The Painful Education of the Emotionally Neglected Child: 10 Harmful Lessons Learned

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful household takes its toll on you.

When, as a child, no one notices enough what you are feeling or when you need emotional support, you receive covert messages that are never stated outright, but which will nevertheless guide your life going forward.

Silent, unintended, usually invisible, these messages take root early and well. As you go through adolescence, they undermine the self-confidence and self-knowledge you should be gathering.

As you grow into adulthood, they prevent you from making the choices that are right for you. As you form relationships and fall in love, they prevent you from valuing yourself. As you have children and raise them, they weigh you down and leave you feeling mystified about what you are missing and why.

The only way to reduce their power over you is to realize the signs you were emotionally neglected as a child and understand they are there and how you got them. And to make a conscious choice to stop letting them hold you back and push you down.

10 Painful Lessons Childhood Emotional Neglect Teaches You

1. It’s not good to be too happy or too sad.

As a child, you naturally had intense feelings, as this is how all children are wired. Exuberant one moment, intensely frustrated the next, you needed someone to teach you how to understand and manage your emotions.

But what you got instead was a covert message that your emotions were excessive. What you learned was to dampen your feelings, not the skills you needed to manage them.

2. You are overly sensitive.

As a child, you naturally felt upset when things upset you. You naturally felt angry when you were hurt. What you needed was to have your upset feelings soothed by a loving parent so that you could learn how to soothe yourself.

But what you got was a message that your feelings were a weakness. What you learned was to judge yourself for having them.

3. Your needs and preferences are irrelevant.

As a child, you had needs, just as all children do. You had things that felt important to you, and things that felt good or bad to you. What you needed was for someone to notice, or to ask what you needed or wanted, so that you would feel that you mattered.

When no one asked you enough, you learned instead that you don’t.

4. Talking about a problem will unnecessarily burden other people.

Growing up, you had problems with school, with siblings and with friends. What you needed was to know that you could talk to a parent.

Instead, you knew that they, for whatever reason, could not handle it. What you learned was that others couldn’t handle your problems, and so you’d best keep it to yourself.

5. Crying is a weakness.

All humans cry, and for a reason. Crying is a way to release and process your emotions. As a child, you cried sometimes (maybe often). What you needed was for this to be okay.

Instead, your family didn’t know that crying has a purpose, so they ignored your tears or shamed you for having them. Perhaps they never showed tears themselves. You learned that crying is negative and should be avoided, one of the biggest signs you were neglected as a child.

6. Others will judge you for showing your feelings.

Were you judged for showing feelings in your childhood home? This powerful message has been carried forth with you. “Hide your emotions from others” is the message, “or others will think less of you.” Or, worse, they will use your feelings against you.

7. Anger is a negative emotion and should be avoided.

As a child, of course you often felt angry, as this feeling is a natural part of life. As a child, what you needed was help to name, understand and manage your anger.

Perhaps instead your anger was squelched or overwhelmed by another’s. Maybe you were punished for showing it. What you learned was that anger is bad and that you should suppress it.

8. Relying on another is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Children need help, period. So do adolescents and adults. As a child, you needed support, direction, suggestions, and assistance. But you could see that your parents were not up to that.

What you learned was that it is best not to ask for help in general because you are setting yourself up for a letdown.

9. Others are not interested in what you have to say.

As a young child, you had endless wonder at the world around you. As you grew, you had endless things that you wanted and needed to ask and say. Yet talking was not valued in your family, and you were not asked or listened to enough.

What you learned is that your questions and words are not valuable and that you should keep them to yourself.

10. You are alone in the world.

As a child, you needed to feel that an adult had your back; that no matter what happened, there was support and help for you. Instead, when you needed something you discovered that your adult(s) were busy, overwhelmed or not aware. What you learned was that you were all alone.

The Truth

These lessons all seem so real and so true when you grew up receiving them in such a subliminal, global way. But do not forget that they are merely lessons of your family, not truths. The fact that you learned them does not make them right.

The truth is…

Strong feelings connect us to ourselves and to each other, and being able to have them is a sign of health and strength.

Knowing your own needs and preferences and expressing them is a key to living a happy, fulfilled life.

Talking about your problems helps you solve them.

Crying is a healthy way of coping.

Letting others see your feelings helps them know you better.

Anger is an important message from your body that empowers you.

