The True Definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.

This small, seemingly insignificant non-event seems like nothing to most people. Indeed it happens in every household, every family, every childhood that ever happened throughout the world. It’s true.

Every parent fails his child emotionally many times, and usually it’s not a big problem at all. This is where the word “enough” becomes important. When these small failures of the parent happen often enough and/or in situations that are serious or intense enough, this non-event, leaves it’s invisible yet impactful footprint on the child’s life.

Just like the sprinkles of pepper over food change the experience of the food itself, the life of the Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) child becomes flavored by the sprinkle of CEN incidents over her childhood. But the effects are so difficult to see and remember that the CEN child has no idea that her life should feel any different than it does.

“Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” she’ll probably someday wonder. Because she has no idea that the answer is no. They most surely do not.

6 Examples Of Childhood Emotional Neglect In Action

  1. A mother fails to notice her child is sad and hurt about a problem he had with his teacher at school that day.
  2. A child’s parents decide it’s not necessary to talk with her very much about her having tried to skip school since the school already punished her.
  3. A man dreads visiting his parents because every time he sees them, he feels deeply uncomfortable and irritable for no apparent reason.
  4. A woman walks through decades of her life wondering what everyone else has that she lacks; feeling, on some deep level, lost and alone; and baffled about what is wrong with her.
  5. A husband and wife pretend last night’s argument never happened because they don’t know what else to do.
  6. A supervisor sends his crew home at midnight without acknowledging that they have gone far above and beyond the call of duty to help him meet a deadline.

When parents fail to notice their child’s emotions and respond to them they are, by definition, emotionally neglecting her. Children who grow up with their feelings ignored receive a strong subliminal message from their parents:

Your feelings do not matter.

What does a child do when she receives this message over and over again? What does she do with her emotions, the most deeply personal, biological expression of her true self? Fortunately, her child brain takes care of it for her. It pushes her emotions away. Away from her mom and dad and anyone they might burden or bother. And that, unfortunately, includes herself.

Parents who are unaware of the importance of their child’s emotions always fail their child’s feelings in other important ways. Consider the parents above who let the school teach their child not to skip class. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn more about her and her feelings, to talk her through a bad choice, and to teach her how her feelings and behavior work together.

So now our CEN child is growing up with her feelings pushed away, a lack of awareness and understanding of her own feelings and behavior, and likely also a sense that her parents don’t really know or understand her. This will drive an invisible wedge that will divide her from her parents emotionally forever, causing her to feel inexplicably alone and uncomfortable when she’s around them.

When our girl grows up, she will feel a deep discomfort within herself and a deep feeling that something is missing – (it’s her emotions). Lacking the emotion skills that her parents failed to teach her, her marriage may tend to be distant and lacking in intimacy, and her ability to recognize and respond to others’ emotional needs may be as difficult as recognizing and responding to her own.

The Great News

Behind the gray cloud that hangs over our CEN girl, a silver lining glows. Since we know what caused her gray cloud, we also know how to get rid of it.

Since her parents ignored her feelings, she can begin to pay attention to what she feels and accept that her feelings not only matter but are essential to her health and well-being.

Since her parents failed to teach her how to name, tolerate, listen to, manage and share her emotions, she can now learn those emotion skills for herself. And she can begin to use them.

Since she’s been blaming herself for her deep feelings of emptiness and discontent, she can now realize that it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it or cause it. This will free her up to attack the problem and correct it.

As soon as our girl looks carefully enough she will see that her emotions are a reflection of her deepest self. She will see that her emotions are her friends, and will fill her, direct her and connect her. She will find the answers to the questions that she never knew to ask. And she will realize that the answers were inside her all along.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about how CEN affects your relationships and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

This post was originally posted on It is republished here with the permission of the author.



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Hammaad - May 19, 2019 Reply

Hi jonice, as I was brought up in a different country to my parents there was always and still is a language barrier. I can communicate but not emotionally. This is so sad. Also my parents have never really expressed physical love or even said I love you due to it not being common to say it in their culture. I have this really negative feeling with my parents. I love my mum a lot but I have that feeling when I’m with her. Then there’s the disappointment knowing that I can’t talk to them about my confidence issues or any emotional issues I may be going through. Could this be the cause of my low confidence, social anxiety. Sometimes my confidence drops so low that I don’t think I can handle the challenges of life. What am I meant to do? I have your book but still need to read it.

    Jonice - May 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Hammaad, yes this could be the cause of your low confidence and social anxiety, for sure. Please read the book! It will give you answers.

Leslie - May 15, 2019 Reply

I just received very high praise from my daughter’s therapist…that my daughter is comfortable expressing
anger at me! I am still a work in progress at age 55, having started my journey of recovery in 1985 at age 22. I have been determined that emotional and mental health be the top priority in my life and as a parent…I was so happy to hear this compliment from her therapist. I want her to be literate in ALL feelings. I still suffer personally from the effects of CEN and want to spare my daughter the same suffering.

    Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

    Dear Leslie, you are an inspiration to other parents. Good for you!

Mark Baker - May 13, 2019 Reply

Take a sensitive boy, tease him about it, raise him in a fundamentalist church that emphasizes a fear and shame ministry, repress all of the child’s emotions as “not necessary”, use fear and emotional blackmail to ensure that the child never establishs a self, convince the child that any disobedience or disagreement with parents will literally kill them well into adulthood…..
How do you think that will work out?

    Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

    Dear Mark, that will result in a child who does not trust himself or his feelings, who tries to hide himself (or rebels, or both) and who feels deeply flawed when indeed he is not.

