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A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself From Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Here we are, it’s the holidays. Right now, we are in the thick of it. In fact, you may not have time to read this post! But I encourage you to read it anyway.

Have you spent more time with your parents lately? Most likely, because it’s the holidays, you have. And, if so, did you pay attention to the experience? How do you feel when you are with your parents? Is it a comfortable, nurturing experience?

Or does it feel like a perplexingly watered-down version of what you know, deep down, that it should be?

Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up in emotionally neglectful families, I have noticed that three characteristics define most of their relationships with their parents.

3 Markers of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in the Parent/Adult Child Relationship

  1. Love
  2. A deep, difficult to identify sense of emotional deprivation
  3. Guilt

People whose parents are blind to emotions (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) are set up from the moment of their birth to experience a swirl of the 3 things above throughout their lifetimes.

It’s because what appears to be there is not actually fully there. A parent’s love must be based on truly seeing and knowing their child, and parents who are blind to emotions are not able to go that deep. This is coupled with societal pressures about how parent-child relationships should be. All of these forces together place the CEN child in a guilt bind for a lifetime.

The Love/Guilt Bind of the CEN Adult With Their Parents

In today’s fast-changing world, one thing has changed very little: the widely held notion that we must always love and respect our parents, no matter what. At first glance, this rule of life seems like a no-brainer. Don’t all good people love and respect their parents?

Yet the true answer is NO. Your parents did give you life, and they raised you. But that does not obligate you to give them carte blanche positive feelings for your whole life. You didn’t ask them to bring you into the world. By making the choice to do so, they took the responsibility upon themselves to raise a healthy child, which is the mandate of all mammals who are contributing to the survival of their species.

Your parents and you are not governed by any special rules that require love and affection at all cost to yourself.

This is the reason why it’s so very important that you keep yourself and your own needs in the forefront of your mind in every interaction with your parents. For if you are sacrificing your own emotional health to meet your parents’ needs, you are paying a hefty price and getting very little in return.

Your relationship with your parents is just like any other enduring relationship between people. It requires enough mutual emotional awareness to make both parties feel understood and valued and valid. And cared for in a real and meaningful way. This cannot come only from your side. It absolutely must come from both.

So what do you do if you are caught in the Guilt/Love bind with your parents? In my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships I outlined a number of powerful techniques to get yourself out of the bind, like setting limits, saying no, and firming up your boundaries.

Aside from boundaries, saying no and limit-setting, another of my favorite techniques is also somewhat surprising. Most people would never think of self-care as a way to protect themselves. But it is!

Enjoy this segment taken directly from the book Running On Empty No More. Then I hope you will try to follow it through the rest of the holidays and all next year. It will make you stronger.

Protect Yourself with Self-Care

(Taken from the book Running On Empty No More)

It’s important to remember that setting limits and saying no to your parents is not only about protecting your feelings. Minimizing your own emotional suffering is key, of course. But there’s another, bigger purpose to all of this. When you protect and take care of yourself emotionally, you are accomplishing multiple other goals. You are allowing yourself the room, stability, and strength to grow to your fullest potential. And you are filling yourself in a way that will allow you to give priceless emotional sustenance to your spouse and children.

If you are to begin to behave differently with your parents in ways like setting limits and boundaries or talking with them about CEN, it helps enormously to first build up your emotional strength.

The best way to do this is to put more focus and energy into your own self-care. By focusing on taking better care of yourself, you are doing for yourself what your parents should have done, but couldn’t or didn’t. In this way, you are re-parenting yourself. If you grew up with your emotions ignored, you work as an adult to pay attention to your own emotions. See the chart below for more examples.

How to Give Yourself What Your Parents Couldn’t

Your Parents Didn’t:

So Now You:

Accept your feelings as valid

Accept your feelings as valid

Notice when you needed rest

Make sure you get enough rest

Provide you with structure

Structure yourself

Teach you how to manage your feelings

Learn emotion management

Teach you how to name your emotions

Increase your emotion vocabulary

Model how to express feelings

Practice expressing your feelings

Talk about things

Practice talking about things

Soothe you when you were upset

Soothe yourself when you need it

Get to know you deeply and personally

Work to know yourself deeply

Support and encourage you

Accept support from others

Offer you help when you needed it

Ask for and accept help

I know it probably seems like a tall order to try to fill in the gaps from your childhood like this. And it’s true. Giving yourself what you never got takes a good deal of effort and persistence. But one thing helps immensely: it all feels good. It feels enriching and enlivening to finally give yourself what you’ve been missing. It makes you stronger and less vulnerable in general, including with your parents.

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).

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free! And you can find the link below, in my Bio.

A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself From Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

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). A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself From Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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