Mutual dependence is a form of teamwork that makes you stronger.

What you have to say is important, and you should say it.

You are human. You are connected, you are important.

You are not, in fact, by any stretch, alone.

Since CEN is so subliminal and unmemorable, it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out if CEN may be getting in the way of your happiness, health, and well-being, Sign Up to Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

A version of this article originally appeared on YourTango. It has been reproduced here with the permission of YourTango.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
LP - August 11, 2020 Reply

How can we know that CEN is real, and that the symptoms outlined in the test are uniquely stemming from this lack of emotional support as a child? Honestly, it seems impossible that any parent could avoid doing this to their kids at some point. It seems like a condition that has been written to diagnose literally everyone. I am open to it, and I see some of myself in it, but I have my doubts. Given the universality of it. Mainly, everyone has these problems in childhood, but some are effected worse than others, regardless of the severity of their upbringing. So it seems to come back to a personality or temperament thing. Or some other psychological underpinning, how different people respond. Or whether one person needs this much emotional support, or another can get by with less emotional support as a child.

    Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear LP, every parent commits acts of emotional neglect, but it doesn’t become true Emotional Neglect unless it happens enough to give the child the message that their feelings don’t matter or are a burden. That sews the seeds of true CEN and sets up the pattern of struggles that, believe it or not, most people do not have. Hope this helps.

Katina - January 29, 2020 Reply

This has shown a light on things I thought were just part of my personality and accurately described what I struggled with through childhood and now as an adult. I said yes to almost every question and that’s only because I’ve had a wonderful partner that has been helping me stop negative behaviors, my parents had a rocky and unhappy marriage since I can remember I heard them fight from a young age and was caught in the crossfire between them when their emotions towards one another would overflow to me.

I endured a parent that would ignore me when mad, one that accused me of trying to manipulate them when I cried as they ’reprimanded’ me, I was accused of getting angry at them when what I was angry about had nothing to do with them, I learned that their religious beliefs trumped me and I had to conform to them at the cost of denying myself, I was often told what I felt by them instead of them listening to me, I strived to get praise but it was never equal to the negative they gave me, and I was taught to read people for anger and to do my best to placate or avoid them even at my own detriment.

That’s not even all of it and everything above happened more than once and sometimes very frequently, when I looked into CEN the stuff matched so well that the stuff I felt as a kid came back. My parents had good intentions but they struggled with the marriage, finances, and their own rough childhoods, I love them but I keep them at arms length and parts of myself hidden from them to avoid any reoccurring issues.

    Jonice - January 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Katina, thank you for sharing your story with us. You seem to have a clear and realistic view of what went on in your childhood and how it affected you. I’m glad you are protecting yourself.

Caren - January 1, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice, I’ve just completed the questionnaire and got about 15 ‘yesses’ – it resonated so much that I cried and rocked in my chair…at the age of 54, alone on New Year’s Eve, and estranged from my narcissistic mother and sister I do feel truly alone and lonely (father and brother have passed) – but I also felt lonely in my 20 year marriage and have always struggled making / keeping friends. I want to get your first book but the cost on Amazon UK is prohibitive (over £50 including postage) – which I can’t afford. If I order via audible – how do I get the lists / work I need to do? Or is all the information in your second book and would that suffice? Also – do you have a facebook support group? – as I would very much welcome the ability to connect to other people who genuinely understand. Thank you for all your important work.

    Jonice - January 3, 2020 Reply

    Dear Caren, the worksheets and feeling list can be downloaded on The Book tab of this website. Please do join my Facebook page. It’s here: https://www.facebook.com/JWebbPHD/. I’m sorry you feel so alone. There are plenty of people who understand.

karen - December 20, 2019 Reply

Yes, there is a lot to collate in my being, thanks to your book “Running on Empty’ kindest regards, Karen

Tamsin - December 16, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this and for your book which has helped me understand the gaps in the way I was parented, I wish parenting was a core subject in every school in the world

    Jonice - December 20, 2019 Reply

    I couldn’t agree more, Tamsin. Thanks for sharing.

