored instead of dealt with directly. Old feelings of anger or hurt can weigh on a relationship even more than current ones.
Addressing CEN in yourself and in your relationship can have profound effects that go to every corner of your life. It changes your self-view, the quality of your connections with others, and perhaps most importantly, your parenting.
You can give yourself what you never got, and then you’ll be able to give it to the people most important to you.
If you’re not sure if you have CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To heal your CEN in your self and your relationships, see Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
As a psychologist who works with adults and adolescents, I am in a unique position to observe the results of different types of parenting as they play out through adulthood.
Nevertheless, I found myself baffled for an entire decade. Patient after patient sat in my psychotherapy office telling me that they felt that something was wrong with them.
“I am not happy, and there’s no reason for it.”
“Other people’s lives seem rich and colorful, but I feel like I’m living in black and white.”
“I feel empty. Something is missing, and I have no idea what it is.”
“Even when I’m surrounded by people, I feel alone.”
I was baffled not only by the vagueness of their complaints but even further by the lack of an explanation for them. Many of these people insisted that they had been raised by loving parents, and had fine childhoods. They felt there was no reason for their lack of engagement in life; so they blamed it on themselves.
The more I heard these confusing concerns, the more curious I became. After all, how could so many people with fine adult lives who claimed to have had happy childhoods feel so set apart, empty and alone? It simply did not add up.
Until I realized that my clients were not suffering because of anything that was happening in their adult lives, or anything that had happened to them in their childhoods.
The answer was far more elusive than any of that. Their adult discomfort was actually caused by something that had failed to happen for them in their childhoods. Each had been raised by parents who did not respond enough to their emotional needs: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
This subtle failure to act on the part of their parents had left them struggling in adulthood with something which they could not remember or name. So I began to study how it happens, and how it could lead to these particular problems for my patients. I discovered that children whose feelings are not validated or responded to enough receive an unstated but powerful message from their parents. That message is:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who receive this message automatically adapt. They push their own emotions down and away so that they will not trouble their parents, or even themselves.
In this process, they lose access to their own emotions, which are a vital source of connection, guidance, meaning, and joy. Without this resource (their emotions), these children grow into adults who feel rudderless, set apart, disconnected and alone.
CEN is silent, invisible, and powerful. It affects untold numbers of people in today’s world. But CEN can be stopped in its tracks by teaching parents how to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs.
Max is a precocious and active second grader, the youngest of 3 children. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from his teacher stating “Max was disrespectful today.” His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Simpson told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Simpson by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Simpson confiscated his pencil, and sent him home with a note.
How might an emotionally neglectful parent respond to this situation once she sees the note?
CEN Parent #1: Max hands his mother the note. She reads it and says angrily, “How could you do this, Max? Now Ms. Simpson will think I’ve not taught you good manners! Go to your room.”
CEN Parent #2: Max hands his mother the note. A barely perceptible shadow crosses her face but is quickly replaced by a brightening. She picks up a football that Max had left on the kitchen counter earlier, points toward the living room and said, “Go long!” Max runs to catch the ball. “You’re such a tough guy,” she says while mussing his hair. “Rough day though, huh? Would some ice-cream make it better?”
CEN Parent #1 makes Max’s problem about herself and her own embarrassment. CEN Parent #2 seems caring, but she glosses over the problem. Both parents miss an opportunity to teach Max about his emotions, his behavior and himself.
Now let’s see how an Emotionally Attentive Parent might respond.
Mother: “Mrs. Simpson didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Max: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Max relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Simpson’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Max?”
Max: “Yes, Mum.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it’s unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Max’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Max to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it.
I want to give all the parents in the world the skills of Max’s mother. Then all of the children of the world can learn these valuable lessons when they need them: in their childhoods.
Then, as adults, they will not struggle with secret shame and self-blame, or a deeply buried feeling that something is wrong with them. They will not feel set apart, empty, or alone. Instead, they will be aware of their own feelings and be able to put them into words. They will be able to manage their emotions and behavior. They will live their lives in living color, fully, richly connected to themselves, the world, and the people who matter the most.
To learn exactly how to be an emotionally attuned parent to your child, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.