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Emotionally Neglectful Family? 7 Tips for the Holidays

Well, it’s that time of year again. The most difficult period for you if you belong to an emotionally neglectful family.

So what is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)? And now that you’re an adult, how can you tell if your family has it?

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When parents fail to respond sufficiently to the child’s emotional needs.

CEN can be extremely invisible, subtle and unmemorable when it happens to you as a child. You may not remember it happening, but there are some clear signs of it in the family, even after the kids are grown.

Eight Signs of the Emotionally Neglectful Family:

  1. Your family tends to not talk about things that are emotional, interpersonal, painful, negative or generally meaningful.
  2. You love your parents, but you also harbor a deep-seated, unexplained resentment or anger toward them.
  3. You go to family events with hopes of enjoying yourself, but you often come away feeling empty and disappointed.
  4. Difficult or interpersonal problems in the family are generally ignored instead of addressed directly.
  5. It feels like your siblings are in competition with each other, but you’re not sure for what.
  6. Affection in your family is expressed via action (doing things for people), and not so much by words or physical expression.
  7. Emotion – perhaps only negative emotion, but perhaps ALL emotions – are taboo in your family.
  8. You feel surprisingly lonely, or left out, when you’re with your family.

If you read this list and feel that some of these signs describe your family, then you will be faced with some special challenges this holiday season. That’s because CEN families are different from all others in very important ways.

The CEN family is operating without a vital ingredient; an ingredient that is not just important, it’s essential. It’s the glue that would bind and the energy that would spark. It’s emotional validation, expression and connection.

Don’t say that.

Don’t share that.

Don’t need that.

Don’t feel that.

These are the unspoken messages of the CEN family. No one has to speak them because everyone knows. You must sacrifice your true self in order to make sure you don’t rock the family boat.

Like a beautiful cake baked without sugar or a perfectly seared steak with no seasoning, the CEN family can appear ideal. Only those who taste it will notice that it’s not right.

Each individual person in the family can be wonderful. But when you put all those wonderful people in a room together, it feels somehow lacking. Each feels disconnected and disappointed. Each feels inexplicably alone.

How to Survive and Thrive Through the Holidays With Your CEN Family:

  • Know that this problem is not about you, nor is it caused by you. You are simply a victim of it.
  • Understand that your family members most likely are not doing this on purpose; in fact they probably don’t realize that anything is wrong.
  • Before you go to your family holiday gathering, pause a moment to prepare. Remind yourself of the family’s limitations, and that it’s not your fault. Gather your emotional strength, and do your best to lower your expectations.
  • Try to stop looking to family members for that warm holiday feeling. Sadly, they cannot give you what they themselves don’t have.
  • Think about other people in your life who can give you the feeling of belonging, connection, support, validation and love. Your spouse perhaps? Your friends? Your own children? These are the people to try to join with this holiday.
  • Consider breaking the code. If your CEN family is not harsh – a more kind, benign type of family, you can surprise everyone this holiday season. Deliver some talk about your feelings or needs. Talk about some negative topic, or express your affection for someone. You may make some people uncomfortable, but discomfort can be a good thing.
  • Start working on the effects of the CEN that you grew up with. Get in touch with your feelings, learn how to listen to them, use them and share them. And above all, make sure that you don’t pass your CEN down to your own children.

For more information on CEN, how it plays out in adulthood, and how to heal it in yourself, see and the book Running on Empty.

Emotionally Neglectful Family? 7 Tips for the Holidays

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. (2015). Emotionally Neglectful Family? 7 Tips for the Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Dec 2015
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