Lena - December 11, 2019 Reply

This puts into words what I haven’t been able to say. I struggle with trusting myself, especially my feelings. I work in a creative field and I am in constant doubt of my creative decisions. I can’t trust my own creative instincts or feelings. There is a numbness there, about what I like and don’t like. Who am I to think/feel this way/have this opinion? I’m just a nobody. Anyone else would have a better idea, than me. I work very well in a supporting role, as an assistant, where I can support and contribute to someone else’s success. But it’s very hard for me to take the lead on a creative project because in my mind, anybody else would have better ideas, better thoughts, better judgements. I am just a nobody. Intellectually, I know I’m not a nobody. Intellectually, I know I’m very accomplished in my field. But on the inside I struggle so much with trusting myself. I’ve learned my ideas, thoughts, feelings are stupid, or wrong, so I have this constant intellectual/emotional battle with myself where intellectually I know I am successful and admire and respected, but internally I feel like a fraud who just hasn’t been found out yet. It’s awful.

    Jonice - December 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lena, you can overcome this. Keep reading and learning more about how the process of healing works and the steps you can take.

    Monika - February 13, 2020 Reply

    Hi Lena,
    Reading your comment was like reading my thoughts, I’m in exactly the same situation, being creative but not being able to fully realise my potential, afraid to say what I think, feeling that anything I do doesn’t make sense or is stupid. It has caused a lot of anxiety every time I sit down to do “my own” project and I already lost 10 years being blocked my overpowering procrastination. Finally got to look for the causes half a year ago and the idea of CEN was eye-opening! This coupled with perfectionism and low self-esteem is a messy mental soup I’ve got in my head. But I’m slowly getting some clarity.
    We’re on a path to healing and let’s give the world the best of us creatively! Wish you all the best and if you need support from a fellow human that feels the same, let me know.

Nancy Caton - December 10, 2019 Reply

You are describing me to a “t”, not only was l raised by emotionally inept parents, my mother was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which she has never admitted to. I finally said goodbye to her 17 years ago and never looked back. I am almost 68 and doubt l will ever be able to process the damage they did. My father is dead and never really was there…couldn’t even stand to hug me or accept my “l love yous” One day at a time is the best l can do.

Merve - December 10, 2019 Reply

These days, I have been feeling like a total loss in my non-understood or mis-understood neglected needs and feelings. Seeing you have sent mails made me so happy! Thank you for existing and working on such an invisible yet powerful subject. ps. I have read both of your books which are available in my country. They are super helpful!

Infran - December 10, 2019 Reply

Growing up, trying to show things that I thought were interesting to my dad, he would often respond with “Okay…” with a tone that suggested that my interests were weird. Nowadays, he’ll often use the word “weird” outright. -.-;;;

    Jonice - December 13, 2019 Reply

    I’m sorry, Infran. You deserved better then and you do now!

Conor - December 10, 2019 Reply

I believe I’m suffer from disasosiation. My question is, can this be a result of CEN? I’ve been in counselling now for many years, not working

    Jonice - December 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Conor, I can’t answer that yes or no because it depends on what kind of disassociation you mean. It is typically caused more by trauma than CEN although the extreme separation from one’s feelings can seem like disassociation for many.

Kate - December 9, 2019 Reply

Ditto what Catherine said, to the T. I am 58 and although I have spent countless 50 minute hours in therapy, no one has ever pinned the tail on the donkey as you have. I finally feel understood. And finally see for myself why my childhood was so painful and what it has done to my adulthood. I have been estranged from my single mother since my early thirties and am an only child. Recently divorced from an insensitive man, I now have to create a new and loving friendships. I know I can, but it’s not easy.

Bridget - December 9, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Jonice! This post was really helpful for me today! Thank so much for all you do!!

    Jonice - December 13, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad, Bridget!

Karen - December 9, 2019 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb, once again perfect insight. All 10 apply to me. With each point I could hear either my mother (nice little girls don’t get angry; it’s not ladylike) or my father (stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about) etc. With your marvellous guidance and a great therapist those voices are having less and less control over my life, my thoughts, my choices. You’re right, the journey is worth it!! Merry Christmas to you and thank you for your wisdom and sharing over the past couple of years.

    Jonice - December 13, 2019 Reply

    Wishing you excellent holidays too, Karen!

Jen - December 9, 2019 Reply

Thank you again dr Webb for describing exactly how it was growing up with CEN.
It is nice to have a name or reason for the way I always felt. It’s hard now at my age 61, and youthful, to try to apply and forgive myself and others for “the way we are”

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    It’s definitely worth working on it Jen!