      Mark Baker - May 15, 2019 Reply

      Yes, that would be me. Finally getting some help, but slow.

      Keep up your valuable work!


        Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

        Thank you Mark, I will! And same to you.

Kaylee - May 13, 2019 Reply

My 6 year old daughter has 2 socially anxious parents who were both neglected. I hate the thought of her growing up with passed down issues l. Can you still be a good parent that raises an emotionally strong person even if i haven’t sorted my own problems and overcome my own childhood?

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Kaylee, the best thing you can do for your daughter is to face your own issues. Do the best you can to address your CEN and try to get your partner to do the same. CEN, as well as other issues, pass down automatically unless you face them and stop them purposely.

Spike or John Hendrix - May 13, 2019 Reply

Sounds right! I don’t think I can connect with my daughter Kelly or her mother. It may be too late. I neglected them for years I have no credibility with them at all. I’m 83 years old but I do feel pain and guilt every day. I will love them forever.

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Spike, I encourage you to keep trying to communicate (to your daughter especially) that you love her. She needs it, even if she acts like she does not.

Val Morahan - May 13, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice. I feel like I have come home. Being told I wasn’t good enough, having EVERY present I bought my parents rejected by my mother, never once being told “I love You” by my mother, or hugged by her…actually being told that she didn’t want to get married and have children I grew up feeling very unworthy. Although an only child…I was not the favourite. I sought relationships with abusive men, I slept around looking for love and acceptance, I had no boundaries.

I have tried so hard not to be like her in raising my son (whose father was abusive to him and me). I know I failed him in many ways, but I did good in others.

Through my studying for my Degree in Counselling I learned so much. Your work though has brought me much comfort. I STILL deny myself things I know I love like painting and drawing, and being creative, doing housework instead because I know I STILL have to breach that wall of self acceptance and worth. I learned from my Aunt that my mother hid from me a letter from an art school inviting me to apply. And even as I write I am proud of achieving my art awards and counselling degree, but am ashamed at not being ‘solid’ and ‘sure’ like a counselor should be. I feel fake. I don’t work in the field or have a practice because I am too afraid of failure and good God!!! What if I succeed?

It is like driving with the brakes on. And I take rejection very hard….actually rejecting first before I get rejected….I know you understand.

Even so I have forgiven Mum, because I know she had undiagnosed depression and who knows what her experiences were to shape her world view.

Thank you for your great work……and I really hope many others find their way to you 🙂


    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Val, thank you for sharing your story. I do understand! And I like your analogy of CEN, “driving with the brakes on.” Please keep working on it!

Bridget - May 12, 2019 Reply

My point exactly. I think I married a man with CEN and although my mother is a therapist herself, she gave us no help to deal with feelings. She still wievs feelings as something irrational and embarrasing. Surely, our marriage became a mess and I am so happy to be out of it. Reading your posts helps me to get in touch with myself, although I often wonder- “isn’t this what everybody feels”? I have not dared to mention CEN to my sisters or my mother, but maybe there will be a natural opening for it sometime. Thanks for sharing your wonderful insights on this topic!

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Bridget, remember that you don’t have to talk about CEN with your family in order to heal. Please focus on yourself and your own healing right now. Talking about it with your family is just a bonus.

Divakar - May 12, 2019 Reply

Last year I realized I had CEN when I came across one of your videos. Since then I have been able to acknowledge the reason for my behavioral traits including being passive-aggressive. I tend to shut off my anger and it comes out randomly and is filled with hate. I have tried to be more assertive but have struggled to express my feelings in words. One of the challenges that i have faced to heal myself has been lack of discipline. I have found it difficult to look inwards. And continue to give importance to what’s outside and have become more resentful. What can I do as I am drained in the juggle of trying to be normal and trying to find myself.

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Divakar, I hope you will contact one of the therapists on the Find A CEN Therapist List to help you. Some support and encouragement will help.

Patrick - May 12, 2019 Reply

Can one as an infant have CEN ? Had a procedure as a baby that discovered I have a serious heart defect. Earliest memories of being in Montessori school. Being sad all the time. I know my dad has CEN but there is absolutely no way to reach him. It’s on his terms. Have some learning disabilities. Simply overwhelm with auditory and processing difficulty. Thanks

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Patrick, CEN often starts at birth. Please do focus on yourself and getting in touch with your emotions.

Jenn - May 12, 2019 Reply

I found out that I have CEN 5 years ago which led me into a major breakdown, like my facade cracked open. Once I found out what was happening, I read tons of books, attended individual and group therapy, went to CODA. Now I feel some peace intellectually knowing what causes my intense feelings of emptiness and disconnect but I do worry that I’ll never really be able to feel love or connection, that I’ll always be stuck on the outside. Are some elements of attachment and feeling damaged beyond repair in someone’s brain when CEN happens?

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jenn, good work! Please focus on loving yourself and you’ll find others loving you. Connect with your feelings more and other people will be more connected to you. It works!

Penny - May 12, 2019 Reply

I never knew that I suffered from a Childhood Neglect until I saw the information in my email. Now I understand a lot of my emotions. Thanks

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad! Keep learning and taking one step after another.

julia - May 12, 2019 Reply

How does the other party in a relationship cope? Particularly when the CEN individual refuses to acknowledge that there might be a rational explanation or even to help themselves and instead take it all out on me.

    Jonice - May 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Julia, that is a hard situation. All you can do is encourage the person to learn as much as possible about CEN, and hope that it will take root at some point.

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