What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect and How It Impacts Your Adult Life
What Is Childhood Emotional Neglect and How It Impacts Your Adult Life, Hosted by Karen Conlon, LCSW
We push beyond the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk, and destigmatize therapy. Hosted by Karen Conlon, LCSW, CCATP.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when well-meaning parents don’t adequately tend to their children’s emotional needs, but it doesn’t mean they are bad parents.
If you feel like you had well-meaning parents, but you struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, or emotional distance, you might have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect. CEN comes in many forms, and the effects are long-lasting.
What You’ll Learn
- How Childhood Emotional Neglect is a not-so-obvious trauma
- The difference between psychological abuse and emotional neglect
- The common effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Why your parents may have been emotionally unavailable or unaware
- Why we need emotions in the first place
- What we can do to begin the healing process
- Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire from Dr. Jonice Webb
- Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb, PhD
- Running on Empty No More by Dr. Jonice Webb, PhD
Hello and welcome to the So, How’s Therapy? podcast, where we push beyond the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk, and de-stigmatize therapy. I’m your host, Karen Conlon, and in today’s episode, we’ll be covering a topic called childhood emotional neglect and its impact on your life as an adult.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Is The Not-So-Obvious Trauma
So childhood emotional neglect, or CEN, how it’s often referred to, is what I like to call the not-so-obvious trauma. And the reason for that is because when we think about the word trauma, the word trauma often brings to mind things like psychological abuse, physical, sexual, things that may be of a violent nature or natural disasters, war. But, in this case, we’re talking about a type of trauma that is almost invisible. It’s subtle, it’s nuanced, and it’s the type of trauma that can be manifested throughout early life and during childhood.
So let’s start off by talking about what is childhood emotional neglect actually. Childhood emotional neglect, or CEN, is a term that was coined by Dr. Jonice Webb, who started to notice that in her practice, many people were coming in saying, “I had a great childhood. My parents were great. Why do I feel the way I do? Why do I have so many challenges with expressing my emotions? I love my significant other, and when he or she asks me to express more, I really have a lot of difficulty because I do a lot of things around the house to try to show how much I care, but I don’t know what else to do to give him or her what they want.”
And so, when we talk about childhood emotional neglect, we’re not talking about the type of trauma that people are used to hearing about. And I mentioned psychological trauma, or psychological abuse rather. And the way that it differs, psychological abuse or psychological trauma from CEN is that oftentimes, our parents are actually just trying to do the best can with what they have, and it’s not purposeful, right? Psychological abuse typically is purposeful. And with childhood emotional neglect, you’re really dealing with something where people are not aware, typically your primary caregiver or your parents.
‘You’ll Be Fine’
Our culture teaches us not to pay attention to our feelings, to our emotions, and oftentimes we’re told, “Just get through it. You’ll be fine,” or if you’re crying, right, as a young child, maybe you’ve been told, “You know what? Why don’t you go to the other room or go to your room, and when you are ready to talk or when you are over it, then you can come back and join.”
And so, there’s this connotation between expressing that negative emotions, quote, unquote, negative emotions, or expressing pain or anger or sadness that is related to this not being a good thing or is it gets connected to this not being a good thing.
And so, if that’s the environment that you grew up in, in an environment where what was reinforced or seen as a good way of acting meant that you repress your emotions or you learn to take care of other people’s emotions or other people’s emotional states, then you start learning that you repress your feelings or you don’t pay attention anymore until you do this enough and it becomes a way of life and a way of dealing.
And you know what? It works really well for a long time because within that family unit, it’s what you need to do to get through. If what is reinforced in your family life is that you should be happy, happy, joy, joy all the time, then you learn that that’s how you get the attention that you want, right? And so you work really hard on being happy all the time or making sure that you say, “Everything’s okay. Everything’s going to be fine. Everything’s going to work out. It’ll be fine,” without really learning to acknowledge what you are feeling about a particular situation or about a particular person.
Expressing Emotions with Childhood Emotional Neglect
Perhaps you learned that if you express your emotions, you then feel guilty about feeling a certain way about someone, and you never really learn that you can actually be and feel two different ways that maybe don’t feel like they should be together, but they aren’t. So let me explain that a little bit further.
