Unintentional Harm: The Most Common Type of Emotionally Neglectful Parents

The most common type of emotionally neglectful parents is also the most difficult kind to identify.

They lurk in fine neighborhoods, fine jobs, and fine houses. They create fine families, and if you are friends with them, they appear to be absolutely fine.

They may drive their children from one sports activity to another, stay on top of schedules, take family vacations, and help their kids with homework. They may even love their children and strive to do their best to raise them.

Yet they make one crucial mistake that, even though not their fault, leaves a lasting mark on their child.

Many are mostly kind and welcoming when their adult child comes to visit. But despite all this, there are telltale signs. There are ways to know if your parents are of this ilk. We will get to that later.

First, we must talk a little bit more about how emotionally neglectful parents are made, where they come from, and how they parent.

The Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) Parent

The key to the most common type of emotionally neglectful parent, the Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves or WMBNT parent, is summed up by their title. These parents want to do right by their children, but they can’t. It’s because they grew up emotionally neglected themselves. WMBNT parents cannot give their children what they do not have. Unfortunately, it is that simple.

Because Childhood Emotional Neglect is so very common, so are emotionally neglectful parents. And since emotionally neglectful parents are so common, so are emotionally neglected children. It’s because these children grow up to be parents. The cycle continues, and on and on it goes, passing down through generations until someone finally sees what’s happening and calls a halt to its insidious process.

The WMBNT Cycle

  1. A child is raised by parents who are blind to emotions.
  2. That child grows up with his or her emotions ignored and under-validated.
  3. The child is not able to learn that his emotions are real or have value. The child is not able to learn how to identify, name, express, tolerate or use his feelings.
  4. Emotionally “blind,” the child grows into adulthood without adequate connection to her emotions. She is lacking the emotion skills she needs to thrive and is blind to feelings in general.
  5. Once she becomes a parent, the emotionally neglected adult is blind to the emotions of her own children, and she cannot teach her children the emotion skills she doesn’t have herself.

There are so many different varieties of WMBNT parents that we cannot possibly talk about them all. But here are the three common categories.

3 Types of WMBNT Parents

  • The Struggling Parent: These parents want to be there for their child but they can’t. They may be working several jobs trying to keep food on the table, trying to care for a special needs child or family member, or struggling with a physical or mental illness. The struggling parent may have good intentions but is simply too drained, distracted, or busy to notice what their child is feeling and respond to it.
  • The Physically Present But Emotionally Absent Parent: These parents are around. He or she may be a stay-at-home mom or dad, a parent who coaches your Little League team, or the room parent of your class. In this situation, you can see your parent but you cannot feel your parent. You may see that your parent loves you through their actions, but it’s hard to feel that love.
  • The Achievement-Oriented (or AP) Parent: The AP Parent is heavily invested in your success. Many genuinely want to see you excel at something you are passionate about. Others are earnestly trying to give you the opportunities that they didn’t have themselves while they were growing up. Either way, in the process, they can become overly focused on one aspect of the child and miss the essence that makes him who he is: his feelings.

Unintentional Harm

What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised.

This is what we human parents do. We automatically follow the “programming” that our parents set up for us, and to change that programming, we must first be aware, and then we must make a conscious choice to do something different from what our parents did.

Children of Well-Meaning parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN — emptiness, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of disconnection —  a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you may see a benign-looking upbringing.

Everything you can remember about your childhood may seem fairly normal and fine. That’s because you remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall how what they were unable to provide.

“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You may feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.

Since WMBNT are difficult to identify, how do you know if you have them? Look for these signs, taken from my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below this article).

6 Signs That You Have WMBNT Parents

  1. You have a love for your parents and are surprised by the sudden anger you sometimes have toward them.
  2. You feel confused about your feelings about your parents.
  3. You feel guilty for not loving your parents as much as you think you should.
  4. Being with your parents seems boring or flat.
  5. Your parents don’t see or know the real you, as you are today.
  6. You know that your parents love you, but you don’t necessarily feel it.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: If I have WMBNT parents, does this mean that I am one? Do not panic, but the answer is that you may well be. It is very, very important for you to remember that this is a legacy handed down to you by the generations that came before you. It is not your fault. And it can be reversed!

