The True Definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect

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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.

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

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



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NW_Hov - April 14, 2024 Reply

I just began reading about psychology because my 24 year old daughter has been seeing one now for about 4 or 5 years. She began seeing one because she felt her twin sister was awful to her growing up. (Not sure what the expectations are from a psychiatrist) My daughter also mentioned that we (her parents) were not emotionally there for her. Over the years her psychiatrist has labeled her with several disorders.

Your examples of “CEN” (another label?) are concerning. What child would not have CEN in a realistic world? Every parent makes a choice in the way they raise their children. Are you going to encourage them to cry over spilled milk or are you going to encourage them to let it go and move on?

Her ongoing psychiatric sessions have now labeled her with every “diagnosis” in the book. Isn’t the point of going to a psychiatrist to heal? She is getting worse the longer this goes on. She appears ready to end her relationship with us, her parents and her twin sister. Is this the end goal coming from the psychiatrist?

I admit I am not an emotional person. I did not encourage or offer an emotional responses to my children. My wife encouraged enough emotions in the household so there was a balance overall. Seems the psychology world has found a way to blame everyone else for this generations “problems” instead of identifying to their patients how to survive this realistic world of “imperfection.” Until there are laws and mandatory classes to raising your child (like the Nazis’ did), psychologists need to end this practice of blaming the parents. I blame psychiatrist for turning my once normal daughter, raised in a normal, loving house, against her family.

    Jonice - April 14, 2024 Reply

    Dear NW, I know it can be confusing when your child starts becoming distant and angry at you seemingly out of the blue. But I want to assure you that it would be a one-in-a-million experience for a therapist to turn someone against their family, either out of incompetence or purposely. In my 30 years of experience, I have never once seen this happen. I encourage you to get curious about what your daughter is upset about. Ask her and then listen intently and not defensive, and you may hear some interesting and helpful things. No family is perfect, and parenting is so very challenging. Understanding your daughter’s experience is the place to start. I wish you all the best!

      NW_Hov - April 14, 2024 Reply

      Thank you for your reply.

      Over the years we have had conversations. It is still unclear why she feels she needs psychological help and what exactly she expected from psychological help. It all started with “normal” sibling rivalry that most of us experienced as kids. It has now escalated to how we raised her. This 4-5 year relationship with this psychiatrist appears to be very “wrong” under these circumstances. A broken bone can be expected to take 3-9 months to heal unless the doctor keeps breaking the bone. How long does sibling rivalry take to overcome? How did it escalate in to more issues? She has even had sessions talking about her boss at work. What did he have to do with any of this? She is being turned into a psychological mess over seemingly “everyday life issues”. Someone is affirming her feelings to be abnormal and requiring their therapy. How do we talk her into a “second opinion” after developing a confidential relationship and obviously a trusting one?

Megan - August 18, 2020 Reply

Hello Jonice, I feel I’m a textbook example of CEN. But I struggle with the advice of connecting to your emotions, because I also have ADHD which makes them over-react or see scolding where none is happening. I feel like I’m being asked to trust an unreliable narrator when it comes to my emotions. Do you have any advice? I’ve found so much about both but nothing where they meet.

    Jonice - August 18, 2020 Reply

    Dear Megan, I don’t know of ADHD affecting people’s emotions in the way you describe. Is it possible you are conflating these two conditions? Maybe you can try focusing on your feelings as they are instead of attributing them to ADHD.

      Megan - August 18, 2020 Reply

      “People with ADHD have passionate thoughts and emotions that are more intense than those of the average person. Their highs are higher and their lows are lower. This means you may experience both happiness and criticism more powerfully than your peers and loved ones do.”

Beth - June 3, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice, finally, my life long question was answered by both your books. I remember feeling outside my body watching others since 4 years old. I now know definitely that I was not crazy or it being my fault. I believe know both my parents were subjected to CEN. Their fathers were brothers from other mothers in so many ways: distant, physically abusive, vas well as verbally and emotionally. However, I do wonder if my ADHD characteristics are based more from the CEN by not learning basic developmental skills not modeled by parental interaction and communication? Also, is it plausible that choosing to do things one knows were wrong and did it any way possibily related to the lack of validation and needing to have some attention at any cost, emotionally. I look forward to reading your book on CEN and relationships soon. Thanks so very much for your groundbreaking work. I intend to approach my Community Mental Health organizations and Community Support Program(CSP) about CEN. You are 100% correct that Local MH organizations need to be educated about CEN as well as how it relates to suicide and prevention.

Dr. Elizabeth Burgess

    Jonice - June 5, 2019 Reply

    Dear Dr. Beth, Yes, for sure. Kids can be ingenious in their attempts to get their normal emotional needs met. Acting up is one of the ways to get some attention, even if it’s negative. I’m so glad you’re interested in learning about CEN and willing to help spread the word about it. Take care of yourself, and write back and let me know what you think of Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. All my best to you.

Tresa - May 31, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb, I see a therapist who is going to read the book and go through it with me. Otherwise I don’t have the self discipline to do it. On top of the CEN, I have adrenal fatigue which contributes to depression. Also back problems I believe are related to that. So I have all these issues that require self-care and I don’t know how to do it all. I have a theory that I had the health problems from birth as well as emotional neglect, and it was a vicious cycle of physical weakness, emotional neglect and stress, which led to more fatigue, and on and on.
When reading your books, I wonder how those CEN people hold down good jobs or have lasting relationships. I haven’t been able to do either. I still have hope (sometimes) that at age 57, I can still heal emotionally and physically. Thank you for your encouragement.

    Jonice - June 2, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tresa, at 57 you can definitely do this. Once you start reclaiming your own emotions, they will drive you and enrich you. I’m so happy your therapist will go through the book with you. That’s wonderful!

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.

    Tresa - May 31, 2019 Reply

    Spike, you are several years younger than my father who has always been distant and critical. If he had your attitude, I think I would respond positively to any attempt he made to reach out. With your willingness to have better relationships, it is not too late.

      Jonice - June 2, 2019 Reply

      Thank you Tresa. Excellent words of wisdom.

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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