The Story of CEN: Childhood Emotional Neglect

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About 10 years into my psychology career, I noticed a curious pattern beginning to emerge among my patients.

I began to realize that many, most of whom seemed to have little in common with each other, were reporting the same group of ambiguous struggles: feelings of emptiness or numbness, a sense of being disconnected and alone, a secret feeling of being deeply flawed in some way, and a general lack of fulfillment.

I saw this pattern in so many people that I began to wonder what was causing it. Could it be that they were all abused in the same way, or shared a common type of childhood trauma? Could it be something in their current lives that was making them feel this way? In searching to understand this intriguing pattern, I finally was able to identify the one thing these patients all shared in common, and I was surprised. It wasn’t abuse or trauma, or anything that had happened to them. 

The single thing these folks all shared in common was a childhood characterized by a lack of response to, and validation of, their emotions.

It was nothing their parents had done to them. It was instead what their parents had failed to do for them. It wasn’t their parents’ act, but their failure to act. Not abuse, not mistreatment. Just nothing.

When these folks were sad, hurt, scared or angry as children, no one noticed. No one asked them what was wrong, or stepped in to validate what they were feeling, reassure them, guide them, or teach them about emotions. Their parents may have responded sometimes, in certain situations, but it simply was not enough.

The one factor these folks had in common was the fact that they had all grown up in an emotional wasteland, surrounded by people who perhaps loved and cared about them, but who failed to notice or respond enough to their emotional needs. As adults, they were all running on empty.

I gave this childhood experience the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.

It took me several years to begin to understand the breadth and depth of this problem. The more aware I became of CEN, the more I saw it, not only among my patients, but everywhere. I also gradually became aware that in my growing realization of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I was alone.

This made me even more curious. Why didn’t I hear other therapists talking specifically about what had failed to happen for their clients in childhood? Why hadn’t I seen this concept in research studies or articles? I began to search the vast databases of the American Psychological Association. Journals, books, articles and research studies alike; and what I found was very interesting.

When the term “emotional neglect” was used in the professional literature (which was remarkably seldom), it was invariably used in this way: “emotional abuse and neglect.” By lumping these two very different childhood experiences together, these articles were virtually always talking about emotional abuse, which is active mistreatment of a child — a very different thing from the form of emotional neglect that I was so concerned about. Indeed, emotional neglect was falling through the cracks. Just like the children who lived with it, it resided under the radar.

Thus began my 7-year odyssey, trying to call attention to this under-recognized, under-talked-about, under-studied, yet powerful childhood experience. I began to write, and talk. And write and talk some more.

In 2012, I published my first book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In this book, I introduced the acronym CEN, and outlined my observations of why it’s so unmemorable and invisible, as well as walked readers through the steps needed for recovery.

In 2014, I began the Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on Psychcentral. As people read about this concept, they resonated deeply with it. Thousands who had lived their entire lives feeling deeply, inexplicably un-validated finally felt validated when they took the CEN Questionnaire, or read about CEN.

As I reached more and more people with the CEN message, requests flowed in for referrals to therapists worldwide who knew how to help people through the steps of CEN recovery. There was a terrible shortage, and I knew then that I needed to do more. So I did two things.

In 2015, after fine-tuning the powerful steps to heal CEN by treating a myriad of CEN clients in my office, I created the first online Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovery Program, Fuel Up For Life. The program is designed to walk participants through the 4 stages of CEN recovery with guidance, homework, videos, and plenty of support. The response has been tremendous, and the demand for slots in the program continues to grow and grow.

In 2016, I did a Continuing Education training for therapists about how to identify and treat CEN in their patients, and began to create an international list of CEN-savvy therapists on my website. That list has grown to 200 strong, and continues to build.

On Nov. 7, 2017 my second book was released. In response to the thousands of people asking how to manage and heal CEN in their relationships, I wrote Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Now, at the end of 2017, I see many other writers, therapists and authors using the words “Emotional Neglect” and talking about empty feelings, validation, the importance of getting in touch with your emotions. I am so very pleased that the word is spreading, and that people are finally talking and thinking and writing about this long-overlooked cloud that has been coloring so many lives gray.