What To Do

  • First, learn everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), what it means, how it happens, and how it affects you. Visit emotionalneglect.com for lots of free information and to take the CEN Test, and see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link below) for in-depth guidance about healing your own CEN. 
  • For clear guidelines on how to cope with your own emotionally neglectful parents and concrete solutions to change your interactions with your own children, toddlers to adults, see the book  Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below).

You did not ask for this, yet you have been coping with it all your life. Now, you are in a unique position to change everything. Your grandmother, grandfather, mom, and dad simply did not know.

But, now you do. And you are the one who will refuse to pass it down.

In an act of emotional heroism, you are the one who, in your family, will stop Childhood Emotional Neglect in its tracks.

To learn much more about how CEN plays out in families and passes down through generations and concrete ways to heal it in family systems, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Penny - December 17, 2021 Reply

A long time ago I participated in Adult children of Alcoholics groups because the characteristics resonated with me. However I couldn’t related to all the abuse stories. My family was bland and my father never showed any emotion and barley spoke to me, my mother worked and was often not available. I could never understand how dysfunctional I was in my relationships, my parenting and lack of attachment to my parents and decided I had a fatal flaw.

Mia - July 16, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice,
I’m 18 and have realised that I could have CEN because when I was 12 my brother had a mental break down and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which meant that he was very suicidal. Because of this my parents were around him 24/7. I don’t remember much of that time of my life, only experiencing my brother screaming when he had his break down. I feel like this has stemmed all my other problems such as anxiety and possible BPD symptoms. I also don’t feel like I love my family as much as I should and that could be the reason why. I can’t tell my parents however because they’ll be so sad and they’ll feel like they failed as parents 🙁 what should I do?

Lisa - February 8, 2021 Reply

I always knew something was not right with my family especially compared to other families of my friends as I began to get older. Now after trying to figure it out for years, at age 60, I know my parents were not there emotionally for me. My mother is deceased now but I hate her. She was so fake, as far as everyone thought she was so nice and wonderful.
Everything looked perfect on the outside but she never showed me any love, affection or even talked to me. No wonder I’ve always felt invisible. I didn’t want to raise my children like my parents and did anyway. Now I hate myself. My father was not available either.

    Jonice - February 11, 2021 Reply

    Dear Lisa, please do not hate yourself! You didn’t choose to grow up without being seen and heard. It is now your responsibility to hear and see yourself and nurture yourself. That’s what will enable you to reach out to your children in a different way. It’s never too late.

Jardine - February 8, 2021 Reply

I am one of those that have well meaning but CEN parents.
I have no memories of my childhood, I know a few things from being shown photos, but no emotions are connected to them. And memories of being a teen are like a photo with no emotion attached as well.
Over the years my mum has revealed things like she regrets smacking me excessively, and I do not remember any of it.
I do know I felt fear of her in my teens, but again it’s like it’s all faded…
Is this a common CEN thing?
I am currently going through getting an inattentive adhd diagnosis as I have recently realised that I have had those symptoms for as long as I can remember as well as all my report cards showing as much, but from what I’ve read adhd doesn’t seem to cause a lack of childhood memories.
Thank you

    Jonice - February 8, 2021 Reply

    Dear Jardine, being slapped a lot (or at all, for that matter) is not a part of CEN. It is a form of physical abuse. And it’s not uncommon for the human brain to repress memories of abuse from childhood. I think it would be very helpful for you to seek out a licensed psychotherapist near you to get some help sorting all this out. Also, since your mom is apologizing now, perhaps you could get some questions answered by asking her some questions about what actually happened in your childhood.

