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7 Unique Holiday Challenges When You Have Childhood Emotional Neglect

There’s nothing quite like going through the holidays with Childhood Emotional Neglect because here is the uncomfortable truth: Unless your family has healed from the Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) you grew up with, you find yourself re-experiencing it as an adult. On top of that, some of the most painful aspects of CEN get kicked up and magnified by the holidays.

The Emotionally Neglectful Family

Exactly what is an emotionally neglectful family? It’s a family that, put simply, “doesn’t do feelings.” Emotional Neglect starts with your parents, infiltrates the lives of the children, and stays with the family, unchecked and unseen, forever.

When your parents, who likely grew up with CEN themselves, by the way, act as if the feelings of the children are not important, they are literally teaching you and your siblings some damaging lessons.

Although they probably never say it outright, they communicate, through their lack of interest and attention to feelings, that you should not allow your emotions to be seen or felt and that you should not talk about anything with depth or feelings involved because it will make other people uncomfortable.

So, sadly, CEN literally teaches you to avoid. Avoid feelings, avoid meaningful topics, avoid, avoid, avoid. Then, when you’re done avoiding, avoid some more.

If you were to silently observe with a watchful, outside eye an emotionally neglectful family’s holiday gathering, you might see a variety of possible things. You may see wild jokiness, lots of meaningless chatter about events, weather, or logistics, or a surprising lack of communication overall. Or you may see something entirely different since every CEN family finds its own ways to avoid feelings.

You might see what looks like a perfectly normal family having a lovely holiday, completely unable to see how everyone in the room is secretly, quietly struggling.

7 Unique Challenges of Those With Childhood Emotional Neglect Through the Holidays

  1. Spending time with your CEN parents. As I said above, Childhood Emotional Neglect does not just go away on its own. If your parents were emotionally blind as they raised you, they are likely still emotionally blind to this day. So if you felt overlooked and unseen as a child, this uncomfortable, difficult to name feeling will revisit you every time you revisit your parents. You may find yourself feeling inexplicably irritated, frustrated or angry at your parents, and that may even make you feel guilty for not loving them more. All-in-all, it makes for a very uncomfortable day.
  2. Difficult sibling dynamics: The thing about CEN is that it affects all of the children, but may be different for each one. All of the children in the family sense something is missing (it’s emotional validation and attention) but they don’t know what it is or what it means.  Emotionally neglected siblings tend to go either of two different ways. They may compete with each other for the feeling of being seen and heard that they’re not getting from the parents, or they may just look for it outside of the family. They may drift apart. Bringing CEN siblings back together for the holidays as adults may leave them feeling either competitive or impossibly distant. You may end up feeling hurt, attacked, or simply uncared about. Not a good way to spend the holidays.
  3. The letdown: The hype and excitement of the holidays have a way of building up our expectations. There is pressure to anticipate having a wonderful time, and most of us succumb to that pressure. We start each season with high hopes that things will be jolly and happy this year. It’s impossible to avoid the disappointment that you feel when it is not.
  4. Emptiness becomes more pronounced: With your feelings pushed underground, you may be living with some feelings of emptiness or numbness that come and go in your life. So it’s not surprising that during the holidays when you are “supposed” to feel so much joy, your lack of feeling becomes more emphasized. Most CEN people feel extra empty during the holidays.
  5. Feeling distant from others in general: Our feelings are meant to deepen our connections with people and add richness and strength to our ties to others. But when your feelings are pushed away, you may long for the feeling of warm connection that other people seem to be enjoying. You may feel more alone, more disconnected in sharp contrast to what you know is the holiday ideal.
  6. The superficial focus of family feels lacking or empty: Here’s the thing about the superficial conversation and interaction of CEN families: it’s a little like drinking watered-down coffee; it’s un-stimulating, unsatisfying, and not all that enjoyable. It’s part of the reason why so many CEN people find themselves bored when they’re with their families. Not the makings of a fun holiday.
  7. The temptation to comfort yourself with food: Many (not all) CEN people grew up with a lack of structure or discipline in their homes. This deprives you of the opportunity to learn good self-discipline skills. During the holidays, with some or all of the 7 challenges listed above, plus the bounty of plentiful good food available this time of year, it’s a recipe for overeating. It may feel enjoyable at the moment, but later, it only leads to feeling guilty, frustrated, and perhaps angry at yourself too. Not a recipe for happiness overall.

How To Save Your Holiday

  • First, show yourself some compassion. It’s this important ingredient that you grew up lacking, after all. Watch for moments when you are pressuring yourself to feel, act, or be a certain way. Catch yourself and remind yourself that you are OK as you are; you are not required to be anything for anyone. ‘Tis the season to be kind: TO YOURSELF.
  • Second, manage your expectations. Try not to get caught up in the expectation that all will suddenly be great this year and that you “should” be happy. Recognize that you may not be able to change your family, but you can change yourself. And that takes time and effort. Try to keep your expectations realistic when you anticipate your holidays.
  • Third, focus on self-care. One great risk for CEN people through the holidays is over-focusing on other people’s needs. So I’d like to suggest that you consciously pull your focus away from everyone outside yourself, and direct your amazing caretaking skills at yourself. You are responsible for caring for yourself first and everyone else comes second. Make sure you get enough rest, help, healthy food, and enjoyment. It’s not selfish. It’s necessary!

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it affects adults and families, and how you can heal, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More (links to both books below).

To find out if you have Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free! And you can find the link below, in my Bio.

**Wishing you warmth, care, and joy this holiday season. You deserve it.**

7 Unique Holiday Challenges When You Have 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. (2019). 7 Unique Holiday Challenges When You Have Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Dec 2019
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