Donna - December 8, 2019 Reply

I see my experience in some of this stuff. Thank you for talking about what was invisible.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad you can, Donna. And I will!

Jan - December 8, 2019 Reply

Wonderful summary of symptoms of CEN! They help me to understand myself so much better.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad, Jen.

Catherine Wilson - December 8, 2019 Reply

Dear Dr Webb;
I want to thank you for your work and your book. It has helped me realize why I feel as I do and more importantly understand how the parenting I received has shaped the person I became. Gradually I am learning to fill in some of those things that I missed and become a more whole person.
Sincerely, Catherine

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    That’s wonderful, Catherine! Keep up the good work.

C W - December 8, 2019 Reply

Wow! Drop the mic! I have read your first book, very revealing of the subtler ways I was neglected in childhood. I could see a lot of the overt abuse and the abandonment but the way I was not helped to be a fully functional human who had feelings and rights of my own has been revealed more through the emotional neglect lense. I’m also aware how I’ve done the same to my children.I am in recovery now and healing myself and hopefully my family through becoming that fully realized adult.Thank you for your work of healing others. Blessings to you and your family.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    I’m really glad you’re doing all this great work, CW. Keep it going!

Gunther Von Hoffman - December 8, 2019 Reply

You can blame society and the culture for reinforcing the belief that crying is a sign of weakness plus reinforcing the notion that anger is bad particularly when only parents and the bosses are allowed to display anger but the rest of us are not allowed to let it out.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    Good point, Gunther. Very sad but true.

Catherine - December 8, 2019 Reply

Yes to most of these!
I was too sensitive growing up; I must never, ever talk about my problems but always wear a happy face; I’ve only ever seen my 80 year old mum cry once and she never empathises when I cry, she generally stares or laughs; I’ve always felt judged for showing feelings; anger was never, ever, ever, ever, ever allowed when I was growing up; I knew I should always be self reliant; I was always told to be quiet because I talked to much; and my mum only had my back in public if it made her look good.

I do, however, think much of this is because I’m English. Emotions are NOT to be talked about in England but always suppressed. If anyone asks you how you are, you must always say ‘fine, thanks’ or something similar. They really aren’t interested in any deeper information. We are an emotionally stunted country.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    I have noticed this when I’ve been in England. I do see a lot of CEN there.

      Anna - December 10, 2019 Reply

      Come to Finland 🙂 When someone asks here how are you, you are actually expected to really tell how you are 🙂 Small talk answers will not do here. Well, not necessarily in formal relationships, but between people you know, it is ok to give a brutally honest answer. That’s how we are 🙂
      Yes, showing emotions might have cultural differences.

        Jonice - December 12, 2019 Reply

        Interesting, Anna! Thanks for sharing!

susan - December 8, 2019 Reply

I love your messages. He is in severe denial, but suffering terrible from what happened to us, though he once read Running on Empty, and once seemed to appreciate its truths. He may also have borderline personality; so many rages and seems paranoid.

Beth - December 8, 2019 Reply

Excellent article. I relate to all of these. Until my late 40s, I felt numb. I was unable to be present for numerous hurts, including a miscarriage and the death of my mother. I spent 15 years in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man who wrapped any event, joyous or sad, in his own anxiety and needs. I practiced bulimia for over 25 years, which left me numb. That’s how I deal with pain. I felt unsafe and unable to share my feelings. I didn’t let anyone in so I never experienced love aside from my kids. I worked hard to teach my kids to express emotions and that they had a safe place I lacked. For the first time, I am able to share my feelings and fears, disappointments. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to be in a loving relationship and when I went to therapy, the last therapist told me it didn’t matter, which made me feel my feelings weren’t valid. That’s the message I had from childhood and one my exhusband always told me. It’s a trigger. I had to do the work myself to figure it out and your work helped me tremendously. I am grateful. I met a man a few months ago with whom I feel safe sharing how I feel. No matter what happens, that’s huge for me.

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    That is huge, Beth and I’m happy for you. Please do just keep doing the work.

vicki - December 8, 2019 Reply

I think I recall youre doing workshops. Are there workshops available?

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    Hi Vicki, you can learn about my online programs under the Programs tab of this website. I do in-person workshops periodically so if you follow my newsletter you’ll find out when I do another.

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