Barb - February 7, 2021 Reply

Wondering where CEN symptoms intersect with Asperger’s which can be so similiar. Feels like a double nightmare, hard to sort out. Diagnosed as 68 with Asperger’s, then became a widow after 41 years. That was 2 years ago, so now working on rebuilding and looking at all the little pieces. My husband realized he also had Asperger’s after doing a screening with our adult son. Oh, how that explained so much. He was less affected by CEN than I was, but it was there. I would be a good research project for someone. Can you illuminate this corner of the CEN world? Thanks.

    Jonice - February 8, 2021 Reply

    Dear Barb, Asperger’s and CEN may seem similar but they only have one thing in common: a lack of emotional awareness. Asperger’s is a lack of having emotions; CEN is a lack of access to one’s emotions. CEN and Asperger’s look different and feel different. Yet I do think sometimes the wrong label is probably applied, causing confusion. I hope this helps.

Gina - February 7, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice,

I’ve been reading your articles for quite some time now, and feel that your description of being raised by WMBNT parents resonated with me. My relationship with them is a lot better nowadays, but I’m in my 3rd trimester of pregnancy, and am finding a lot of issues from childhood resurfacing. My father is a “functional” alcoholic, whose preferred method of discipline during my childhood involved much criticism and spanking. (I feel that he tended to pick on me more than my brother, because I wasn’t quite as academically gifted or sporty).

My mother, while definitely more nurturing, didn’t always stand up to me whenever my dad or my brother were “teasing” me, and always presumed that any negativity I received from other children or teachers at school was as a result of something I had done. I was depressed for most of my teenage years, and when I started to have panic attacks around 15, both parents were dismissive of my problems, and told me I just simply wasn’t focusing on my exams and coursework enough.

I realise that many people (including the brave souls who have posted comments here) have had it much worse than me, but at the moment I’m so afraid of either repeating the same patterns I grew up with, or how my father might treat my child if my parents babysit. I feel afraid to voice these feelings to them, because I hate to “rock the boat”, and wonder whether I would be, in fact, over-reacting (maybe this attitude is a consequence of CEN?!).

I’ve been referred to a CBT therapist through my midwife. Would CBT work for CEN?

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gina, please try not to compare yourself to others. Your experience and your pain are just as important as anyone else’s. I do not recommend CBT for CEN because it focuses on thoughts without getting to the roots of them which are your feelings. You may want to check the Find A CEN Therapist List on this website to see if you can find one near you.

Martie - February 7, 2021 Reply

I am fortunate, in that even though I am one who has CEN, and my parents were indeed “well meaning” in every sense of the word, my husband and I chose NOT to pass it down by not having children ourselves. I am now in my mid 60’s, and in therapy, trying to sort it all out! By the time I was in college, though, studying education and, psychology as a minor, it was clear to me I had been raised in a very dysfunctional family (the terms we used back then.) CEN was not yet a topic – so I had no clue that what I was feeling could be treated or managed. I felt a ton of guilt, too, and believed it was my fault, and that I was just “wrong” in so many ways. I see now, that both my parents came from very dysfunctional homes, and probably suffered CEN as well. The one thing I did understand, was that my childhood programming would, indeed, be passed down to my own kids unintentionally, and my parents would pass it as well, when they spent time with their grandchildren. That was unacceptable, so we opted to skip having kids of our own. We spent many years working with the youth at our church, developing constructive and healthy relationships with young adults in a group setting. For us, that was the right choice, even tho I would adore having grandkids!

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Martie, I understand and respect your decision. I hope you are remembering to take care of yourself and your own feelings.

Kelly - February 7, 2021 Reply

Father: “My boy’s going to medical school.”
Stranger, to me: “So, you are in medical school?”
Me: “Actually, I’m a junior in High School.”
Achiever Parent????

    Jonice - February 7, 2021 Reply

    What an example, Kelly. I wonder what effects have played out for you. I hope you are listening to your own wants and needs now.

