The Difference Between an Emotionally Neglectful Parent and an Emotionally Attuned One

AdobeStock 71685073

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? 

The Emotionally Neglectful Parent

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.

The Emotionally Attuned Parent

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.”

What Max Learns

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

To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Jen - July 28, 2019 Reply

I’m a new stepmom
From observation for over a year,
I realized bio mom hardly sees her 2 kids…14yr girl and 7yr son. Son is emotionally disabled according to his IEP report I seen. Son has issues daily pooping on himself. Bio shows love when she picks them up, which is roughly once a month or so. She’ll keep them for a day or two.
Is mom, emotionally neglectful? Not intuned?
She says her and dad made an agreement 2yrs ago and it’s none of my business. And I will never be stepmom since I’m not married to dad. I’ve been there taking on the mothers role, cooking, taking them to school daily, picking them up, cleaning up the poop, etc. I feel helpless when bio mom is restricting me. Dad is defensive when I bring up these issues. Btw, bio mom has two younger kids with another man whom she lives with. I believe son is feeling left out and sad.
I’ve given some advice to bio mom but she gets offended and tells me to mind my business. I can’t if I live with her two kids and dad.

    Jonice - July 28, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jen, I’m sorry you’re caught in this trap. I suggest you encourage your husband to go to couples therapy with you just to talk about parenting and his relationship with his ex.

Niki Trotter - September 26, 2018 Reply

As a parent, i would have said they they could have been hurt and the teacher was in fact trying to protect max. And I would have told “max” that if his actions could hurt himself or others, he should have stopped. AND by demonstrating how he wasnt stupid, it backfired….

Laurie Staalberg - August 26, 2018 Reply

Elementary school teachers can have as many 30 students in their class. I’m certain this teacher was doing everything possible to identify the issue of safety with the child’s pencil use, within a brief amount of time, before another students issue occured. Teachers do not have the ability to one on one counsel a student, while students are lining up to leave the classroom. I know, because I used to work in an inner city school in fourth grade.

Children do need direct, explicit instruction when being taught about personal safety, in regards to why not to play with a pencil, or other academic instruction. Children need to follow brief instructions at that moment, otherwise how is she to maintain classroom management of 29 other students. The issue could be discussed further at another time to explain the emotional component more in depth.

Most teachers have the best interests of their students, otherwise they would not be in this field.

Thank you, Dr. Webb, for shining a bright light on the long term consequences of childhood emotional neglect. As a parent myself, who raised two children as a single mom, I did my best to make my children’s emotional health a priority, even though I had not received enough emotional support myself. It’s very difficult to provide emotional support when you never had received it yourself. But years of counseling as an adult have made a distinct difference in the adult lives of my own children.

Thank you for solidifying the adult outcome to what we were lacking in our childhood.

J - August 19, 2018 Reply

Louise, our concerns fall along the same lines in the suggestions made by the mother regarding the child’s need for immediate compliance to the teacher’s direction. I don’t believe that the child is capable of figuring out (quickly enough) in which instances he is to comply and in which he should stand his ground. Additionally, with the ability of abusers to manipulate the child (and even adults), it becomes even more difficult for the child or adult to decide whether the request is appropriate.
I do agree, Dr. Webb, that the child needs to be taught respect for the teacher’s authority and could perhaps be taught to respond to the teacher’s instruction with appropriate recognition (tone of voice, time and place, specific request, etc) of the teacher/student positions.
I am quite concerned that children are not being taught how to decline an authority figure’s demands or requests with skill and the ability to maintain one’s own self-integrity while also recognizing legitimate authority.

Emerald W. - August 19, 2018 Reply

It’s so important to realize that the absence of a need being met can be such an elusive problem, because we’ve never had any contrast of actually having that need met. So, that trauma is often un-detected because we’ve never experienced anything else.

I recall my first major relationship as a teenager, and how doting he was toward me. I had never had anyone prioritize my feelings like that before. So, I found myself unconsciously feigning sadness and anger just to get that need met that I never had met in childhood. It just felt so good to finally have it, that I became quite manipulative without realizing it. Luckily, I cycled through that phase after I realized what I was doing.

But I never knew that I was lacking in that way, until I had the contrast of experiencing the fulfillment of that need.

Currently, with my own children, I hope that I am being attuned enough with them to be sure that their needs are met. I often wonder if I’m leaving something out that I’m not even aware of.

