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How to Spot Childhood Emotional Neglect in a Loved One

Legions of wonderful people are walking around the planet with no idea that they grew up emotionally neglected.

They give, they care for others, and they try to feel that they belong. Or, sometimes, they simply try to feel anything.

But alas, too often, they come up empty.

They are our neighbors, our friends, our brothers and sisters, our husbands or wives. They are quietly suffering with an invisible ghost from their past, with no way to understand or name it. 

There is a reason that Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is so hard to recognize. It dwells in the background – in things not said, and in actions not taken. CEN is not just something, it’s the absence of something which, truth be told, has far more power.

Living with unknown CEN is like living under a box. It’s a dark cloud hanging over you, weighing you down and holding you back. It saps the joy and energy from your life, and leaves you feeling lost and alone, no matter how many people surround you. Secretly, deep down, you are left to wonder who you are, and if you actually even matter.

What do you want for dinner?

“I don’t care, whatever you want is fine.”

That must be so hard for you.

“No, it’s fine. I’m good.”

What’s going on with you?

“Not much. How about you?”

When someone you care about grew up without enough emotional validation and emotional attention (CEN), you may feel in some ways very close to him (or her) but yet in other ways, very far away. Even though you like or love him, you sense that something is missing in your relationship. Somehow, in some way, something is not quite right.

How can your person be both connected and disconnected; loving but yet distant? It’s because your person pushed his emotions away in order to cope in his childhood home. Now, fully grown, he is living his life without proper access to his own feelings.

Now an adult, he does not truly know what he feels, needs or wants. He doesn’t even realize that it matters.

If you know someone who may fit this description, perhaps you’ve been feeling somewhat confused. After all, if your person doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, how can you?

Five Clues to Spot CEN

  1. She is always there for you when you need her, but she seldom asks you for anything. Self-contained and independent, she can handle it all herself, and prefers to do so.
  2. Conversations are weighted in your direction. You want to hear more about your person’s life, but your questions for her are typically met with attempts to steer the focus back on you.
  3. Your person is excessively flexible. She expresses few preferences, and often does not seem to know what she wants or likes.
  4. Your person seems to have something like a protective shield around her. Sometimes you want to try harder to connect with her emotionally, but it just feels banned somehow; as if to do so might make her uncomfortable, or drive her further away.
  5. She avoids conversations that involve feelings, and becomes uneasy with any demonstrations of emotion. Tears, anger, hurt, and maybe even joy can seem to make your person acutely uncomfortable.

If you see elements of these five signs in your friend, family member or spouse, you are in a difficult position.

Your heart tells you to reach your hand across the chasm, but somehow it feels like your person may not reach back. Perhaps it may even feel somehow wrong to reach out (thanks to Number 4 above). In truth, it probably feels this way because your person has built an invisible wall to protect herself, and that wall stands between the two of you.

3 Steps to Reach Through Your Person’s Wall

  • When you notice your person deflecting the focus back to you, point it out in a non-judgmental, observational tone. “Hey, I asked you a question and suddenly we’re talking about me again. Have you ever noticed you do that a lot?”
  • Use the same technique when your person expresses no preference. “You’re extremely flexible. Why is that?”

Your person may resist this explanation if he’s not ready. On the other hand he may be incredibly relieved.

Either way, you’ve given your person two things he grew up deprived of: You’ve seen his struggle, and you’ve validated it. 

Few things could be more loving or caring than that.

Photo by susivinh

How to Spot Childhood Emotional Neglect in a Loved One

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). How to Spot Childhood Emotional Neglect in a Loved One. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2017
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