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Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect

13790103_f44dd462db_oSince Robin Williams’ sad and shocking suicide on August 11, friends, family, fellow stars, and even reporters have offered multiple explanations for the virtually inexplicable:

Why did he do it?

Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN causes untold numbers of people to question the point of being alive. People with CEN feel empty and alone. But they were trained in childhood to keep their problems and needs out of view. Because they believe that their emotions and needs are a burden, they not only hide them from others; they even hide them from themselves.

CEN folks live in a prison of self-blame, self-doubt and emptiness. Yet they are unable to ask for help. Some can have secret suicidal thoughts throughout their lifetimes. Some act upon those thoughts, leaving family and friends forever baffled and pained.

Unlike medical disease, depression and substance abuse, CEN is not noticeable or diagnosable. It hides from everyone, even from the sufferer himself. People with CEN do not know the source of their pain. They only know their most deeply-held truth: they cannot let it be seen.

Since CEN is so invisible, how can anyone say that it was a factor in Robin’s suicide? The truth is, I can only surmise. But I can say that several facts about Robin’s childhood, combined with his behaviors as an adult, point to CEN. Here is a list of them:

  1. Robin’s father was a high-level GM executive and his mother a fashion model. He grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege, but not by attention. His parents were seldom home, and he was raised mostly by the maid, who was also his primary companion.
  2. Robin’s description of himself as a child: “short, shy, chubby and lonely.” He described spending much of his childhood in the family’s huge house, playing with toy soldiers, alone.
  3. In 2009, Robin told People Magazine that in his childhood home, “the ideal child was seen, not heard.” This mantra is a hallmark of the CEN family.
  4. During a 2001 episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Robin gave credit to his mother for helping to develop his humor because as a child, he worked to be funny as a way to get her attention.
  5. All who knew Robin agreed that he kept his pain hidden, deep underground. Only those who spent considerable time with him or knew him well got glimpses of his true sadness and hurt. Carefully guarded pain: it’s the stamp of CEN.

Many people with CEN never have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. But I have seen CEN powerfully and significantly degrade the quality of life of many admirable, lovable, worthy people.

No matter where we go, no matter what we do, our child selves live within us. We feel that child’s joy, we feel that child’s pain. We feel as lovable as that child felt.

The father who loves his two beautiful daughters, but who struggles to feel that love.

The successful businesswoman who has everything but a feeling that she matters.

The much-loved man who never feels that he belongs.

The giving young woman who is there to help everyone, but who cannot ask for help.

The beloved funnyman who has everything but who cannot let himself be truly seen.

These are the many faces of Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Whether Robin grew up with CEN or not, let us make sure that we learn something from this loss. Let us break the silence that we were taught as children. Let us all stand up and do what Robin, sadly, could not.

Let us pay attention to our own secret pain, and reach out to those whose hidden pain we see. Let us take a chance and talk, and let ourselves be known.

To learn more about CEN, how it contributes to suicidal thoughts, and whether it may be at work in your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.


Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Aug 2017
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