Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He understood what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.
“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”
“I live in San Francisco. I can’t find a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”
Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.
Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t there Emotional Neglect specialists? Emotional Neglect articles and workshops?
This is one of the main reasons I wrote Running on Empty and took up the cause of CEN. After talking with other mental health professionals and doing an exhaustive literature search, I could find virtually no research or writings specifically about Emotional Neglect. And I couldn’t identify a recognized, accepted, universal term for the concept that meant the same thing to every mental health professional.
It seems that just as an instance of CEN goes unseen and unnoticed, so does the CEN child himself. In a case of parallel process, so does the concept of CEN. But for therapists, the concept is not surprising or new. Remarkably, I think that’s part of the reason that therapists don’t talk about it. For us, it hides in plain sight.
Here are the main reasons I’ve identified for the lack of direct attention to Emotional Neglect by mental health professionals:
- For therapists, CEN hides in plain sight. It’s so ubiquitous and such an integral part of Attachment Theory (a basic tenet for mental health professionals) that therapists just know it. It’s like the blurred backdrop behind the picture. In the mind of a therapist, CEN is not a thing. It just is. So we’ve never bothered to give it a specific name.
- Research. Therapists don’t necessarily think of CEN as the cause of the specific pattern of adult symptoms that I have identified and described in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. So as of now, there is no body of literature or research for them to consult. Establishing research data to support the pattern is my next goal. In the meantime, the only source of this full picture is the book, Running on Empty.
- Memories. Most therapists like to deal with memories and facts as much as possible. CEN often offers neither.
- Eclipsed and Blurred – “Child Abuse and Neglect.” When I scoured the professional literature for mentions of Emotional Neglect, I found many references. But it was virtually always as part of this phrase: “child abuse and neglect.” I realized that this phrase has contributed to CEN being so overlooked. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous use of “child abuse and neglect” has taken the concept of Emotional Neglect and thrown it into a pot mixed with three other things which are far more visible and memorable:
- Physical abuse: hitting, physical threatening of a child.
- Physical neglect: not providing enough food, shelter or warm clothing, for example.
- Emotional abuse: actively saying damaging things to a child, calling her names for example.
In this way, I think the phrase “child abuse and neglect,” which is so ubiquitous and useful, has actually done an inordinate amount of untold damage by blurring awareness of CEN.
For me, right now, my goals are unwaveringly clear. I want to make CEN a part of everyday conversation in this world. I want parents to know how to meet their children’s emotional needs, and why it matters.
I want every single person to be able talk openly and directly about CEN with his therapist.
I want every therapist to mean the exact same thing when they use or hear the term Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Think of all the children who are, at this very moment, growing up surrounded by Emotional Neglect. And all the adults who are suffering in silence, baffled by their pain.
If I could speak for all the therapists in the world, here is what we would say to them:
Your pain is real. It’s not nothing. You have it for a reason. It’s not your fault.
You feel invisible, but we see you. You can speak, and we will listen. So stand up and talk. And let us help you heal.