If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably have a good understanding of the term codependency, but you may not be familiar with Childhood Emotional Neglect, a term coined by psychologist Jonice Webb, Ph.D., author of the new book Running on Empty No More.
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Do you feel empty and disconnected? Do you sense that you’re different than everyone else, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? Childhood Emotional Neglect is a powerful experience, but one that often goes unnoticed and untreated. In fact, many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) describe their childhood as “good” and it’s only on closer examination that they recognize that something important was missing.
Your childhood experiences played a huge part in shaping you into the adult you are today. Children rely on their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. And significant, but invisible, damage is done when parents fail to meet their children’s emotional needs.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is the result of your parent’s inability to validate and respond adequately to your emotional needs. Childhood emotional neglect can be hard to identify because it’s what didn’t happen in your childhood. It doesn’t leave any visible bruises or scars, but it’s hurtful and confusing for children.
Dr. Webb told me via email that “CEN happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs while they are raising you. When you grow up this way, you learn the powerful lesson that your emotions do not matter, and you then continue to live your life this way. There are legions of people walking around with an empty space where their own lively feelings should be. Sadly, they all are lacking healthy access to a vital resource from within that could be connecting, motivating, guiding and enriching them: their own feelings.”
What does Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) look like?
In an emotionally neglectful family, you might have come home upset because you didn’t make the basketball team, but when you tried to talk to your Mom about it, she shooed you away saying she was busy working. And when your grandma died your father told you “boys don’t cry” and no one helped you process your grief. Or it might have been that you spent hours and hours isolated in your room as a teenager and no one asked how you were feeling or if something was wrong. When this happens consistently, you feel unloved and unseen.
CEN can co-occur with physical abuse and neglect and is rampant in families where a parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or any compulsive behavior, or mentally ill. But many people who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect grew up in families without obvious dysfunction. They weren’t beaten or belittled. Their parents were well-meaning but lacked the emotional skills themselves to notice and tend to their children’s feelings. Such parents never learned to cope with their feelings or express them in healthy ways and don’t know how to deal with their children’s feelings either.
Many adults who experienced emotional neglect look like they’ve got it all together on the outside. They’re successful and have a happy family, but there’s a nagging sense of emptiness, not fitting in, and that they’re different, but there isn’t anything obviously wrong.
Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect include:
- Feeling something’s fundamentally wrong with you
- Feeling unfulfilled even when you’re successful
- Difficulty connecting with most of your feelings, not feeling anything
- Burying, avoiding, or numbing your feelings
- Feeling out of place or like you don’t fit in
- Difficulty asking for help and not wanting to depend on others
- Depression and anxiety
- High levels of guilt, shame, and/or anger
- Lack of deep, intimate connection with your friends and spouse
- Feeling different, unimportant or inadequate
- Difficult with self-control (this could be overeating or drinking)
- People-pleasing and focusing on other people’s needs
- Not having a good sense of who you are, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses
What are the effects of childhood emotional neglect?
Your feelings are a core part of who you are, so when they aren’t noticed or validated you come to believe that you aren’t important because you aren’t “seen” and known. In emotionally neglectful families, the message is that feelings don’t matter, they’re an inconvenience, or they’re wrong. Naturally, you learn not to value your feelings; you push your feelings away or numb them with food, alcohol, drugs, or sex.
When your emotional needs aren’t met and your internal state isn’t acknowledged, you’ll be disconnected from yourself. You will constantly seek attention and try to prove your worth through clingy or needy behaviors, perfectionism, overworking, and achievements. But these external validations never fix the problem; they never leave you feeling good enough.
Feelings serve to let us know what we need. For example, if you don’t notice when you’re getting frustrated, you won’t be able to find a healthy resolution or outlet for your anger and you’re likely to let it fester until you explode.
Lack of emotional attunement also makes it hard for you to deeply connect with others and understand your spouse and children’s feelings.
Childhood Emotional Neglect and Codependency
I have been counseling Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) and people struggling with codependency for almost two decades. When I started learning about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I immediately noticed a big overlap between CEN and codependency or ACOA issues. It makes sense that if you grew up with an alcoholic or otherwise impaired caregiver, your emotional needs weren’t noticed and met.
Childhood Emotional Neglect and codependency have the same root cause. Both begin in childhood and tend to be passed unknowingly from one generation to the next. CEN and codependency aren’t the result of you being inadequate or doing something “wrong”, but they continue to make it difficult for you to have a healthy loving relationship with yourself and others in adulthood.
Individuals with CEN and codependency have in common a tendency toward:
- Low self-worth, feeling inadequate
- Fear of abandonment
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Lack of awareness of their feelings
- Discomfort with strong emotions
- Putting other people’s needs before their own
- Difficulty trusting
- Difficulty asserting their needs
Codependency and CEN are both painful experiences, but recovery is possible! To find out if you experienced CEN, please take Dr. Webb’s free CEN Questionnaire. I highly recommend her books Running on Empty and Running on Empty No More; they contain a wealth of information as well as practical strategies for overcoming the effects of CEN. And for help changing codependent traits and patterns, my book Navigating the Codependency Maze is available as an e-book.