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3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Sets You Up For Adult Emotional Neglect

The Emotionally Neglected Child

6-year-old Pam walks as slowly as possible from the door of the bus to the door of her house. She is sad and hurt that her favorite teacher snapped at her in front of the class. Pam has no idea why, but she dreads walking into her house. When she goes through the door, her mom is running around looking for her keys. “Jump in the car Kiddo, we’re heading off to run errands,” her mom says. Dragging her feet, Pam heads slowly toward the garage. She tries to smile for her mom, but it only makes her feel worse.

The Emotionally Neglected Adult

Terry is driving home from work with his mind full of worries. He is thinking about finances, his recent diagnosis of hypertension, and the big decision he and his wife are currently making about whether to sell their house. The more he thinks about these issues, the more anxious and troubled he feels. “I have to pull myself together before I get home,” he vows to himself. Then he turns the music up louder and makes a conscious effort to think only happy thoughts.

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens in many different types of homes: some blatantly neglectful, and some only subtly so. You may be raised by parents who are addicted, struggling or self-centered, and who fail to notice your feelings because they are taken up with their own concerns. Or you may be raised by parents like Pam’s mom, who is generally caring and well-meaning but is simply blind to the world of emotions.

The surprising thing about CEN is that it almost doesn’t matter why you grow up with your feelings under-noticed and under-addressed by your parents. It really only matters that you did.

That’s because the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect all result from the messages you received from your parents when you were growing up this way.

Your emotions do not exist (or should not exist).

Your feelings don’t matter.

Your feelings are a burden.

Your emotional needs are a weakness.

Think about it. Going through your life with these messages planted in your mind, they become your automatic beliefs. You are literally set up, or programmed, to fight with your feelings and to minimize and deny them.

It is precisely this process: from your parents’ unspoken messages to internalized beliefs, that Childhood Emotional Neglect transfers from your parents to you, and from your childhood into your adulthood. This is precisely why the neglect continues all your life.

But this is not the full story. There are even more factors at work.

3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Sets You Up For Adult Emotional Neglect

  1. You continue to emotionally neglect yourself. The toxic messages of CEN, now residing as truths in your head, undermine your ability to allow yourself to feel. Like Terry above, you may be completely unaware of when you are feeling something. You might have only one way of managing your feelings, like pushing them out of your head, drowning them in distraction or activities, or simply ignoring them. Fearful of appearing weak for having needs, seeming mushy for having too much affection, or being seen as hostile for feeling angry, you are locked in a cage that keeps you from experiencing the full, rich, connected life that you would have if only you knew the real truth. (See below for the real truth.)
  2. You marry an emotionally neglectful person. As a person who views feelings as irrelevant at best and a burdensome weakness at worst, you may feel quite uncomfortable in an emotionally rich and connected relationship. It might be a little like a vegetarian gorging on a pile of deep-fried chicken. Even if such a relationship feels momentarily indulgent, it also feels foreign, excessive and overwhelmingly uncomfortable overall. This is why CEN people often marry each other. Secretly, you share the same set of “truths,” and this allows you, as a couple, to continue the same watered-down version of love that you each experienced as children. Sadly, in this way, you are unaware that you are each emotionally neglecting the other.
  3. Your parents and family do not change, even if you do. I have walked many hundreds of people through the steps of changing their toxic, squelching CEN beliefs into healthy, enlivening, connecting ones. This process of change is incredibly powerful and can make a big difference in how you feel and in how you live your life. But sadly, as often happens, when you change yourself, the people in your life do not change along with you. So when you see your parents, and likely your siblings too, they continue to pretend that emotions do not exist. Even when you have done the courageous work to repair your CEN, your family continues to emotionally neglect you. But the good news is that now that you know what is happening, you can protect yourself from it. And in some families, if the circumstances are right, you may even be able to talk with your parents or brother or sister about CEN and bring them along with you to a more enriched relationship.

The Real Truth About Your Feelings

The truth is this: Your emotions are built into you for a reason. You need them to survive and thrive. When you pay attention to them and allow yourself to feel them, they will inform, guide, energize and connect you.

When you change how you view your emotions and start to value them as a strength, you are claiming your inner self and stopping the cycle of Emotional Neglect through your life. You can then repair your marriage, and protect yourself emotionally from your family.

It all starts with your parents, but it ends with you. You are the one who will change it.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how to address and heal CEN in your marriage and with your parents, see the book Running On Empty No More.

3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Sets You Up For Adult 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. (2019). 3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Sets You Up For Adult Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Jan 2019
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