The Most Important Thing You Never Got

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Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.

All children require a certain amount of emotional response and emotional validation from their parents in order to grow up feeling happy, healthy and strong.

When your parents notice what you’re feeling, name it, and help you manage it, they are not only teaching you invaluable life skills, they are also giving you some powerful messages.

We care about the deepest, most personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions.

You are important. You matter.

So if your parents failed to do this for you enough, by definition they emotionally neglected you.

And emotional validation is the most important thing you never got.

That’s what makes Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) so invisible. It’s very hard to see things that fail to happen, and it’s almost impossible to remember them.

We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults.  

But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal, or even greater effect.

Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that a hundred people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.

An Example of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): 

Young Will’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Will comes home from school feeling sad.  Will’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Will, are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.

This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it usually does no harm.

So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.  In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents.  If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete, and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.

And now back to our boy Will, who came home from school feeling sad.  If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth that what Will feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents, Will is likely to grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.

As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, and perhaps even questioning his own purpose and value.

This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she feels this way.  I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood.  I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me, and provided me with a nice home, clothing and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”

These people can’t remember what they didn’t get in their childhoods.  So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is not right in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.

In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of Emotional Neglect is that it is self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.

When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spots.  And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.

My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible, have the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.

I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term, so that parents will know how important it is to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs, and understand how to do it.

I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives, and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another, and another, and another.

I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling empty, confused, and blaming themselves, unaware of the key life ingredient that they never got.

Unaware that they can now give it to themselves.

Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

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


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Olga - June 1, 2019 Reply

Hi! Thank you so much for taking care of the topic. It seems that we are so neglected that even the topic is neglected. So the fact you took care of it makes me feel like someone took care of me a little bit 🙂 I found your website after I’ve done much work: I stared to feel, I understood my emotions and who I am. But there are also other things I understood just recently. I noticed I hate people and especially little children. I have no maternal instinct at all. I don’t like babies, because they constantly scream for attention, and subconsciously I don’t want to give them that, because I’m mad, that someone requires from me something I’ve never got. And it’s so unfair that others just get it for free, without any effort from their side and I was begging for it my whole life but no one cared. Secretly I wish that all babies suffered like me. I’m wondering if I will ever be able to love people. My memories are unchangeable. I hope there is any way to fix this mess in my heart.

    Jonice - June 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear Olga, you paint a vivid picture of the amount of sadness and loss you feel from not receiving the nurturing you needed and deserved as a child. I hope you will try to picture yourself as a child and work to love the little girl Olga inside of you. She deserves it. And when you can love her, you’ll also be able to love other children too. You can do it.

Sue - December 22, 2018 Reply

I don’t just have a blind spot to my emotions. I actually feel things so deeply that I feel abnormal. Very low self esteem, doubt that anyone really likes/cares about me. My parents weren’t even interested in knowing my friends or welcoming new people into our lives without being wary of them. Which carries over into me feeling like others shouldn’t be trusted.

Teeka - April 23, 2017 Reply

It can be very hard to know you have it. Lots of people pass that subtle neglect on to their children, not knowing it because how do you miss what you never knew existed. They say that they themselves “turned out fine” so how could there be anything wrong. And indeed they seem to be fine – they have good jobs and support their families. That hollow place inside is easy to ignore for the first 50 years or so. “…And her heart is full and hollow – Like a cactus tree – While she’s so busy being free.” ~Joni Mitchell

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