Rose - November 20, 2019 Reply

What are the other types? This seem too benign, and looking back it wasn’t just that. Although I excused them for a long time and invalidated myself so much. There was psychological and some physical abuse, envy, sibling rilvary, manipulation, parent alienation even though they were and still to this day are married.

    Jonice - November 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Rose, it surely does not sound like your parents were WMBNT based on your description. There are 10 other types described in my book Running On Empty. I don’t want to venture a guess about your parents based on the little info you offer here, but I believe you will get a much better idea from the book. All my best wishes to you!

Stephen - November 20, 2019 Reply

At one time I was in denile (more than arrive in Norther Egypt) about every sign of WMBNT parenting but have come to accept them. The wounds due to WMBNT parenting are just impossible to miss.

I have fought through my WMBNT parenting. Often time, I recognize my emotions. Also do something people around don’t do; I don’t run from my emotions. I can’t; they are faster than me. At times I will just sit with them and feel them. Sometimes through that process, the power the emotions has over me dissipates.

I can’t and won’t have kids. I wonder if I could of broken the WMBNT parenting cycle. I recognize it in public like, the other day when a mom told her 4 year boy , “Don’t be angry. You’ll get hot if you’re angry.” <> I just wonder if in the stress of the moment I would say something similar or help my child recognize and process his emotion. I will never know.

I don’t what all of this means. I know I am a child of WMBNT parents. I’ve mostly come to grips with that. I’ve seen glimpses of success in spite of my WMBNT parenting. There are still more time than not, I act like that WMBNT wounded child and times I recognize the desire to do so much more I could do.

    Jonice - November 20, 2019 Reply

    Dear Stephen, awareness is just the beginning! I hope you will take the steps of CEN recovery so that you can actually heal as well. It’s important!

Todd - November 20, 2019 Reply

Hello — I appreciated your comments and your insights about emotionally neglectful (and worse) parents. I won’t go into my own family drama-trauma here as I have done so many times before and have to get ready for work, anyway. (I will say that these posters responding had it every bit as bad if not worse) than me and my sister did.

One thing did strike me though: You said – “In an act of emotional heroism, you are the one who, in your family, will stop Childhood Emotional Neglect in its tracks.” My sister and I are both in our late 40s. No children, never will have them…. So, I guess that’s our way of taking responsibility and making sure we’re cutting this toxic nonsense off at the knees. When I am feeling my angriest and most resentful, I sometimes want to say to my parents (particularly our profoundly narcissistic mother) : “You don’t deserve grandchildren.” I wonder if she’d get the hint then. Because nothing else has worked.

    Jonice - November 20, 2019 Reply

    Dear Todd, I am so sorry that your mom is incapable of empathy or awareness of your feelings and needs. It is a hard thing to live with. I hope you and your sister will both go further in stopping CEN in its tracks by healing your own. You deserve the effort and energy it takes to fill yourself.

cmw - November 19, 2019 Reply

These articles are so educational.
I’m convinced that, “Emotional Neglect,” is primary cause of addictive behaviors.
Addictive behavior is behavior used to reverse feelings of intolerable helplessness.
The chemical abuser use the quick fix or mood changer of drugs and alcohol to feel better.
Understanding our emotions and discovering how to make them work for us instead of against us is our Emotional IQ. Low EQ leads to addictive behavior.

    Jonice - November 20, 2019 Reply

    Dear CMW I do agree. I think the emptiness left by CEN drives many to do extreme things to “fill” themselves and/or escape that feeling. Many turn to drugs for that, sadly.

ottorino - November 19, 2019 Reply

As long as man continues to destroy all life forms, which he considers inferior, he will never know what health is and will never find true peace. The men will continue to kill each other as long as they slaughter the animals. He who sows killing and sorrow cannot gather joy and love.

    Jonice - November 20, 2019 Reply

    Dear Ottorino, interesting take on the article. Thank you for sharing your important points.

