Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to validate and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
I have often described Childhood Emotional Neglect as a non-event in the life of a child. That’s because it’s not something a parent does to a child. Instead, it’s something parents fail to do for a child. So it’s essentially an act of omission, not commission. It’s like the background in your family picture, rather than the picture itself.
This is what makes incidents of CEN so invisible. Our eyes can’t see things that fail to happen, and our brains can’t record them. That’s why, when CEN happens in your childhood, you grow into a confused adult.
Looking back, you remember what your parents gave you, but you can’t recall what they failed to give you — emotional validation. So it’s hard to find an explanation for your struggles as an adult. You are left to wonder why you have anger at your parents, why you’re not happier, why you struggle with self-care.
You are left to wonder, “What is wrong with me?”
Passive Childhood Emotional Neglect
Examples of Passive Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Your parents fail to notice when you are sad, anxious, hurt or angry: this gives you the subliminal message that your emotions are irrelevant and/or unwelcome.
- Your parents fail to listen when you talk: this gives you the subliminal message that your voice, your thoughts, and your words do not matter.
- Your parents fail to ask you questions about your preferences or needs: this gives you the message that you shouldn’t have any wants and needs.
- Not paying enough attention: the message is that you’re not worthy of attention and that you are alone.
- Your parents fail to give you the structure or discipline you need: this sets you up to struggle with self-discipline as an adult.
The Results of Passive Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Your emotions are blocked off, so you are unaware of what you are feeling.
- You struggle to understand emotions in yourself and in your relationships with others.
- You are unaware of your own preferences and needs.
- You struggle to speak up for yourself.
- You feel less-than, or less valid than other people.
- You struggle with self-care and/or self-discipline.
Active Childhood Emotional Neglect
There is another way that Emotional Neglect can happen to a child. It’s far more active, visible and memorable, and it is equally important.
It’s the kind of CEN that’s an actual event, and it involves a parental act. It happens when your parents actively invalidate your feelings.
Examples of Active Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Your parents send you to your room for “moping” or crying: This gives you the loud and clear message that your feelings are offensive and unacceptable to others.
- Your parents call you overly sensitive or dramatic for having feelings: This gives you the message that your feelings are unreasonable and excessive. There is something wrong with you.
- Your parents trump your emotions with stronger ones of their own: This tells you that your emotions are insignificant and useless, and also cause trouble.
- Your parents demean or punish you for showing feelings they don’t like, such as anger or frustration or need: This makes you ashamed of the deepest, most personal and biological expression of who you are, your emotions.
The Results of Active CEN
- All of the results of Passive CEN are included here.
- You are not only unaware of your feelings, but you are also afraid of them. They seem wrong, so you actively squelch and hide them.
- When an emotion breaks through, you turn it against yourself. A little voice inside may call you “weak” or “crazy” or “over-reactive” when you experience a feeling.
- Other people’s emotions can make you very anxious or uncomfortable.
- You struggle with shame in your daily life.
If your parents actively squelched emotions in your family (active CEN), you may actually have memories of it happening. But even if you do remember your parents sending you to your room for having feelings, for example, it’s difficult for you to know that there was anything wrong with that.
This is what makes Childhood Emotional Neglect so destructive, and how it gets automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. You can’t fix something you are unaware of.
Unlike being physically hit or called names (abuse), pure CEN is not only hard to remember in most cases, but it’s also difficult to identify as wrong or impactful. To most people, it seems like nothing.
Yet growing up without full access to your own feelings and/or being deeply ashamed of having them is no small thing. In fact, it stays with you for a lifetime, quietly sapping your joy, and affecting your friendships, your marriage and your own parenting in subliminal, yet pervasively harmful ways.
There Is Hope!
Becoming aware of the CEN you grew up with is a remarkable step in your life. It sets you on a path that allows you to finally befriend your emotions as a valuable part of your self, and begin to use them as the connectors and guides that they are meant to be.
Finally, you can stop feeling ashamed for being human, afraid of being yourself.
Finally, you can stop the pattern of emotionally neglecting yourself, and thrive.
To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn the steps of CEN Recovery, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.