My mom made me angry, and in this moment, I’m really angry at her, but I still love her. I can be angry and not like my mom right now, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love her. And even though she did something that hurt my feelings, that doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. I can love my mother and also be disappointed with her.
Those are things that don’t really seem like they should go together, but it is possible for feelings that feel like they might be conflicting to co-exist. But if you weren’t taught that, if you were taught that it’s either this or that or that you need to make sure that you are maybe always on your best behavior in order to make sure that you don’t upset your parents or the things around you, then what you’re really doing is learning to repress your feelings and your emotions.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Make You Feel Flawed
And when you experienced CEN, oftentimes you feel a deep sense that you’re flawed in some way, or you might feel different from others, not really understanding why. You might notice how your friends interact with each other, or you might notice how people in a relationship are with each other or treat each other, express things with each other. And you look at these people and you say, “My goodness, that seems so far,” or you might look at everybody in those relationships and say, “Oh man, they are so extra. I mean, why do they have to go there?” Right?
The other thing too is that you may not be aware or know of your own emotional needs, because again, if you have focused so much of your energy in trying to fit into your family unit, and if your family unit really relishes or reinforces that negative feelings are not allowed, then how do you learn to identify what your own emotional needs are? It’s very difficult to identify that you’re feeling a certain way if you’ve not been allowed to feel a certain way.
I want to mention something also about emotional neglect that might be a little bit strange to hear, which is it’s not just about parental misattunement, right? And what that means is that your parents are there but are not really catching these moments when you, as a kid, need for him or her or whoever it is that’s parenting you to help you articulate or at least be understanding of what’s going on with you.
Different Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Happen
It can also show up in other ways, like, for example, you may have been that kid where you’re allowed to be out at all hours of the night, you can make whatever decisions that you want. It’s like, “Mom, Dad, I’m thinking I want to do this this year.” “Oh, you know what? That’s fantastic. Great. We’ll support you a hundred percent.” And then maybe six months later, you drop whatever it is and you say, “You know what? I don’t want to do that anymore. I was thinking I really want to do this.” “Oh yes, absolutely. We’re in a hundred percent support.”
And that may seem to some as that’s really supportive, and those parents are being very supportive in the best way that they can, but what’s really missing here is questioning, curiosity. “Hey, what’s going on? What it is that’s going on with you that you’re kind of wanting to try this and then that?” Maybe they’re needing some direction. Maybe that’s a way of asking for attention. And the underlying message that the parent is missing is, “I’m lost. I need your help. I need some guidance.”
And you might say, “I mean, gosh, I don’t know if I would say that that’s neglect. That doesn’t even make sense to me,” but the thing about childhood emotional neglect is that you don’t have to be deemed a bad person or a bad parent. This is not about that. This is about understanding that we can only give as much as we have. And everyone is just kind of trying to do the best that they can with what they have.
To Learn More About Childhood Emotional Neglect, Go Back A Generation
And so, one way of maybe finding out if your own parents had limitations is maybe becoming curious about their own upbringing. Maybe try asking your parents, “Hey, what was it like with Grandma?” Because by the way, your experience with grandma or grandpa can be a thousand percent different than what it was like to be their kid in their household. Maybe you might try asking your mom or dad or whoever was your primary caregiver, “So what was it like to grow up with Grandma or Grandpa? And if you got hurt and were upset or cried, what did they do? How did they answer?” Because those are the types of things that are going to give you a clue as to what they have and what they’re bringing to the table.
If you hear a lot of responses like, “Well, I got the belt a lot, and honestly, I deserved it because I was a bad kid,” that’s a big red flag because that response tells me that that parent is taking on the burden and the blame for something that was probably addressable by a conversation.
How Your Parent’s Childhood Changes Yours
If you’re getting responses like this, if you become curious and you talk to your parents and you start getting responses like that, or you get responses like, “Oh, I wasn’t allowed to really talk. I was there to be seen. In my generation, we were seen, not heard,” that’s going to give you some clues about what they were provided, and then maybe look at your own upbringing and see and think about whether you also had some of those same interactions or some of those same responses with your parents.
The opposite can happen where there’s this overindulgence, there’s so much. And in the attempt to give so much and not be like their parents, they’re still not being attuned because they’re trying so hard and focusing so hard on fulfilling that need to not be like their parents, that they’re still not paying attention necessarily to what you needed or to what you needed then as a child.
