28 thoughts on “The 10 Lessons of Childhood Emotional Neglect

  • April 23, 2017 at 11:16 am

    This is a million dollars worth of therapy in one article. Just knowing that so many of my difficulties in life are a result of early emotional neglect is so freeing. Now that I am “the boss of me,” I can heal the wounds and find ways to learn the life skills and behaviors that I did’t learn when I should have. My greatest pride comes from doing so much better for my children than was done for me. They are so much better at living in the world than I ever was. I’m 68 years old and continue to find insight that helps me enjoy life in a new deeper way.

    Thank you, Dr. Webb for all you do to help us.

  • April 23, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    What a wonderful, concise article that hits the nail(s) on the head.
    I find myself sad today while reading each one as I relate to many, if not all. With the sadness, I go to the place of wondering how I did my children harm and how I wish I knew about CEN before. While they are much more outgoing, positive and confident than I ever was, I know they missed some important parts in life that I could not offer. I am more open with them nowadays as I understand me and CEN more, which is good.

    Dr. Webb, thank you for continuing to help me and others.

  • April 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    The baby girl was five months old… she was ill and lay in her pram crying. Her father walked over to the pram and he punched her in the face. The baby’s mother did nothing. She was too afraid to say anything because she knew her husband would hit her too.

    Baby is now eight years old. She was a creative child and one Sunday she made an old box into a dollhouse. She cut peices of fabric and glued them onto the windows for curtains. She used crayons and paints to colour the house and draw a door etc. When she finished she held the homemade dolls house in her hands and showed it off to her Father. ‘Look at what I’ve made, she said, with a big smile on her face.’ In an instant her Father lashed out at here smacking the doll’s house out of her hands then, kicked her so hard that she flew acroos the room into the sofa. Why?

    The child is now 14. She arrived home from school and entered her home. As she began do ascend the stairs her father appeared at the top. The girl climbed the stairs and when she was three of four steps away from the top her father kicked her all the way to the bottom. She tried to stop him but couldn’t. Finally she lay on the floor shocked and weeping. Why did he do that?

    From a baby to a growing child and beyond, the childs Father abused her… emotionally, verbally and physically. He called her horrible names and told her that she was stupid, useless and worthless and she would amount to nothing in life. More than once he called her a detestable little thing and said she was unlovable. She clearly remembers when he said, ‘when you grow up no one in their right mind will marry you.’ If they do, they’ll leave you when they find out what a nasty peice of work you are. For some reason the girl’s mother never seemed to defend her when she was present during those cruel episodes.

    The girl grew into a young woman and got married. Her husband was cruel to her and so she left. After divorcing him she met someone new and married again. He said cruel things to her too an left her with their young child for another. She married a third time and has had an awful life with him and the abuse and cruelty was worse than the first husbands.

    Decades have gone by and she never understood or knew why her father did those awful things he did to her. Neither did she know what was so bad about her that meant that she was causing or deserved the cruelty throughout her life. She is still searching for answers that she knows she’ll never find out. Throughout her life she has been invalidated in the same way that she had growing up. She thought abuse was normal because that’s all she knew and assumed that all families do the same as her family. She had no real sense of what is normal and what clarifies as abuse.

    Her story never ends…..

    • April 23, 2017 at 7:22 pm

      Sally, your story is so moving. You were appealing as a youngster, yet the emotionally immature parents failed to notice. Bad on them. I was in a somewhat similar boat, getting no sense of what constituted normal parental or sibling love based on experience. Do you think your parents had the self-reflection you have? Sally, you’re healthy deep inside. Seeking help from Dr. Webb is sound judgement. ‘Normal’ as described in this article feels alien and scary; it’s so foreign. But it is normal, normal out there and normal inside us. Inside we can work on – it’s all ours. There’s a lot to untangle inside us. It can be done from your healthy part deep inside, the part that knew to tell her story here. You’re curious. That’s your strength!

  • April 24, 2017 at 12:18 am

    This list is a wonderful tool for me, trying to un-learn things and not knowing what to replace them with. I’ve asked myself, how to I teach myself what I never knew existed? The answer is here on the truth list, and in that question I see a sign of my CEN… I don’t need to “teach myself” – because I am not alone. Such a strange idea, that simply by being human I am important or even okay – that acceptance need not be based on usefulness or achievement or obedience or the ability to be invisible – that I can be valued for just being me, whoever that is. I’m 60 years old, I started on this path of discovery four years ago (working slowly so I could remain “valuable” at a high stress job), and while things are MUCH better, I still have a long way to go.

  • April 24, 2017 at 1:00 pm


    Your blog is so important and valuable to all. I had a hard time accepting the reality I was emotionally neglected. I am a dedicated spiritual,student for many years, also a retired social worker, yet , I felt disloyal, at first, to accept this reality. Now, I am more comfortable , in my discomfort ,as you have filled in so many gaps for me , and help explain and understand some of my old beliefs and patterns. Awareness and acceptance , are the first steps towards the journey of healing. So, I am deeply grateful for this discussion and your teachings.

