Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) may be a concept that you have heard of, but may never have identified with. We know that the word neglect often has a negative connotation and may not sit right with you. Some instances of CEN are a result of being raised by parents who were absent, abusive, narcissistic, or dismissive. Yet, it often can happen when raised by loving, well-meaning parents. Parents who simply weren’t in touch with their own emotions and didn’t respond to your emotional needs enough in childhood. So try to push past your initial reaction to the name of this phenomenon. Focus instead on what it means. How might this have played a part in your life? How is it impacting you now as an adult? And, how you can start your journey towards healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Experiencing CEN does not necessarily mean that you experienced a dramatic or traumatic childhood.

As you reflect more on your childhood you may realize that you grew up in a family culture that did not support the expression of your emotions or teach you that however you feel is valid, understandable, and important. 

The way we think, cope, perceive, and interact with ourselves and with the world is all shaped by our primary caretakers. So, when the people who raised us sent us the message that feelings are invalid, unacceptable, unproductive, or wrong, we learn from an early age that we should suppress, control, or ignore our emotional responses. 

It’s important to note that this is often unintentional. Often your parent or caregiver was doing the best that they could with what they had been provided themselves. This is why CEN can be so subtle, almost invisible. You may not even realize that this happened in your childhood until thinking about it now. The impact can be profound.

It’s not what you had, it’s what you didn’t have

So many people don’t realize they suffered from Childhood Emotional Neglect because it’s not something that happened to them. It is the absence of something. The absence of feeling heard, validated, understood, and supported in terms of your emotional experience. This doesn’t mean you had bad parents or that they didn’t love and support you. They likely were taught the same ways of coping and responding to emotions by their own parents. They simply did not have the capacity to respond to your emotional needs in a way that taught you how to do this for yourself as an adult.

The impacts of CEN vary greatly for each person. They may show up in very different ways in your life and how you think about yourself and your feelings. Children who experienced CEN tend to grow up to become adults who still believe that their emotions don’t matter, are not useful or productive in their lives, or that they shouldn’t burden others with their needs or feelings. For some, you may think of yourself as someone who is “not emotional”, but feel a lack of deep connection in relationships, feel isolated when going through a difficult time, or feel “numb” in response to loss or stressors. Perhaps you have difficulty even identifying your emotions, and therefore do not know how to cope with them. 

You may have a tendency to blame yourself. You feel empty, feel guilt or shame, or direct anger at yourself when things aren’t going well. Or, you feel disconnected from others and dissatisfied with your life, without being able to really articulate what is missing. 

Reading about this may feel overwhelming or disheartening, but rest assured – this is a treatable issue and can be addressed. Change is possible. The therapists at Cohesive Therapy NYC have outlined ways to begin the healing process from Childhood Emotional Neglect.

1. Learn more about CEN and acknowledge that this happened to you

The first step in healing is learning more about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Reflect on your past to gain a deeper understanding of how this played a role in your life. This may include thinking about times when you felt emotional and how your parents responded to you. Or, remembering instances in which you were told that your feelings were unproductive, invalid, or unacceptable, and considering the way you regard your emotions and respond to yourself as an adult. We recommend exploring some articles, books, or websites to help you learn more about CEN.

2. Recognize and Identify Your Needs and Emotions

The instinct to suppress or block your emotions may be so automatic and ingrained in the way you respond to yourself as an adult that it seems improbable that you can make this change. One of the most importants steps in healing from CEN is to monitor, acknowledge, and learn to identify your emotions and needs. This may feel really foreign at first. Be patient with this process as you start to learn more about this part of yourself.

Pay attention to your internal dialogue. Take notice of how you speak to yourself and how you respond to your emotions. When you catch yourself harshly judging, pushing away, or trying to ignore an emotion, acknowledge this instinct. Instead, try to respond to yourself the way you would to someone else, with understanding, patience, compassion, and empathy. “Lean in”, instead of resisting how you are feeling. Recognize and accept whatever emotional response you are having as valid and normal.

3. Deepen your relationships

As an adult, you may have a natural instinct to keep people at a safe distance, to “protect” yourself.  This may not be an intentional or conscious effort. It might be your natural tendency to only depend on yourself and not fully open up to other people. 

In knowing that this is a product of CEN, it’s important to be conscious of your tendency to push people away. Instead, invite them into your life. It may feel unnatural and even scary to be openly vulnerable and emotionally expressive with others at first. But, deepening your relationships and connecting on a more emotional level is going to add so much to your life and your sense of self. 

Try to think about one or two people in your life that you trust and feel comfortable with. Practice being more open with them or sharing some intimate parts of your life with them. When we form relationships with genuine, caring, and honest people, we feel good about ourselves and add value to our lives.

4. Get to Know Who You Really Are

People who have experienced CEN often don’t really know themselves on a deep level. That’s because it was likely modeled for you that your needs, feelings, and desires were not a priority. This implication may have caused an underlying feeling that you are not really worth getting to know and that these parts of yourself are not important. You may have never taken the time to really consider your interests, passions, likes, desires, and needs. Learning more about who you are, what you like, want, need, love, value, desire, and strive for will give you a firm foundation to better respond to your emotional needs and form deeper relationships with yourself and others.

Recovering from any kind of emotional trauma is not easy. It can feel overwhelming to do this on your own. Working with a CEN trained therapist can be incredibly beneficial to help you navigate these steps, learn more about yourself, and develop a new relationship with your emotions. If you or a loved one is interested in exploring therapy for childhood emotional neglect, contact us today to set up a free 20-minute phone consultation. We would be happy to see how we are able to help you reach your goals!

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    About the author(s)

    Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.

    About Cohesive Therapy NYC

    At Cohesive Therapy NYC, we believe that you have an immense amount of inner strength and resilience, even if it is yet to be discovered. Cohesive Therapy NYC is a private group psychotherapy practice in New York City that focuses on treating adults who struggle with Anxiety, Trauma, Chronic Illness, and the adult impact of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Cohesive Therapy NYC therapists see clients all throughout New York State (Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester, and statewide) using online therapy and are also available for in-person visits in their NYC offices, located at 59 East 54th Street, New York, NY 10022. We specialize in helping people who are dealing with anxiety, relationship issues, chronic illness, and digestive and adult trauma related to childhood family dynamics. We all deserve a chance to be well and have support.