If youre 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.
Do you feel empty and disconnected? Do you sense that youre different than everyone else, but you cant put your finger on whats 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 its 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 childrens emotional needs.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is the result of your parents inability to validate and respond adequately to your emotional needs. Childhood emotional neglect can be hard to identify because its what didnt happen in your childhood. It doesnt leave any visible bruises or scars, but its 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.
In an emotionally neglectful family, you might have come home upset because you didnt 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 dont 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 werent beaten or belittled. Their parents were well-meaning but lacked the emotional skills themselves to notice and tend to their childrens feelings. Such parents never learned to cope with their feelings or express them in healthy ways and dont know how to deal with their childrens feelings either.
Many adults who experienced emotional neglect look like theyve got it all together on the outside. Theyre successful and have a happy family, but theres a nagging sense of emptiness, not fitting in, and that theyre different, but there isnt anything obviously wrong.
Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect include:
- Feeling somethings fundamentally wrong with you
- Feeling unfulfilled even when youre successful
- Difficulty connecting with most of your feelings, not feeling anything
- Burying, avoiding, or numbing your feelings
- Feeling out of place or like you dont 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 peoples needs
- Not having a good sense of who you are, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses
Your feelings are a core part of who you are, so when they arent noticed or validated you come to believe that you arent important because you arent seen and known. In emotionally neglectful families, the message is that feelings dont matter, theyre an inconvenience, or theyre 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 arent met and your internal state isnt acknowledged, youll 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 dont notice when youre getting frustrated, you wont be able to find a healthy resolution or outlet for your anger and youre 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 childrens feelings.
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 werent 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 peoples 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. Webbs 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.