  • April 24, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    “As you form relationships and fall in love, they prevent you from valuing yourself. As you have children and raise them, they weigh you down, and leave you feeling mystified about what you are missing and why.”

    How neglected were you if you have enough value to believe you’re worthy of love and a relationship? To be married and have children? Incomprehensible. I learned to be as invisible as possible because being seen meant to be shamed, diminished, punished and discounted. It’s a great list, but the list by itself can’t change my life. My mother could read an article in Reader’s Digest that said it was important to tell your kids you loved them, so she would say, “we love you guys (collectively)” but the next morning or a few hours later we were “god damn, lousy, no good kids again, and out would come the board she hit us with. It’s not what people tell you. It’s how they treat you that sticks. Particularly those emotionally charged memories of corporal punishment. The list is a great idea, but until people actually treat you by the principles on the list, it’s as hollow as my mother’s “we love you guys.” How can therapy help when you know the the therapist will quit trying to convince you about your supposed value if you can’t afford to pay them?

    • May 1, 2017 at 11:21 am

      “How can therapy help when you know the the therapist will quit trying to convince you about your supposed value if you can’t afford to pay them?”

      That’s a good point. Society values a person according to their material wealth. When one can’t afford counselling, it does tend to diminish one’s self-image.

      Or, as in the UK, when such help is effectively removed from the National Health Service, a clear message is sent out by the State about the value of the “99%”.

    • October 29, 2017 at 11:54 am

      I hope that you, and some of the other commenters here, realise that what you experienced is way beyond Childhood Emotional Neglect, as Dr. Webb has described it. What she described is a subtle, almost imperceptible, form of neglect. The emotional and physical abuse that you experienced isn’t subtle in the least, and wouldn’t be expected to respond to the same treatment as CEN would. For those of us who were emotionally and/or physically abused, as opposed to being emotionally neglected (as damaging as that can be), ongoing therapy would be necessary.

  • April 24, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    I’ve spent most of my life wondering why I’m so unlovable.
    My mother recently told me that she’d never really loved me the way a mother should love their child and the best thing she could have done would’ve been to put me up for adoption. Gee, thanks Mom, I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing that! Now I try to pick up the pieces of my broken heart, it’s been months since I’ve spoken to my Mom, I cry when I think that she’ll probably die without me ever talking to her again. She may have never loved my the way a mother should love a child, but I always loved her the way a child should love their Mom, it’s too bad that was never good enough : (

    • April 25, 2017 at 1:14 am

      I’m so sorry. My mother told me that “she didn’t know how to raise boys.” Not nearly as blunt and bad, but I admired her candor. She had childhood trauma from her vibrant, yet short-tempered mother, which makes me wonder if your mom had some kind of trauma as well, since you said that she said “the way a mother should love her child.” That tells me she gets it, but can’t feel it. Like it was her way of trying to reach out, but didn’t know how. I hope you find peace and love, but also hope you find dialogue with your mother before it’s too late. Like it is with my dad.

    • June 14, 2017 at 7:52 pm

      My heart broke for you just now.
      the following , by no means whatso ever is a hand extended, and grasping yours. All of us who are here at this very topic share the same kind of anguish and grief at core. I overcompensated with my children for what I never emotionally recieved in childhood. It was unknowingly..seemed just to be a logic point for me. However, at 57 yrs old, I went thru a turn of just wanting to be alone( 2 of my three adult children are now back at home with me), and found myself resentful and spent, emotionally dry . There are no distinct similarities to our histories and the manner which your mother dropped that eviscerating bomb on you is as inexcuseable as the words themselves. My story is too long and takes a lot of dizzying turns. I have no sage words to impart. Just empathy.
      A while ago , I had deduced a possible explaination for the treatment I received as a child: Dad didnt have an example to follow. That sufficed as a bandaid for a while. But in midlife when all floods over and you dont know how the hell you are hanging on, we suffer the effects from an abusive childhood that deluges us with tidal fury. Im certainly not speaking for you, nor could I possibly. I speak for me. And I just wanted you to know you are not alone. Thank you for your expression. Please consider continuing in it in the ways that have sustained you so far. They will continue to. You never deserved that, none of us do. Just please know you arent alone , especially at the times its the darkest.

    • June 14, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      ScinBC…forgive me..I was thinking faster than I could type, and omitted a sentance.What I meant to say was that my reply was by no means intended to minimize your anguish in the least.

