Of the hundreds of psychological and emotional conditions, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, in my opinion, among the least widely understood.
That’s because we have spent decades talking about and studying the negative things that can happen to a child. As we’ve done all of this vital and important work, we have overlooked, and essentially ignored, an equal but opposite force: what fails to happen for a child.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (or CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
Here are five natural, automatic assumptions that are frequently held and expressed, even by mental health professionals.
This has been the default assumption of many people for many years. In professional articles and research studies, Emotional Neglect is typically lumped in with the various forms of child abuse. It’s assumed that all of these forms of childhood mistreatment belong in the same category, and have similar effects upon the child.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. While abuse is a parental act; something a parent does to a child, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. The emotionally neglectful parent may never hit the child or call her (or him) a name. A mother (or father) simply fails to notice or respond enough to her child’s emotional needs.
Not only does CEN happen differently, it also has different and distinct effects. Since the cause and effects are all different from abuse, the path to healing is also different.
Contrary to how logical this assumption may seem, it’s not at all true. CEN is not about the number of available parents, or even the time available to spend with parents. It’s a matter of the emotional quality of the parent/child connection. Does the parent truly know the child on a deeply personal, emotional level? Does the parent notice, validate and respond to the child’s feelings? Does the parent teach the child how to tolerate, manage and express her emotions? These emotional aspects of parenting are not necessarily related to whether a parent is single or married.
In fact, many single parents are aware that their single parenthood, divorce, or loss has affected their children, and take extra care to notice what their children are feeling and support them.
It is true that CEN causes a different set of challenges than the experience of childhood abuse. But it’s not true that the effects of abuse are worse.
CEN is a quieter, less visible childhood experience than abuse so, as you might expect, its effects are quieter and less visible. But this is also what makes its effects more pernicious. Those who experience abuse will be impacted by it. They will grow up feeling perhaps violated, unsafe, and mistrusting. They may struggle to feel emotionally (or even physically) safe in relationships.
The effects of CEN are more like carrying around a weight. The CEN child must push away his emotions. In adulthood, he lacks access to this highly connecting, grounding, and enriching part of his life. He finds himself living in a gray world, feeling alone. Since he likely can’t recall the subtle and invisible emotional neglect from his childhood, he feels innately flawed. He assumes that he is to blame for these struggles.
Ironically it’s often the most loving parents who emotionally neglect their children. This is because love and emotional attention are not the same thing and do not naturally go together.
In my experience, the single factor that most predicts a parent’s likelihood of emotionally neglecting her children is not whether she loves them. It’s having been raised with Emotional Neglect herself.
Virtually every therapist understands the foundation of CEN: that when a child’s emotional needs are not met, the child will suffer negative effects into adulthood.
However, there is far more to the concept of CEN than this general foundational point. What are the specific effects of CEN? Exactly how and why do they happen? How do you know when a patient has CEN? How do you treat CEN specifically? The answers to these questions are not common knowledge in the professional mental health community. Nor have they been the subject of research. My goal is to change this in the near future.
CEN is real. When your parents fail to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs, it does not matter why. It leaves a mark on you as you grow into your adulthood. This mark you share with others who grew up in a similar way. This mark can be healed.
CEN can be invisible when it happens and also hard to remember once you grow up. To find out if you grew up with it Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
To see a list of therapists who understand CEN, visit the Find A CEN Therapist List.
To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.
Of all human emotions, the one that people struggle with the most is anger. That’s understandable!
After all, it’s the emotion with the most potential to get us into trouble. It can be exquisitely uncomfortable, and it’s the most difficult to control.
Many people find it easier to push anger down altogether (or suppress it) to avoid discomfort and conflict and to stay out of trouble.
Some wear anger like armor in hopes it will protect them from being hurt or mistreated.
Others go back and forth between pushing it down and erupting. In fact, these two things go together. The more you suppress your anger, the more intense it will be when it finally erupts.
If you were raised by parents who had low tolerance for your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), then you may be all too good at pushing your anger away; suppressing it and repressing it so that you don’t even have to feel it.
In fact, you may – especially if you have CEN – be so uncomfortable with the A-Word that you can’t even say it.
you may say instead of, I’m angry.
If you’re not comfortable with your anger, you’re more likely to misread and mislabel it as something milder or more diffuse.
“Isn’t stopping yourself from feeling angry a good skill to have?” you may be wondering.
The answer is actually NO.
Research has shown how very important anger is to living a healthy life.
Aarts et al. (2010) found that people who were shown a picture of an angry face were more driven to obtain an object that they were shown later. Anger is like a driver that pushes you to strive for what you want or need. Anger carries with it the message, “Act!”
Example Without Anger: Alana was getting weary of being overlooked at work. She was well-known to be skilled and reliable, and yet she was repeatedly passed over for promotion to manager. Silently she watched younger, less experienced employees move past her, one by one.
Example With Anger: Alana became angry when a less-experienced colleague was promoted. “I deserve an explanation for this. I have to get myself promoted or leave the company,” she realized. The next day she walked into her supervisor’s office and asked why she was passed over. She was promised the next promotion slot.
2. Anger can make your relationship better and stronger
Anger, when used appropriately, can be very helpful in communication:
Baumeister et al. (1990) found that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger from your partner, you’re bypassing an important message that he or she may very much need to hear.
Of course, it’s important to take great care in how you express your anger. Try your best to calibrate it to the situation and express it with as much compassion for your partner as you can.
Example Without Anger: Lance was tired of his wife Joanne’s clutter. She kept, it seemed to Lance, virtually everything. There were stacks of newspapers on the dining room table, five pairs of sneakers of various ages in their closet, and a roomful of clothes that their children had outgrown. Lance wanted that room for an office. “I’ll never get that room,” he thought resignedly. All this time Joanne had no idea that there was a problem.
Example With Anger: Lance was fed up with the clutter. He told Joanne that it was making him feel stressed and unhappy, and also angry at her. After several heated discussions, Joanne removed her personal clutter from the spare room so that Lance could make it his office. They made a truce to try to meet each other in the middle.
3. Anger can help you better understand yourself
Anger can provide insight into ourselves if we allow it.
Kassinove et al. (1997) asked a large sample of people how recent outbursts of anger had affected them. Fifty-five percent said that getting angry had led to a positive outcome. Many respondents said that the anger episode had provided them with some insight into their own faults.
Anger can help you see yourself more clearly. And it can motivate self-change.
Example Without Anger: Joanne was surprised when Lance told her how angry her clutter was making him. “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” she said dully while exiting the room. She promptly put it out of her mind because she didn’t want to think about it.
Example With Anger: “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” Joanne fired back immediately. She stormed out of the room and slammed the bedroom door. Sitting on her bed she felt enraged and criticized.
The next day Joanne woke up with a different perspective on the conflict. She looked around and saw her home as though through Lance’s eyes. She realized that she felt criticized by Lance’s request. “I need to get better at taking criticism,” she thought.
4. Anger helps you negotiate
Anger can help you get what you want.
In a study of negotiation by Van Kleef et al. (2002), people made larger concessions and fewer demands of participants who were angry than ones who were not angry.
Anger makes you more powerful, especially when it’s justified and expressed with thought and care. Lets revisit Alana, who needed to have a difficult conversation with her supervisor.
Example Without Anger: Alana walked timidly into her supervisor’s office. After chatting about the weather, she said casually, “So what do I need to do to get promoted?” Her boss answered her question and went on with her day.
Example With Anger: Alana knew she was angry and that she needed to manage her anger when talking with her boss if she wanted to be effective. She walked into her boss’s office and said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” Alana explained how upset she was by her co-worker’s promotion. Her boss explained that the promoted co-worker was an excellent employee. This made Alana even angrier. She pushed, “Yes, he’s really good. But so am I, and I have more experience and excellent skills,” she stated clearly. Her boss paused, surprised at Alana’s persistence. “You’re right,” she said. Her boss then promised Alana the next available promotion.
If you grew up emotionally ignored or in an environment that did not have the room or tolerance for you to get angry (CEN), some small part of your brain probably screams “STOP!” as soon as you get an inkling of anger. The reality is that it’s not easy to turn that around.
But you can do it. Start thinking of anger as a helpful emotion, not something to avoid. Pay attention to your anger, and try to notice when you’re feeling it. Stop saying “STOP!” to your anger. Instead, listen to your anger’s message, consciously manage your angry feeling, and let your anger motivate and energize you.
Anger, when properly managed and expressed, is power.
So when you suppress your anger, you’re suppressing your power.
And why would you do that?
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect makes you unaware of your feelings of anger see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.