And again, this isn’t because they’re bad people. This is because they are actually people who care. They’re actually people who want the best, but they’re also lacking in self-awareness, and really trying to fulfill a role in the best way that they know how.
When CEN Is Actually Something Else
Now, obviously, when you’re dealing with childhood emotional neglect, it doesn’t just happen in households where everything seems like it was fine, like everything was fine. If you grew up in a household where there’s physical or sexual or other types of abuse, emotional neglect is almost a given. So what I’m talking about here is when it’s not so obvious when it’s almost invisible when it’s so nuanced, I think it would be incredibly valuable for you to have a way of kind of, I don’t know, starting to check out, if some of this resonates with you and you’re seeing, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe, maybe I do,” we’re going to provide you with a link to a quiz that you’ll be able to find in our show notes where you can take a quiz and get an idea of whether you might have experienced CEN.
So how does CEN happen? Again, your parents were emotionally unavailable or unaware, not because they’re bad people. They were often well-meaning but were neglected themselves.
So how does childhood emotional neglect happen? The first thing to note, once again, it does not mean that you had bad parents. It doesn’t mean that they did this on purpose. What it means is that perhaps they didn’t give you everything that you needed emotionally, the attention that you needed emotionally. And it could be, as I mentioned before, for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, that reason is that they themselves did not have what they needed to build their own self-awareness. A lot of times they don’t even know what it is that they need.
Covert vs. Overt Narcissism
That being said, I’m going to make a point about narcissism and parents who are narcissistic because childhood emotional neglect also occurs when you have a parent or parents who are narcissistic. Narcissism sits on a spectrum from covert to overt, and the type of narcissism that we’re used to knowing and hearing about is that very typical in your face narcissism where you envision somebody who’s perhaps very pompous, all about themselves, just really commands attention and presence wherever they go, and there’s not much room left for anybody else or anybody else’s feelings.
Those types of narcissistic tendencies or that type of narcissism is the one that we’re all pretty familiar. Covert narcissism falls on the other end of the spectrum. And this one is the one that’s really difficult because covert narcissism oftentimes comes up, or manifest itself rather, in a way where that person who is a covert narcissist presents themselves as oftentimes the victim, or, “Everything that I do, I do for you,” you know, the self-sacrificing.
And it’s very difficult as a child growing up where you’re in a household where you have a parent who’s constantly doing things for you and letting you know that they are doing things for you. It becomes very difficult or challenging for you to question why you feel the way you feel, or even if they’re not really giving you what you need emotionally.
With covert narcissism, the person who is the narcissist is still commanding the attention to be all on themselves, but they’re not doing it in a demanding way. They might be doing it in a more passive way or in a way where there’s an underlying guilt. And so, if you were to complain, there’s also some guilt associated with complaining.
So what does that sound like? I’ll give you an example of what I have heard so many times in my practice, is, “Well, my mom sometimes would drink and then she would get really buzzed and I would get so embarrassed with my friends, but she’s a really good person and that’s not how she is all the time. And she’s always dedicated herself to us and made sure that we’re dressed and clothes,” and then that’s it, right?
Is Their Behavior Really Bad?
And you say to yourself, “Well, what’s wrong with that? I mean, you’re acknowledging that your mom makes a mistake, but that once in a while she would embarrass you.” But what if your experience is that there’s a continuation, there’s an ongoing theme, an ongoing pattern of things being all about mom and you not being allowed on some level, or feeling that you’re not allowed on some level to express anger at her? And instead of expressing anger, you are excusing the behavior.
Another example is when the narcissistic parent always finds a way of bringing the conversation back to them. One way or another, it comes back to them. So, for example, you come home, you got an A on an exam that you have been working really hard on, that you have been so nervous about, and you come home with a stellar grade. And you come running and say, “Dad, look at this, look at this. I got an A on that exam,” and dad says, “Oh, that’s great. You know, back in my day, getting As was just impossibly difficult with this teacher I had, but dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,” right? You can fill in the blanks.