    • September 24, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      SCinBC I understand your feelings, as they are my own in many ways. Growing up in an emotionally-void home, I struggle with knowing that my perceptions in Life may well be distorted by my childhood conditioning. What is normal and what is not? What is acceptable and what is not? These days I care for my elderly parents full time. I’ve finally got to a place where I understand that my parents were a product of their own childhood and, though they were much more preoccupied with themselves than with bringing up their children, I can finally accept that this is how it was, is, and always will be. I just wanted to say to you that, if your mother is a damaged, flawed human, incapable of ever being the parent you needed, maybe it’s because she herself lacked the love and proper support she needed, as a child. Maybe she never learned from her parents, how to connect emotionally with her own offspring. There is something very wrong with a mother who can’t feel love for her child. It’s not that the child is unloveable, far from it. However, I am concerned that if you don’t re-establish contact with your mother, you may end up regretting it dearly, when she passes. It will then be too late to find some sort of connection that, though far from perfect, works for you both. You deserve some answers, so maybe ask the hard questions. Ask about her early life-maybe there are clues there as to why she failed you, as a mother. Open conversation may be immensely beneficial for you both, allowing some degree of healing. That’s what I’ve done, and though my Mum lacks the ability to self-reflect to a great degree, I’ve learnt to love myself more than I ever have and to be at peace with the sadness of my childhood. Whatever you decide, I wish you well.

  • April 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Webb. I always look forward to your posts, even though I can get quite emotional while reading them. I am having an awful time in an emotionally neglectful “romantic” relationship that is emulating my childhood. I felt comfortable for a while due to my avoidance and the familiarity, but I eventually realized the emptiness. I have attempted a repertoire of methods to heal/deepen the relationship over several years, including couple’s counseling, but we still lack even the slightest emotional intimacy. Because we both came from emotionally neglectful/unaware families, I want to believe that my partner shares the desire to grow with me away from that style of existence (especially because he has said this much in response to me voicing my troubles). However, I experience pain from lack of emotional connection, while it appears that my partner has fear of even acknowledging emotionality and is much more comfortable when I revert to placating. I struggle to initiate non-superficial communication, and when I do, my attempt is often met with defensiveness despite “I” messages and my admission of imperfection and continued state of trying to learn to be more authentic. I am at a loss, I am sad, and I am so lonely. I feel that he tries to “show up” by attending counseling and telling me that he wants to change, but I fear that he may not be vested.

    I have an audio copy of your book Running on Empty, but I am still struggling. I see an individual counselor now, as we have been let go from couple’s therapy (due to his lack of presence during sessions and regarding “homeworks”). Any insight or articles shedding light on these types of relational issues are immensely appreciated.

    Thanks again.

  • April 26, 2017 at 11:19 am

    Dr. Webb,
    As a clinician myself, I am very impressed with your article and your clinical observations. A colleague and myself developed a classification of family psychosocial environments ranging from enriched to toxic. The kind of environment you address is what we call “sterile”. The parents are essentially “missing in action”. The introjection of many silent injunctions clearly interferes with current and future development. I often think of Maslow’s need hierarchy and Erickson’s psychosocial developmental stages.
    Rich, MSW

  • April 26, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

    I am the adult-child who was raised in this type of environment. Healing from the effects of these behaviors requires undoing and unknotting the past. This unlearning of the past (and befriending it) creates a healthy present and future. Another important step in the long journey to wholeness involves whether these ten lessons are influencing my adult relationships. I can unconsciously gravitate towards the familiar because it feels comfortable, which means I have to be open to how these ten lessons’ false messages can affect me today.

    I understand how the words “Do not” or “Don’t” affected my childhood and adolescence. Don’t feel that way, don’t let the neighbors hear you talk like that, don’t cry, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t let your father hear you speak like that, don’t be so sensitive, and don’t take it out of context stoked the flames of alcoholism and co-dependency that burned in my home.

    A steady diet of don’t ask, don’t tell, and don’t feel from individuals tasked with honoring a child’s feelings leads to problematic adult relationships. These ten lessons short circuit the honesty and transparency that are mainstays of healthy families. These ten lessons remind me that children are affected by what they hear and see, which is why my time with my twin nephews is holy and sacred.

  • April 26, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    Thank you for this short yet insightful article, especially for the list of truths. I was reading the “10 lessons” part of it, relating to most and thinking “but what do I replace them with, and how do I help myself believe in those replacements?”. And then the list of truths came to help.

    It is a struggle to actually accept those “truths” as the truth in your life, when people around you are often reiterating those lessons we learned as kids. My mom is still my mom, although nowadays she sends me a whole bunch of lovey-kissy emoticons on viber every week which only makes it more awkward. Colleagues and conversation partners (and a menist part of humanity in general) implying or saying directly I am being too sensitive or too emotional on certain subjects, or reacting negatively to any disagreement with them. My friends, who do not seem to be as interested in our friendships as I am (which is probably not true, but hurts nonetheless). And most of all myself. I imagine many people with CEN would agree that we are our worst enemies, reiterating all the bad stuff our parents made us feel about us when we were kids.
    But reading other people’s stories does help. And articles like this one do help. Thank you for creating this community and for keeping giving us insights and reminders to look after ourselves!

