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The Face of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

All around us there are competent, smiling people with good hearts and good jobs. Stand-up men and women who do their best to provide for their family, friends, children, and co-workers. People who laugh easily at others’ jokes, generously offer advice and compassion, and put others’ needs before their own.

But if we look a little more closely, we might see a flicker of self-doubt in the eyes of these fine folks. If we listen with a little extra care, we may sense a subtle lack of self-worth lurking beneath their surface. If we watch a little more attentively, we may see some effort behind their smiles and a waver in their confidence.

These are the people who are living their lives under the influence of powerful, invisible childhood emotional neglect (CEN).

The definition of childhood emotional neglect is simply this: A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When a child grows up in a household where emotions are not validated, accepted, or responded to enough, he learns how to put his own emotions aside.

A child who grows up this way becomes an adult who doesn’t value, trust, or even know his own feelings. This child may grow into a fully functional, outwardly strong adult. But he will feel a deep sense inside of himself that something is missing; that something isn’t right.

He will feel that a most deeply personal, biological part of himself (his emotions) is invalid, or unacceptable, or missing. He will question his decisions. He will be confused by his own behavior and the behavior of others. He will struggle to feel connected to the people he loves the most, to fit in, to belong.

Yet, this emotionally neglected child, in adulthood, will be perplexed as to what is wrong with her, or why. Childhood emotional neglect is so subtle and unmemorable that she may have no awareness that anything was missing in her childhood.

So she will struggle in silence, put on a good face, and hide from herself and others that deep, painful feeling that something is just not right.

As a psychologist who has helped scores of people become aware of and conquer their CEN, I have tracked it through multiple generations within families. I see CEN as one of the most surreptitious, destructive influences upon the health and happiness of our society. Its invisibility not only increases its power, it also allows it to self-propagate stealthily from one generation to the next, to the next.

Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot about emotions, their own as well as those of others. Through no fault of their own, when they become parents themselves, they’re not aware enough of the emotions of their own children, and they unwittingly raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on, through generation after generation.

So the world is full of people who always come through for others, who put their own needs aside. They paste those beaming smiles on their faces, put one foot in front of the other and soldier on, giving no hint of how they really feel.

My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful force from their past. I want to make the term emotional neglect a household term. I want to help parents know how important it is to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs, and how to do so. I want to stop this insidious force from sapping people’s happiness and connection to others throughout their lives, and to stop the transfer of emotional neglect from one generation to another.

If you identify with the face of CEN, it is vital that you take it seriously. It is by dealing with our own legacy of childhood emotional neglect that we can not only heal ourselves, but also ensure that we do not pass it down to our own children.


To get more information about CEN and emotionally responsive parenting, visit to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and learn more about Dr. Webb’s book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

The Face of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Jonice Webb, PhD

Dr. Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and has been licensed to practice since 1991. Dr. Webb is the author of the new self-help book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. She has been interviewed about the topic of her book on NPR and many other radio shows. Dr. Webb currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. She resides in the Boston area with her husband and two teenage children. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
Webb, J. (2018). The Face of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Jun 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.