What will 2018 hold? I want to continue to give answers to the thousands, or millions, of people who are secretly feeling flawed. I want to train more therapists and reach more and more people with this valuable message. I want parents to realize the awesome power that lies in emotionally attending to and responding to their children’s emotions.

In 2018 and beyond I will relentlessly continue this work. I will not stop until most therapists are familiar with this concept, and know how to treat it.

I will not stop until “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is a household term.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. I invite you to Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
tyris - April 21, 2020 Reply

Hi, Dr.Webb. I’m writing a research paper on the said topic.CEN. It wasn’t until I started this research that I realized, I was emotionally neglected. Growing up with my parents, I had already felt like an outsider. I felt I had no purpose and was shunned for acting out. As a child, I hardly remember being told, I love you or that; I even matter. Today, I’m very introverted and stand-offish toward people. I come off as aggressive and mean. I have a kind heart and always mean well. You wrote that CEN is invisible. I get it. I once believed if I just gave to people they would like me. I understand now, that’s not true. I do have a question though. Do you see CEN happening in children/adults that grew up/are in foster care? Thank you for all you do. It’s very much in undefined abuse.

    Jonice - April 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tyris, I’m sorry for what you experienced as a child. Realizing this is such an important thing. In terms of foster children: all it takes is a committed and emotionally aware and validating foster parent to prevent CEN. But being in the foster system probably decreases a child’s chances of getting that.

Becky - February 26, 2020 Reply

I know my mother did not mean me ill, but has her own struggles with emotional responses. Somehow, I became deeply embarrassed by expressing any feelings except anger. From the age of 2 or 3, I turned my pain inwards, and instead of running to a parent or adult for comfort, would turn away, hide, et cetera. I learned never to share my sadness or upset with others and developed a reputation for being “mean” as a toddler which has followed me throughout my life. It got to the point where I wanted to display no human needs at all in public – I would not use the bathroom at school for many years. I would not have asked for a glass of water if I were dying of thirst. I was in a perpetual state of shame about my own existence. I am better in a lot of ways now, but still don’t know how to connect with people, and I feel a large emotional distance between myself and other people, particularly my family. I feel like something very profound is missing from my life and I am miserable, but I don’t know how to make up for the nurturing that I needed as a child.

    Jonice - February 28, 2020 Reply

    Dear Becky, good for you for coming a long way from your childhood. That took a lot of strength! And fortunately, you can put that strength to good use again by beginning to pay attention to yourself and nurturing yourself. Please read Running On Empty to get you started down that path. You deserve so much better.

Paddy - November 12, 2018 Reply

I was never allowed to cry without being laughed at. I was never allowed to be angry without retribution. I was never allowed to be sad without ridicule. I learned very early to not allow any emotion when I was growing up. I never knew that this upbringing caused my total independence and lack of emotional connection. Thank you for shining a light.

Sk - November 3, 2018 Reply

Hi dr webb
I really want to thankyou because your book has made me blame myself less than what i used to and it took me so much time after reading this book to accept my parents did emotionally neglect even though i still have those doubts and get in that loop again but i am atleast able to recognise that.
I wanted to ask you that should i consider cbt instead of psychotherapy to heal and work on my unhealthy coping mechanisms learnt due to cen as it effects my work and personallife to great extent.
Thank you

    Jonice - November 3, 2018 Reply

    Dear Sk, I’m sorry to say that I’m not able to advise you on that without much more information about you, your background and your life. I can only say that I believe targeted treatment aimed toward healing CEN is a very powerful and efficient way to make a difference in your life. I hope this helps.

Georgie Scully - January 12, 2018 Reply

I came across your work by accident in July 2016 and it has been life changing for me to finally recognise that my feelings matter, after decades of priding myself on being Ms Independent and being emotionally shut down. Being sent away to boarding school between the ages of 4 – 15 after the death of my mother will have that effect. In the spirit of sharing knowledge I forwarded a link to your work to the therapist I know. Thank you for helping me to heal.

