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Childhood Emotional Neglect

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Almost everyone realizes that what happens to us in childhood has an impact on who we become as adults. The good and the bad: awards, accomplishments, mistreatment or abuse. It all has an impact. But there is another factor from childhood which has an equal or even greater effect than childhood events. This is a factor that people can’t see or remember. It’s invisible. Dr. Jonice Webb calls this factor Childhood Emotional Neglect.


Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.


Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse. Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable. Emotional Neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.


Children who are emotionally neglected then grow up to have a particular set of struggles. Because their emotions were not validated as children, they may have difficulty knowing and trusting their own emotions as adults. They may have difficulty understanding their own feelings, as well as others’. Because an important part of themselves (their emotional self) has been denied, they may find themselves feeling disconnected, unfulfilled or empty. They may have difficulty trusting or relying upon others. Many describe feeling that they are different from other people; like something is wrong with them, but they’re not sure what it is.


Another way that parents can unwittingly emotionally neglect their child is to fail to give him the structure and rules to live by, like consequences and discipline. As a result, the emotionally neglected often struggle with self-discipline as adults.


Whatever the level of parental failure, the emotionally neglected have no childhood memories to explain their difficulties. So, too often, they blame themselves.


Many of my clients show up in my practice not really knowing what’s wrong. They grew up in a “normal” family and cannot figure out why they feel empty, alone and different from others. Our work together often uncovers a pattern of CEN, even when parents have been present and are well-intended. Most parents do the best they can but sadly, sometimes are not able to offer the level of emotional support that helps us thrive.


To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see a copy of Dr. Webb’s book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect.


Dorian Race is a CEN certified therapist by Dr. Jonice Webb. You can visit her website at https://drjonicewebb.com/find-a-cen-therapist-finland-kentucky/.