Susan - November 17, 2019 Reply

Thank you for your spot-on description of the emotional neglect and its resulting feelings and ways of being inside me. I sensed something was wrong when I thought about suicide at 21. I got into therapy. When I first understood through therapy how much emotional work there was to do, and how deep my inner sadness was, I felt like I was standing aside a black hole of an abyss that, should I jump in, would take me decades to come out the other side. It took me months to make that leap, to trust my therapist and the 12 step meetings (ACOA) I was going to.

For 15 years I had the emotional fortitude only to hold jobs that were beneath my capabilities as I focused on allowing my therapist to teach me how to love myself and to let myself heal. Then when I was 35, I opened a successful small business that was my lifeline to better self-esteem. Finally, at 49 years old, I met the love of my life on OKCupid, a widower with a 7 year-old daughter. We were married when I was 51. I am mother to our now 15-old daughter.

It had been my goal through 2 decades of therapy to repair myself so I would not pass CEN on to children, yet when I wS still single at 48, I was beginning to think that, ironically, I had missed my chance for children because of the length of my therapy. Our daughter is a miracle. She is now 15, and is emotionally healthy and grounded like few kids are. I feel because of my long travails I am “better than normal,” and have been able to pass on great resilience to my daughter. I still struggle to parent more organically, and not like I was reading a book about parenting and discipline (because, indeed, that’s exactly how I learned to parent, since my emotionally absent mother didn’t care enough to ever set any limits with me.) But my flexible daughter has been able to observe my love for her, and the permission I give her to feel her emotions, like a plant towards sunlight, anyway, despite this stilted, and sometimes overly-proscribed, approach to discipline.
Now I am founding an Internet start-up at the age of 58, with all the business acumen and emotional maturity I developed. I feel so fortunate to have this life now after being so close to the bottom when I was suicidal as a young person – it’s a completely different life, like a whole new me. I smile freely and am often happy. I find that others naturally gravitate towards my great attitude, and my joy in the simple pleasures of living. It was a long and courageous emotional journey, but one I can wholeheartedly say I am now grateful for.

    Jonice - November 18, 2019 Reply

    Dear Susan, you are an excellent example of how we can overcome our childhoods when we are committed to doing so. What an inspiring story! Keep up the good work and enjoying your life. You earned it.

    Jeannie - November 19, 2019 Reply

    Susan! I need to know you! Please reply if you’re willing to know me. Your story is a beacon of hope in this abysmal existence.

    I’m 50, divorced, no kids, no SO, no career or even job, very few friends, and only a surface relationship with my parents. My sister tries to be supportive but is clueless, and frankly too busy. Both my parents were (and are) emotionally neglected and neglectful. My mom was definitely the achievement oriented parent, and I haven’t quite figured my dad out yet.

    Anyway, I’ve spent the last year unemployed and trying hard to understand and overcome the traumas that hit me all at once, fast and furious, as well as the reasons I’ve suffered, including CEN.

    I came across your comment today, and it was exactly what I needed to read! I’ve been feeling 80% better lately, but was struck by another blow to my personal security this morning. I’m astonished at how dramatic I reacted to it. I really want to be where you’re at in life!

Hannah - November 17, 2019 Reply

Unfortunately, I was brought up by severely neglectful parents, was physically, emotionally and sexually abused by them. At age 10 I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, then to a special school, before returning to the family home at 14 to more abuses, eventually resulting in pregnancy, which was terminated at 20 weeks. After escaping, I had more time in a psychiatric hospital, married at 18 and had my first baby at 19, followed by three more adorable children, now in their 40s.
I spent years in different types of therapy – as much for my family’s sake as mine – have battled with depression all my life, and and yet my older three children don’t have any time for me. My youngest daughter died unexpectedly 3 years ago, at age 34 and left four beautiful children, now 21, 17, 10 and 8, who we help with as much as we can, though I am severely disabled from a car accident 30 years ago.
Last week, I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and severe depression by a psychiatrist. I am now 62: please tell me if there is any real hope for my family? I am so exhausted and scared, I can’t cope, and feel so useless. But have worked so hard to be emotionally healthy, for decades. But I have no-one to talk to about this stuff..