Louise - August 14, 2018 Reply

A very interesting article, and I agree with the message wholeheartedly. However, I disagree with aspects of your example. Telling a child they are required to do what an adult at school asks immediately and without question sets a dangerous precedent, not only does it leave them open to abuse, but also teaches them that they have no autonomy to use their own common sense. I believe it is much more important to teach children that adults CAN be wrong, and how to deal with that appropriately in the situation.
I take particular issue with “If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble”. Firstly, getting in trouble with a teacher should not be seen as something scary, but as an opportunity to learn. The child should always feel that they can stand up for what is right, with the full support of their parents. “Respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests” is also problematic. Respect is always a two way street, regardless of age. If a teacher is asking for something that the child feels is wrong, there should be no rule of ‘respect’ forcing them to comply.
Still, this article was an interesting and enjoyable read.

    Jonice Webb PhD - August 14, 2018 Reply

    Hi Louise, in this example the parent is talking about what happened at school which involved her child being disrespectful to the teacher. All children should be educated about physical violation of boundaries or inappropriate requests from adults. But that would be a very separate conversation. The point I was making is that children need very clear directions about what to do differently. Complicating it with too many ifs would be confusing to the child. Thanks for your comment.

      Louise - August 14, 2018 Reply

      Hi Dr Webb,
      I agree that children need clear direction, which is why telling them immediate compliance without question is required of them is a bad idea. THAT would confuse the issue when talking about body safety. In your example it’s the teacher who requires more guidance (how would you feel in the child’s situation – would you take the ridiculous comment on the chin without feeling the least bit peeved?).
      I also find this whole concept you have of ‘disrespect’ to be odd. It was no less disrespectful of the teacher to snap at the child, and all he did was reply in the same tone. Children learn by example, and I would argue that in this situation the blame falls squarely on the teacher.

      Had I been the parent in this situation, I would have taken the opportunity to teach a lesson on empathy, and explained that just as he was feeling stressed about things happening around him, so was the teacher. After all, that’s the logical explanation for her lashing out like that. I’d teach understanding, so he could be calm in future situations without being told his feelings don’t matter. I would also be having a word with the teacher, as her response was inappropriate.
      Again, respect is not to be demanded from the adults in a child’s life, it’s to be modeled.

      Thanks for your reply, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

        Jonice Webb PhD - August 15, 2018 Reply

        Dear Louise, you and I have a fundamental disagreement about the role of authority figures for children. In my opinion, it is easy for parents to go too far into allowing their children to be on the power level of adults, and this is not what children need. The power level is inherent in all relationships between adults and children and must be honored but respected, or the child will be afforded too much control over others and this sets him or her up for problems in adulthood. Thank you for raising these important questions.

          Aaliyah - August 26, 2018 Reply

          Dear Jonice, could u explain please, what sort of problems children may face when they grow up if we give them too much control over others now?

Mark - August 13, 2018 Reply

Dr. Webb, your work and insight on CEN really speak to me. I know that as an adult I feel the pain and long-term consequences of CEN. I struggle with emotional regulation, as well as other things. I try hard to parent my children with more emotional intelligence than I was parented with. Do you recommend any kind of 12-step or recovery groups for adults who relate to and identify with this issue?

    Jonice Webb PhD - August 14, 2018 Reply

    Hi Mark, I’m glad you’re finding my work helpful in your life. And good for you for trying to be emotionally intelligent with your children! 12-step programs are typically substance-abuse related. A few people have told me that Al-Anon spoke to them and helped them learn more about boundaries and relationships. Keep up the good work you’re doing.

Rebecca Hankins - August 12, 2018 Reply

Thank you for your work! I so wish I had known about CEN when I was a young mother. I loved my daughter, but was entirely unequipped to parent emotionally and that lack has been the root of the emotional distance between us.

    Jonice Webb PhD - August 12, 2018 Reply

    Dear Rebecca, do not despair! It’s never too late to start enriching and repairing your emotional connection with her. See my new book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children for clear guidance on exactly how to do it. All my best wishes to you.

Jessie - August 12, 2018 Reply

What a perfect time to share this ever so crucial information!
Thank You So Much for sharing!
I truly hope it reaches every person who’s in need if it!
You started well, it reached me!
I NEEDED IT & Will share!!

    Jonice Webb PhD - August 12, 2018 Reply

    Thank you Jessie. I do believe that every person alive should know this. I will keep writing and talking about it. Thanks for helping me reach more people!

      Ursuka - August 13, 2018 Reply

      I think it should be taught in schools ..

        Jonice Webb PhD - August 13, 2018 Reply

        I couldn’t agree more. Schools are getting better at teaching kids about kindness, and also some curriculum about emotion. But we can certainly do far better. Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Comment: