Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Thanksgiving Survival Tips

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Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.

It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.

The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.

If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving? 

5 CEN Tips for Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Make sure that you have one person with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect, and knows what you have been through. A spouse, sibling or trusted friend can give you great strength at the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: During the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger or disappointment to name a few. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them, and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strength: Growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you uncommonly strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for.
  5. Especially focus on self-care: Get some exercise, wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are OK, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.

For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.

Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.

 And you’re all right.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens how it affects you, see and the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this post was originally published on It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.


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senatormeathooks - January 11, 2020 Reply

Does anyone else remember being placed at the ‘children’s table’? I remember going to Thanksgiving dinner at a relative’s house where the entire family gathered (we rarely got together for something like Thanksgiving) to eat, and I was told to sit at the kids table. I was 13, and not a child, at least in the sense that I didn’t lack adult manners at a table. I could never understand why I had to go sit with the younger kids. It’s a small thing, really, but it bothered and baffled me.

I thought Thanksgiving was supposed to be about being together and being thankful. Why in the hell would I want to visit family I rarely saw and then not be able to sit and eat with them? I had never before been told to eat somewhere different from my parents because I was a child. I got so angry that day, but I kept it to myself because I didn’t understand why and had difficulty articulating my feelings.

Looking back, think I saw the isolation of the kids as a kind of abandonment- when something is just too inconvenient or troublesome for the adults to deal with, I learned they just dump kids off somewhere and hope they fade away in the background of their lives. It makes sense because that’s what happened to me. Twice. Yes, those kids were my family too, but I didn’t really know them very well, nor did I have them in my life at an earlier stage as they were much younger.

Don’t have a ‘kid’s table’. It doesn’t bring people together, it excludes them. And I suppose in my case bring up a terrible feeling.

    Jonice - January 15, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Perhaps you were hit so hard by the kids’ table because you already felt alone or excluded in some way in your life as a child? It’s something to think about maybe.

T D - November 27, 2019 Reply

I am very thankful for the information you share. It is so amazingly accurate to my situation and it has answered a great deal of questions for me. I plan on buying your books for all the information and advise you have. Thank you, although I am sad others struggle with this too it is nice to know you are not alone.

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome, TD! You are certainly not alone.

Anna - November 26, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice! My parents were/are very CEN-like, that’s why I found you! My dad was also physically abusive (not sexually, more like punishments I never even deserved, who would?), but I’ve done so much healing already that I’m okay.
I have a strange question, but is it normal that I do not like to be touched very much, if at all? If female friends touch me (hug) which is non-sexual, it is okay. If a yoga teacher touches me or the lady at the beauty salon when having a facial, it is ok too, even pleasurable. I’m shy, introvert, but to my surprise, I have even liked sex, even with men I barely know. So no problem there. Massages (even with a professional) I do not like at all, I feel it’s very awkward and unpleasant. I do not like to be touched that way. It’s also difficult for me to imagine being married, in other words living and sleeping together in the same bed with a man every night. That would be too much closeness and intimacy for me! I’d feel suffocated. I feel I need a lot of physical “space” around me.
Is this something weird and not normal, something that needs to be fixed and healed? Or is this all normal, that we are all individuals with every aspect of humaneness, like how much physical contact we want or need, if any? I was surprised when I read somewhere that physical touch is so important to our well-being and it is something that everyone is longing to have. Why I don’t feel that way at all? When I’m single, I do not miss touch or sex at all, I do not feel deprived. “Should” I? My parents never hug me. Our culture is also quite formal, like shaking hands but not really touch other people. No-one has ever given me a comforting hug if I’m for example upset. Maybe I do not miss things that I have never even got, I’m not used to it! Is there something wrong with me?

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Anna, I do think you may be experiencing the results of CEN. Also, I suspect you may be able to imagine sleeping and being with the same man day after day once you are actually in love with someone. I encourage you to go through the steps of healing your CEN, and also try to hug more, as it will, over time, help you become more comfortable doing so.

Pat Willard - November 25, 2019 Reply

We had our family Thanksgiving today and I came away feeling a bit empty and why did I go. My mom is a narcissist and she truly believes she is recreating the holidays of her childhood. But she’s not and they are not memorable or fulfilling. She concentrates so much on the food and then rushes us through eating and then distributing leftovers that she doesn’t take any time to sit and visit with us or enjoy her family. The rest of us enjoy each other’s company, but she makes it hard. This year was worse than ever, I’m not looking forward to Xmas. My 33 year old son refuses to attend holiday gatherings. It makes me tired.

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Pat, I am so sorry that holidays are such a challenge. Please read about boundaries and protecting yourself from your challenging mom. There may be things you can do internally or with other members of your family to take away some of her power to dominate things. My book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships has some concrete suggestions that I think would likely be helpful to you.

Karen - November 24, 2019 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb for all your wisdom and support. I’ve been following you for a couple of years now and have your books. I’m now much more aware of my family dynamics and don’t get sucked in to the drama like I once did. Like you recommend, I walk away as soon as it’s not working for me and have much more control over my expectations, emotions and reactions. You have made an enormous difference in my life and I’m very grateful to you. Happy thanksgiving to you!!

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    That is so wonderful to hear, Karen. I’m so glad you shared your progress. It makes me happy and will inspire others to do the same.

Bx - November 24, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this post 🙂

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    You’re welcome, Bx!

Valerie - November 24, 2019 Reply

This article resonates with me strongly at this time of year. Could you please say more about how a child from a CEN family, who went on to unintentionally emotionally neglect her own daughter, can heal the deep resentful wounds. My daughter was my greatest joy in life. I really felt I was showering her with the love I didn’t have as a child. But she has looked back at the emotional neglect I inevitability inflicted and feels very strong resentment and wants distance with me now. How can we heal ourselves and find the mother/daughter relationship we truly want? Or is that even possible?

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    Dear Valerie, please see my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It has lots of information and concrete suggestions on how to connect with your adult daughter.

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