    Jonice - November 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Hannah, you have been through so much! And you have amazing courage. I admire how hard you have worked to make your life better. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with so much mistreatment, trauma and loss. I hope you will ask your PCP for a referral to a therapist near you. Having someone to talk with who can understand, support and guide you is incredibly helpful.

    Kayla - February 8, 2021 Reply

    Oh, dear Hannah, my heart breaks for you for everything you’ve gone through. I am only 30, but I have been through a lot of childhood traumas (lots of violent sibling arguments witnessed (domestic violence between siblings and parents, and sometimes directed at each other)), I was molested by a close family member (don’t know how long, but once is quite enough). I believe I have CEN because my parents never ask what I want or need, or how I’m feeling. I felt the emptiness inside, too.

    I know I’m young and you may think me more resilient and able to overcome easier. There IS hope. Find a trauma therapist trained in EMDR to help with your past traumas, and THEN you can work on the CEN issues.

    I had PTSD from my molestations, but I also had traumatic births of my 3 children, the 2nd pregnancy being unknown and being revealed when I miscarried.

    So I had double the PTSD, probably making it c-ptsd, then I got postpartum depression and had severe anxiety since the miscarriage. I understand the devastation of the loss of a child, even though mine was an early loss. I can’t understand the pain you must have felt losing a child who was grown, but I can relate to a small degree.

    I hope it helps you to know you’re not alone, Hannah. You’re not alone in your walk of healing.

    I missed all the signs and symptoms of the PTSD and PPD because I had limited access and ability to understand my own emotions. I literally had a psychotic break called postpartum psychosis because I never dealt with the PTSD or PPD. Just now seeming to come out on the other side.

    While our stories may differ in details, I can tell you that there is always hope. Never give up trying to heal.

Rusty - November 17, 2019 Reply

This past fall, in my early 50s, I finally had an email conversation with my mother concerning the narrative of my young adulthood (I figured going into the actual childhood neglect would be pointless because of her narcissism). I had come to the conclusion that I needed to voice this for my own health while having no expectations that anything would change from her.

I revealed things that she never knew before – such as my extreme suicidal ideation as a teenager, my life-long feeling of being shameful and fundamentally defective, multiple rapes, including going out-of-body when my super-controlling fiancé raped me and told me in detail how he was going to kill me (she know I had been raped by him but she nor the rest of the family ever asked about or mentioned the rape after the initial incident, and certainly didn’t provide any emotional support – even after I got severe PTSD years later), my residual terror ever since that he was going to recapture me or I would become homeless again, telling her that her own sister was raped at the hand of the village policeman, and so much more.

To her credit, she did read my emails and ask me a few intellectual questions (such as why would a rape victim ever feel shame?). But she had absolutely no emotional response to any of these new revelations except to say that I had been a grumpy teen. If my daughter had told me 1% of what I had told her, I would be horrified and would want to soothe and comfort her as much as possible.

I know that in your book you advise against trying to repair bridges with narcissist parents (thanks for the warning!) … so I made sure that this was not my motivation. I just felt I had to get rid of some of my secrets to heal and move ahead, and that I didn’t need anything in return. I am glad I did this and actually feel sorry for her that she is so emotionally disconnected from everybody who doesn’t act like her and worship her. My dad (who, unlike my mom, was a victim of CEN himself) was totally emotionally shutdown, so I knew never to open up to him at all. So for anyone else in this situation, it can be helpful to speak your truth while holding in check any expectations.

    Jonice - November 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Rusty, I am so proud of you for having this talk with your mom. Certainly, many narcissistic moms would not respond as well as yours even though yours is sadly very lacking. I think you must have done is just right. Your suggestion to others is spot-on. Thanks for sharing!

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