Recognizing Childhood Emotional Neglect

What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Do you have difficulty identifying and trusting your emotions? Do you feel unfulfilled, disconnected, or empty? Do you feel like your needs—or you—don’t matter? Do you sense that you’re different than everyone else, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong?

Childhood Emotional Neglect is a powerful experience, but one that often goes unnoticed and untreated. In fact, many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) describe their childhood as “good” or “normal” and it’s only on closer examination that they recognize that something important was missing.

Defining Childhood Emotional Neglect

Your childhood experiences played a big part in shaping you into the adult you are today. Children rely on their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. And significant, but invisible, damage is done when parents fail to meet their children’s emotional needs.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), a term coined by psychologist Jonice Webb, Ph.D., refers to your parent’s inability to validate and respond adequately to your emotional needs. Childhood emotional neglect can be hard to identify because it’s what didn’t happen in your childhood. It doesn’t leave any visible bruises or scars, but it’s hurtful and confusing for children.

CEN teaches children that their emotions and needs don’t matter. This lesson follows us into adulthood, leaving you disconnected from your feelings and unable to access the valuable information they contain.

How to Identify Childhood Emotional Neglect

These are examples of parents not attending to their children’s emotional needs:

  • A 10-year old comes home from school visibly upset because she didn’t make the basketball team. She tries to talk to her mother about what happened, but Mom dismisses her, saying she’s busy working.
  • When James’ grandma died, his father told him, “Boys don’t cry” and no one helped him process your grief.
  • A teenager spends hours isolated in his room; no one asks how he’s feeling or shows interest in him or what he’s experiencing.

Experiences like these may not seem like a big deal, but when they happen consistently, children feel unloved and unseen. All parents occasionally fail to notice and attend to their emotional needs. CEN is a pattern of failing to attend to a child’s emotional needs.

CEN can co-occur with physical abuse and neglect and often occurs in families where a parent struggles with addiction or mental illness or the family is frequently in crisis or experiencing chronic stress.

Many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect grew up in families without obvious dysfunction. They weren’t beaten or belittled. Their parents were well-meaning but lacked the emotional skills themselves to notice and tend to their children’s feelings. Such parents never learned to cope with their feelings or express them in healthy ways and don’t know how to deal with their children’s feelings either.

CEN can also be hard to identify because adults who experienced emotional neglect often look like they’ve got it all together. They’re successful and have happy families, but there’s a nagging sense of emptiness, not fitting in, and being different. However, there isn’t anything obviously wrong.

Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect include:

  • Emptiness
  • Loneliness
  • Feeling something’s fundamentally wrong with you
  • Feeling unfulfilled even when you’re successful
  • Difficulty connecting with most of your feelings, not feeling anything
  • Burying, avoiding, or numbing your feelings
  • Feeling out of place or like you don’t fit in
  • Difficulty asking for help and not wanting to depend on others
  • Depression and anxiety
  • High levels of guilt, shame, and/or anger
  • Lack of deep, intimate connection with your friends and spouse
  • Feeling different, unimportant, or inadequate
  • Difficult with self-management, such as overeating or drinking or difficulty limiting time online
  • People-pleasing and focusing on other people’s needs
  • Not having a good sense of who you are, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Your feelings are a core part of who you are, so when they aren’t noticed or validated you come to believe that you aren’t important because you aren’t “seen” and known. In emotionally neglectful families, the message is that feelings don’t matter, they’re an inconvenience, or they’re wrong. Naturally, you learn not to value your feelings; you push your feelings away or numb them with food, alcohol, drugs, or sex.  

When your emotional needs aren’t met and your internal state isn’t acknowledged, you’ll be disconnected from yourself. You will constantly seek attention and try to prove your worth through clingy or needy behaviors, perfectionism, overworking, and achievements. But these external validations never fix the problem; they never leave you feeling good enough.

Feelings serve to let us know what we need. For example, if you don’t notice when you’re getting frustrated, you won’t be able to find a healthy resolution or outlet for your anger and you’re likely to let it fester until you explode.

Lack of emotional attunement also makes it hard for you to deeply connect with others and understand your partner’s and children’s feelings.

The Connection Between CEN and Codependency

I have been counseling adult children of dysfunctional families and people struggling with codependency for over two decades. When I started learning about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I immediately noticed an overlap between CEN and codependency. It makes sense that if you grew up with a dysfunctional or overwhelmed parent or caregiver, your emotional needs weren’t noticed and met, and you likely experienced CEN.

Individuals with CEN and codependency may both struggle with:

By recognizing the signs of CEN, understanding its impact, and seeking support, you can learn to build healthier relationships and develop a stronger sense of self. Remember, it’s never too late to learn how to give yourself the emotional attention you deserve.

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©2024 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

2 thoughts on “What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect?”

  1. Thank you for another great article! Do you have any experience with people on the autism spectrum, or people who are Neurodiverse? Your description of the symptoms of childhood emotional neglect sounds very similar to what a person on the spectrum might feel.

  2. hello Sharon
    i commend you on your work and the way that i can so often see myself in the articles you publish .
    Today especially the Chikd hood emotional neglect .
    I have related to this for a long time and so often i denied that it happened to me .
    Your introduction to the topic described how i know i was my childhood .
    The freedom for me has come by excepting this about me and also my understanding how my parents most likely were “running on empty” . i shall call it benevolent neglect .
    Knowing and excepting has been a powerful way to evoke change in who i am . Self excepting and self love have changed me .
    Thank you once again for addressing these and other issue that you do so very well .
    Kenn

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