    Jonice Webb - January 12, 2018 Reply

    That is wonderful to hear Georgie! Thank you for your message.

Heather - January 2, 2018 Reply

After reading this article I feel like I have a new direction to continue my journey as I begin to heal myself it’s just too bad my therapist doesn’t have this training…

Thank you.

    Jonice Webb - January 2, 2018 Reply

    I’m glad to hear this Heather. And you can ask your therapist to read this article and/or take a look at my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Many therapists are happy to do this, once they hear about CEN.

Yvonne - January 2, 2018 Reply

Thank you for the work you are doing to inform people about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I had never heard of CEN until I signed up to receive emails concerning this subject. I realise that my life needs to be healed from the effects of CEN.

    Jonice Webb - January 2, 2018 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful Yvonne! Thanks for your comment. Keep following the newsletters, as they are packed with useful info. Sending you best wishes for 2018!

Sandra Jose L - January 1, 2018 Reply

Thank you Dr Jonice Webb. Without you I wouldn’t have realized what my problem was. The feeling of never belonging anywhere. Feeling empty and my inability to be emotionally available. After reading yours I am able to recover a bit. But it’s still difficult because the people around think I’m changing into something bad. But I hope I recover completely from CEN. Thank you

    Jonice Webb - January 1, 2018 Reply

    Dear Sandra, recovering from CEN can be unsettling to the people who know you as you’ve always been. It’s important to keep going on your healthy path. And there are ways to explain to others why you are changing to gain their support. You can learn more about this in my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. Keep up the good work you are doing. And happy 2018!

Angie - December 31, 2017 Reply

If I only had someone like you to help me through this when I was younger, I believe my life could have been happier. CEN status with some of us all our lives if left unaddressed. Thank you for your good work. You are truly a blessing.

    Jonice Webb - January 1, 2018 Reply

    Dear Angie, your life can still become happier. Take the steps of recovery and I assure you, it will pay off. Happy New Year!

Alison - December 30, 2017 Reply

Thank you Dr. Webb for all you’ve done to help us through this terrible problem called CEN. You are a gift to the world.

    Jonice Webb - December 31, 2017 Reply

    Thank you for your kind words Alison! Happy New Year!

jdl - December 29, 2017 Reply

What a unique clientele. Is there a commonality in who or how they are referred to you, or in the tools you used in your evaluations?

I wonder how many other phychologist experience this kind of generalized concentration of symptoms without intentionally setting out to treat specific types of psychoses.

Thank you for sharing such well written articles.

    Jonice Webb - December 30, 2017 Reply

    Dear jdl, the interesting thing is that my clientele is not unique at all. Therapists see these symptoms all the time, but they don’t necessarily think about it as a pattern caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect. I hope to make it known by all therapists and lay people, everywhere. Thanks for your comment!

Sue F - December 29, 2017 Reply

Thanks Dr Jonice for all the work you have done on this subject.

“When these folks were sad, hurt, scared or angry as children, no one noticed. No one asked them what was wrong, or stepped in to validate what they were feeling, reassure them, guide them, or teach them about emotions. Their parents may have responded sometimes, in certain situations, but it simply was not enough.” The key word here for me is VALIDATION.

Working on it on a daily basis. Looking forward to more in 2018.

    Jonice Webb - December 30, 2017 Reply

    Dear Sue, I’m so glad that you are thinking about all of this and putting it to good use in your life. I’m looking forward to more in 2018 too! Happy New Year.

      Sara Sue - January 1, 2018 Reply

      Dr. Webb
      The article came up on my facebook. I went through a week long workshop called ” Healing Childhood hurts and trauma. The group that held the workshop is called “Greenshoe”. I learned so much about myself. I also, understand my siblings behaviors a lot more. I realized I cannot take their behaviors personal. Anyway, I hope that more people find out how their childhood with trauma or hurt will affect every part of their life and relationships. I know there would be a lot less estrangements in families.

        Jonice Webb - January 2, 2018 Reply

        Hi Sara, it is so true that most parents’ failures or mistreatments of their children say everything about who the parent is, and are not at all a response to who the child is. Keep on your healing journey!

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