Overcoming The Pain Of Childhood Emotional Neglect

by Anna Redyns
Originally Published: 
A daughter kissing her mother after experiencing the pain of childhood emotional neglect
Westend61 / Getty Images

You keep your emotional distance from friends and loved ones. Often you’re not sure how to feel or if a feeling arises, it quickly disappears before you can fully acknowledge it. You are a “people-pleaser,” filling your emptiness with the needs of others at the cost of realizing your own needs. You are extremely sensitive to rejection and often wonder what you’ve done wrong.

These are all signs that you may suffer from childhood emotional neglect, like I do.

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful environment means you’re used to believing your thoughts, feelings, and desires don’t matter. That’s because your parents didn’t validate your emotions. Your parents might have been emotionally unavailable, intensely demanding, or too permissive. Whatever the case, they did not adequately respond to your emotional needs.

While you might be aware of your emotional challenges, you may not realize they could be the result of childhood emotional neglect (CEN). That’s because CEN is not an overt, intentional type of neglect, but rather the absence of emotional support that usually goes unnoticed for years. To find out if you suffer from CEN, you can take this questionnaire developed by Jonice Webb, a clinical psychologist who treats people suffering from childhood emotional neglect.

Even though it’s difficult to come to terms with the truth, knowing my emotional challenges had a name gives me hope. Like any other childhood trauma, childhood emotional neglect is not something you cure. Rather, it’s a condition you learn to manage by noticing your emotions, caring for yourself, and allowing others to care for you. Here are a few ways you can overcome CEN:

1. Tell the people you love about your CEN.

One of the most important steps I took when I discovered my CEN diagnosis was to tell my husband. His support and understanding were crucial in providing me the safe place I needed to move forward. It also gave him much-needed insight into how I function in our relationship. He now helps me recognize when I’m shutting down emotionally or responding from a place of self-doubt.

2. Take the time to consider your emotions.

This sounds basic, but those of us who suffer from CEN often don’t actually know how we feel. We often react to emotional situations by numbing out or acting indifferently then quickly moving on. We need to take time to think about how we feel. Sometimes this takes time. Journaling can help with the process. Write down your feelings without editing. No one but you will read your words unless you choose to share them.

3. Make a list of what you truly want, like and value.

Often people who suffer from CEN don’t actually know themselves very well. They’ve spent much of their lives doing what they think others expect of them rather than following their own desires. Writing down what you like, what’s important to you, and what you want to accomplish helps you know yourself better.

4. Set boundaries.

It’s okay to say “no.” We CEN sufferers often automatically agree to run the school auction, drive the extra carpool, or take on a new project at work when we’re already overloaded. That’s because we’re conditioned to respond to others without considering our own needs first. I recently had to let go of a friendship because I was always agreeing to meet up on her schedule to do what she wanted. Ending that relationship gave me much needed space for myself.

5. Accept help from others.

This is a really hard one for me. Being emotionally neglected means I figured out very early on how to deal with challenges on my own, although not very effectively. We’re conditioned to shoulder the load by ourselves, which makes it hard to believe anyone would want to help us. Plus there’s the added risk of being rejected. People who care about us, though, are usually more than willing to help, whether it’s taking our kids for a playdate or simply listening over a cup of coffee.

6. Pay attention to your parenting.

People who grew up in emotionally neglectful homes often recreate that environment when they become parents. That’s because we parent the way we were parented. The good news is that good parenting can be learned. Reading parenting books, going to classes, and staying in it when your child grapples with his or her big emotions are ways to break the cycle and make sure your kids know their feelings are important too.

7. Talk to a therapist.

While many of the steps you take toward managing the fallout from CEN can be done on your own, it’s always helpful to talk to a professional.

Our emotional disconnect may never entirely fade away, but we can learn how to manage it when it surfaces. Giving ourselves the time and space to understand our feelings makes it easier to forge deeper relationships and lays the foundation we need to engage more fully with our kids’ emotional needs. Acknowledging our own needs is a big first step. Because our emotional needs may have been neglected in our childhoods, but they don’t need to be neglected any longer.

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