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The Elephant In The Room On Mother’s Day: Childhood Emotional Neglect

I always look forward to celebrating Mother’s Day with my mom. But then when it happens, I end up feeling disappointed.

I approach this holiday with positive spirits and lots of love for  my mother. But for some reason I always end up getting annoyed and snapping at her. Then I feel guilty.

It’s so hard to pick out a Mother’s Day card for my mom. None of them fit how I actually feel about her.

I dread Mother’s Day. I know it’s wrong, but it’s how I feel.

Everybody loves their mother.

Or do they?

All of the comments above are ones that I have heard many times in my therapy office. Often from good, well-intentioned adult daughters and sons who are confused by their feelings about their moms.

All of these daughters and sons actually do love their mothers, most of them very much. But love comes in many different shapes, sizes, forms, and depths. And what I have seen is that when it comes to relationships with mothers, no two people are quite the same.

Yet the pressure comes upon us all from everywhere: from the media, the press, movies and Mother’s Day cards, all paint a fairy tale picture of moms and love and happiness. But real life is not usually like this.

Mothering is one of the most complex and demanding jobs in the world, and the huge majority of women try their genuine best and meet the threshold of what famous psychologist D.W. Winnicott called “the good enough mother.”

Even many mothers who do not meet that threshold did try their best. They simply didn’t have the tools to mother because they didn’t get nurtured properly by their own moms.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. It’s a big one, but also an invisible one. It’s the elephant no one can see but everyone can feel. It’s an elephant that weighs on everyone in the family without their knowledge. It’s Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice or respond enough to your feelings while they raise you. Emotionally neglectful moms come in all sorts of different packages. She may be a soccer mom, a doting mom, a working mom or a stay-at-home mom. She may be an addict, a narcissist, or just a mom who’s working two jobs to put food on the table. It’s not the amount of time she spent with you and it’s not the number of things she did for you.

The key question is this: Did she notice what you were feeling? Did she seem to care what you felt, what you wanted, or what you needed to be happy and strong and successful? Did she do all of these things enough?

Even if your mom spent all day every day driving you to and from soccer games or Scout Meetings, she may have inadvertently ignored your emotional life as a child. If that’s the case, it does not make her a bad mom. It just makes her an emotionally neglectful one.

Emotionally neglectful moms, because they’re not tuned in enough to the feeling world, end up delivering a unique kind of love to their children. It’s real and genuine love, of course, but it is missing something. It’s missing emotional attunement.

Emotional attunement is the source of true empathy. It happens when your parent connects with you on an emotional level, sees what you feel, knows you deeply enough to predict what you will feel, and understands what you feel. An emotionally attuned mother also feels what you feel. If your mother did all of these things when you were a child, there’s a good chance she still does, now that you are an adult.

All of these qualities of emotional attunement are not in the skill-set of the CEN mom. Growing up without being deeply emotionally seen, understood and known by your mother takes a toll on your relationship with her. Since emotional attunement is a necessary ingredient for all children, you will always feel, on some unnamable level, that something is missing, or not quite right, between you.

And that is what weighs on you on Mother’s Day. That’s why this special day feels slightly empty or “off” for you.

How to Celebrate Mother’s Day With Your CEN Mom

  1. For yourself, name the elephant in the room. This will help more than you can imagine. Finally understanding the problem takes a tremendous weight off of you. Accept that your natural human need to be emotionally connected with your mother has not been met and that you feel it. Accept that it’s not your fault, and it’s probably not your mother’s fault either.
  2. Talk about it with a trusted person. Whether it’s your partner or spouse, a sibling, family member, friend or therapist. Telling someone about your relationship with your mom and how CEN has happened to you makes it feel more real to you, and also helps you understand it.
  3. Don’t just think about your mom on Mother’s Day. Also, do something kind for yourself. For example, when you buy your mom some flowers, buy some for yourself. Take a nice long walk, take some time to relax. Nurture yourself.
  4. Think about talking with your mother about CEN. There are ways to approach it that are indirect and thoughtful and ways to talk about it that are non-blaming. Some mothers can benefit greatly from learning about Emotional Neglect, what it is and how it affects people.

Once you’re through Mother’s Day, it will be time to start learning everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect. It affects more than your relationship with your mother. It affects your self-worth, your self-knowledge, your emotional awareness and your emotion skills. But every single one of these areas can be addressed now, by you, an adult.

You will notice that when you acknowledge the elephant, everything feels a bit different in your life. For you have not only named the elephant in your relationship with your mother. You have named the elephant in your life.

And in doing so, you will see that you can give yourself everything you never got and that you can become emotionally attuned to yourself. You can reverse generations of Emotional Neglect, and give your children what they need.

You didn’t have to get it from your mother after all.

To learn how to decide whether to talk with your mother about CEN (and how to do it), plus much more about the effects of CEN on your adult life and relationships, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

The Elephant In The Room On Mother’s Day: 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. (2018). The Elephant In The Room On Mother’s Day: Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 May 2018
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