When It’s All About Them
Another example of what this might sound like is let’s say you get a call from mom and she asked you, “Oh, hi, dear, how was your day?” and you respond like this, “Hey, Mom, how are you doing? It was, it was okay.” And rather than asking you, “What’s going on? You sound like you’re upset or you sound like something is wrong,” her response is, “Oh, good, dear. I’m glad. You know, that pain that I’ve been having, it’s acting up again. And well I called the doctor, and I really, I couldn’t get an appointment. And so I called your sister and,” dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And your pain or whatever is going on that you are trying to express to her through the tone of your voice never gets acknowledged.
And even if you were to bring it up later again, like this, for example, “Well, Mom, I really had a terrible day, to be honest with you. I had a problem in my boss was really unhappy with my work and I feel terrible about it.” The response from mom might sound like this, “Oh, really? Well, I’ll tell you what, I know how difficult it is to please bosses because I’ll never forget that time that I handed in that project,” and dah, dah, dah, dah.
And all of a sudden, you’re feeling this fatigue come over you. It’s a heavy feeling of frustration. Sometimes you don’t even feel anger really. You just feel the weight of not being heard, not being seen. And that type of narcissism is much more difficult to point out or to see because of that, because there’s nothing ill meaning in your mom’s response on in your dad’s response, but what is missing is their awareness to what might be going on with you. And if that’s happening in adulthood, you can bet that it happened all throughout your childhood.
Why We Need Emotions
And why do we need emotions, right? Why is it that we need to feel? And why is it that we need to know that others know that we feel something or acknowledge that we feel something? Well, emotions are what help us understand how we’re feeling about something, right? It’s not just about the logic about what’s right or wrong. It’s that gut feeling that something feels right or something feels wrong.
Emotions are there to help us feel happy or sad or angry. They inform us about what’s going on in the world around us and how those things are impacting us. And when you don’t have access to your emotions, it really makes it very difficult for you to connect with the outside world. In other words, if you’re having a hard time connecting with your inner world, how do you connect with the outside world?
So what are some of the things that we can do if you suspect that you have been struggling with childhood emotional neglect or the impacts of childhood emotional neglect? So the first thing is to start working on recovering your emotions, and that is not such an easy thing to do by yourself because you don’t really have the skills. And most probably, you’ve worked really hard to put them away or to repress them.
Think You May Be Dealing with CEN? Start Here.
So you can start off by perhaps reading Dr. Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty, or if you have already done some work around this and are a little bit more advanced, you can perhaps take a look at her second book, which is Running on Empty No More. Both of these books do a wonderful job of explaining childhood emotional neglect in a non-blaming manner. Because this is not about blaming your parents. This is about becoming aware of what happened, and more importantly, maybe what didn’t happen.
The second thing is to start to feel comfortable moving into that place where you feel comfortable taking up space. And as with most therapy, you’re going to be experiencing some kind of discomfort. When you’re in the therapy space, believe it or not, even if you are in that session, whether you’re paying for it out of pocket or your insurance is paying for it, none of that matters when you’re in that space and you really have a hard time taking up space because you’re not used to taking up space.
Processing CEN Will Be Uncomfortable
It’s going to be an uncomfortable, perhaps really uncomfortable experience for you, but, I don’t know if you heard me say this in a previous podcast, you get through things. We don’t get over things, we get through things. And once you see that you can get through this, you can see, and you’ll experience for yourself that that space is yours to take.
Childhood emotional neglect changes so much about how we experience the world, how we see ourselves, how safe, how emotionally safe we see the world and how we think the world sees us and what we think the world expects of us.
If any of what I’ve said today resonates with you and you’d like to explore it further, feel free to reach out to us. If you want to know more about our practice or this podcast, you can head over to cohesivetherapynyc.com/podcast to check out the show notes. There, you’re going to be able to find resources and links and how to get in touch. See you next week when I ask you again, so, how’s therapy?
About So, How’s Therapy?
In each podcast episode, Karen and her guests work to push through the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk, and destigmatize therapy.
Whether you’ve been in therapy for years, or are thinking about reaching out, Karen is here to guide you through it all.
She tackles everything from Anxiety, Trauma and PTSD, to Childhood Emotional Neglect, to dealing with chronic illness, and everything in between, through the lens of her private practice in New York City, Cohesive Therapy NYC.
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.