Childhood Emotional Neglect

It was a happy coincidence that I was asked to write an article about Childhood Emotional Neglect just as I was just about to embark on a long-anticipated trip to Ireland. My visit to learn more about my Irish heritage has made the process of writing this article much more rewarding.
Ireland is one of the most wonderful countries I have ever experienced. We took a tour of Dublin and heard in great detail the history of Ireland’s external and internal struggles. I learned that my great-great-grandfather was killed during the Land War, and how his son, just a teen then, left Ireland for the United States. While enjoying the breath-taking beauty and fresh air of Ireland I thought about how terrible it must have been for my great-grandfather; not only to lose his father under such terrible circumstances, but to also have to leave this beautiful land behind.
Understanding CEN
This brings me to the topic of my article; or, more specifically, to what is not the topic. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is not about trauma, loss or any of the bad things which can happen to a child. Instead it’s about the opposite: what can fail to happen for a child. 
The definition of CEN is this: a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. You can see by this definition that CEN is not an event, like a parent’s verbal, emotional or physical abuse of a child. For example, my great grandfather must have been quite traumatized by the events his family endured. But events are memorable. At least he knew why he was traumatized, and so had the opportunity to deal with it.  In contrast, since CEN is a parent’s failure to act, it’s a non-event. This is what makes it so invisible. A hundred people could be watching an instance of CEN, and not one of them would notice. Our eyes don’t see CEN and our brains don’t record it. So in adulthood, we may look back upon a seemingly fine childhood and see nothing amiss.
How CEN happens
CEN comes in an infinite variety of different forms. Here’s one example: 
Eight-year-old Toby comes home from school feeling upset about a problem he had with his teacher that day. He is feeling a combination of shame (he was admonished in front of his classmates), anger (he feels his teacher targeted him unfairly), and anxiety (because he knows he has to go back to school tomorrow to face his teacher and classmates). Toby’s parents love him very much, but they are distracted on this day. They go about the afternoon, and no one says, “Toby, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
You may be thinking, “There’s nothing unusual about that.” And you’d be right. There’s not a child alive who hasn’t experienced this multiple times, and usually it’s harmless. But what happens when a child’s parents fail him this way often, in multiple areas of his life?  
If Toby’s emotions are not noticed or responded to enough by his parents, he will receive a powerful, even if unintended, message from them. The message is, “your feelings don’t matter,” or even “your feelings are unacceptable.” I have seen that children who receive this message learn quickly and well.  They take it directly to heart. To adapt, they automatically push their emotions down and away, so that they will not be seen or heard by anyone. But deep down, they feel invalidated. This feeling persists into adulthood.
The Adult with CEN
Pushing down emotions may be adaptive during childhood, but the child who copes this way will pay a price in adulthood. As an adult he will need his emotions, but he will lack access to them. He will struggle with the emotional aspects of relationships, and he will feel somehow different from other people. To complicate things further, he will have no memory of what didn’t happen in his childhood. So he’ll feel baffled about why he is struggling. In the absence of an explanation, he’ll blame himself.
“Why do I feel so disconnected and unfulfilled?”
“Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying life more than I am?”
“What is wrong with me?”
These are questions that I have been asked many times by lovely, capable people; people who may have a fine life on the outside, but who feel somehow set apart, different, or secretly flawed on the inside; people who have limited access to their own emotions in adulthood, because of what didn’t happen for them in childhood.
Because people with CEN lack access to their own emotions, they have difficulty with many of the areas of life that emotions are designed to help us with. They struggle with emotional connection, emotional expression, and emotional understanding. They often feel a deep sense that something they can’t name is lacking within themselves or their lives. 
Another area of struggle for people with CEN is self-care. People who did not receive enough emotional nurturance, discipline, soothing or compassion when they were growing up have great difficulty providing all of these things for themselves as adults. So they struggle with prioritizing their own needs (and sometimes have difficulty knowing what their own needs are), making themselves do things they don’t want to do (self-discipline), and forgiving themselves for their own mistakes or challenges (self-compassion). Indeed, I have seen that people with CEN are typically far harder on themselves than they are on others.
If any of this rings a bell for you, do not despair. It is entirely possible to heal from CEN.
Steps to Recovery

Own and accept your CEN:  This first step is actually the biggest. I have found that when a person recognizes that CEN is at play in her life, a whole new world opens up for her. Putting words and explanation to the un-nameable, invisible challenges that you have been grappling with is a tremendous relief. It’s not your fault. There are answers to this.

Increase your emotional awareness:  Make a decision to start tuning in to what you are feeling. Here is an exercise to help:

Once per day for 5 minutes, sit in a room alone. Close your eyes, and turn your attention inward. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Try to come up with at least one word to describe an emotion that you feel in that moment, and record it on a sheet of paper. It may be very difficult at first, but keep trying. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Gradually, you’ll start to notice what you are feeling at other times of the day.

Identify and combat your unique struggles: Recognise your individual struggles with self-care, and then attack them. Common struggles include:

Having compassion for yourself when you make a mistake
Putting yourself first
Eating healthfully and the right amount
Getting regular exercise
Asking others for help when you need it
Prioritizing your own enjoyment
Asserting your own likes and dislikes with others
Getting a healthy amount of rest
Saying “no”

Choose the one item that you would like to attack first, then make a note at the end of each day odthe number of times you are able to do the right thing for yourself. Set a goal to gradually increase the number-per-day by the end of 30 days. Then start on the next month. Keep working daily until you are satisfied that you’re doing better, and then start on the next area.

Make it Happen for Yourself 
In my experience, the power of CEN is very difficult for people to believe. CEN is often minimized by its silent sufferers because it’s so difficult to see. It’s hard to recognize the power of something that didn’t happen, and yet it is undeniable. 
In my travel handbook for Ireland, the author talks about how Ireland today was greatly impacted by one major historical event that didn’t happen: Rome’s decision NOT to invade. Had Rome invaded in 83 A.D., Ireland might be a completely different place today. 
Don’t overlook the power of what fails to happen. Don’t let CEN be passed down to your children. Just as Ireland has struggled valiantly to resolve its own questions and needs, if you are a silent sufferer of CEN, make a decision to take it on. Then let the battle begin.


About the author: 

Dr. Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and has been licensed to practice since 1991. Dr. Webb is the author of the new self-help book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Dr. Webb currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Boston, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. She resides in the Boston area with her husband and two teenage children. 

Further Reading: 
  • To read about the types of parents who are most likely to emotionally neglect their children, more about the adult characteristics of CEN, or for more help with recovery, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
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