  • April 27, 2017 at 8:55 am

    Brilliant article! Thank you 🙂 🙂

  • April 29, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    There is a problem with “And to make a conscious choice to stop letting them hold you back and push you down”
    ‘A conscious choice’ is made with the head, where the emotional pain is not, only logic and reasoning. The excruciating emotional pain being carried around, with no outlet, and no one to fill the emptiness, and heal the pain; that remains. That pain is debilitating, it is paralysing, so much so, the only way to cope is to completely dissociate from self.
    When the emotionally crippled can not escape the pain, by ending their existence, which they see as a way out from feeling; when they are not able to escape physically, they escape mentally and emotionally, the body maybe present, but not the mind, nor the heart.
    Someone with no legs can make a conscious decision to walk, but they can not walk, and no matter how much they practice, they will not be able to walk, not until some form of ‘Legs’ are provided for them.

  • April 29, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Forgot to add:
    #11 You are ugly
    #12 You are a monster and unloveable
    #No one wants you, you should not have been born

    • May 2, 2017 at 5:53 am

      Another one is “I love you but do not like you.” This my father said to me and I’ll never be able to erase it from my memory. I am and remain estranged from both my narc parents. It’s hard.

  • May 5, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    I learned to live by the first 10 lessons because that was the way people treated me. When I got out of my parent’s house and on my own in the world, society further confirmed those lessons as the truth. When I tried to matter, the world told me “no.” I was only going to be valued for my utility. What is my labor worth, what can I fix, what can I build? If I asked for anything for myself, I was suddenly no longer welcome.

    What did Brenè Browne say in her TED talk about the rules for men? “Never appear weak! Society requires men to be all knowing, all powerful, all the time. To be anything less than that, means to be less of a man.” If the world isn’t beating a path to your door to make you feel valued, your job is to not complain about it. No one wants to see you cry. No one wants to hear about your problems. You only matter when people figure out that you can contribute something to their lives that they value. That’s the real world. But more importantly, if you learned early in life that you mattered, and that you will be unconditionally loved and supported even when you fail, you will be willing to take on the risks and take the chances to learn skills that will allow you to provide those things that people and society value. The fact that I learned early in life that my needs and emotions didn’t matter, that I was going to be punished and shamed for trying and failing, and that it was more important that things worked out best for my mother rather than for me, set the path of my life. To paraphrase a youtube video on secure attachment, “the people who are securely attached, whose parents loved them unconditionally and showed them that they mattered, don’t get up in the morning and consciously think, “today is going to be a good day, I have endless possibilities.” Rather, it’s a sub-conscious mindset based on their collective experience that no matter what happens, they are going to be supported. They have family and emotional connections and as a result of those connections they built neural and genetic connections in their brains that gave them the tools to be the winners in the world. I didn’t get that and reading the second list can help me understand that the experience of the securely attached was different, it doesn’t give me a path to acquire that foundation. So we actually are on our own because it’s blatantly obvious through the shame society heaps on those who seek counseling that if you were short-changed early in life, they prefer that you not be a burden to them until you can get yourself up to speed.

    • May 6, 2017 at 11:20 am

      I have an article published on Brain Blogger about attachment as it relates to split-object representations that are formed early in life and unconsciously guides us through life. As a psychotherapist of 45 years, and a psychology professor X 13, I can confirm that persons who receive psychotherapy will benefit 75 to 80% of the time. So it is not a perfect intervention for all. Psychotherapy fares better than prescribing psychotropic medication in my clinical experience.
      Best to you,

  • June 12, 2017 at 3:45 am

    Fantastic post however I was wanting to know if you could write a little more
    on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.

    • June 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      We can only develop a sense of self by the multiple inputs from others, especially those in our family of origin. This shapes our personality. Personality is dynamically formed until about age 30. Then is becomes relatively fixed. Maslow explores our core needs during this process: safety and security, affiliation and affection, recognition and approval. Erickson explores: trust/mistrust; autonomy/shame or doubt; initiative or guilt; industry or inferiority; identity or role confusion or role diffusion.

      Growing up in a sterile environment provides for little input and a lot of guess work on part of the children. So, each need and psychosocial development is filled with lots of questions and perhaps some distortions. All this can be explored in psychotherapy in order to revisit, relive, and revise the experience in order to develop a more realistic sense of self.
      Hope this clarifies some.
      Rich, MSW

  • September 24, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    What is the first step of getting over with emotion neglect?

  • January 4, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    I learned every one of these “lessons” in my childhood, and have spent a lifetime wondering what was really wrong with me. Always wondering why I couldn’t just be like other people.


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