This article first appeared on Your Tango and has been republished with permission.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.
This small, seemingly insignificant non-event of childhood emotional neglect seems like nothing to most people. Indeed, it happens in every household, every family, every childhood that ever happened throughout the world. It’s true.
Every parent fails his or her child emotionally many times, and usually, it’s not a big problem at all.
This is where the word “enough” becomes important.
When these small failures and instances of childhood emotional neglect by the parent happen often enough and/or in situations that are serious or intense enough, this non-event, leaves it’s invisible yet impactful footprint on the child’s life. What results are lasting effects of childhood emotional neglect in adulthood.
Just like the sprinkles of pepper over food change the experience of the food itself, the life of a child with emotional neglect becomes flavored by the sprinkle of childhood emotional neglect incidents over her childhood. But the effects are so difficult to see and remember that the CEN child has no idea that her life should feel any different than it does.
“Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” she’ll probably someday wonder. Because, as an adult who suffered childhood emotional neglect, she has no idea that the answer is "no."
Here are six examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect in action:
1. A mother fails to notice her child is sad and hurt about a problem he had with his teacher at school that day.
2. A child’s parents decide it’s not necessary to talk with her very much about her having tried to skip school since the school already punished her.
3. A man dreads visiting his parents because every time he sees them, he feels deeply uncomfortable and irritable for no apparent reason.
4. A woman walks through decades of her life wondering what everyone else has that she lacks; feeling, on some deep level, lost and alone; and baffled about what is wrong with her.
5. A husband and wife pretend last night’s argument never happened because they don’t know what else to do.
6. A supervisor sends his crew home at midnight without acknowledging that they have gone far above and beyond the call of duty to help him meet a deadline. When parents fail to notice their child’s emotions and respond to them they are, by definition, emotionally neglecting them.
Children who grow up with their feelings ignored receive a strong subliminal message from their parents: Your feelings do not matter.
What does a child do when she receives this message over and over again? What does she do with her emotions, the most deeply personal, biological expression of her true self?
Fortunately, her child's brain takes care of it for her. It pushes her emotions away. Away from her mom and dad and anyone they might burden or bother. And that, unfortunately, includes herself.
Parents who are unaware of the importance of their child’s emotions always fail their child’s feelings in other important ways.
Consider the parents above who let the school teach their child not to skip class. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn more about her and her feelings, to talk her through a bad choice, and to teach her how her feelings and behavior work together.
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So now our CEN child is growing up with her feelings pushed away, a lack of awareness and understanding of her own feelings and behavior, and likely also a sense that her parents don’t really know or understand her. This will drive an invisible wedge that will divide her from her parents emotionally forever, causing her to feel inexplicably alone and uncomfortable when she’s around them.
When our girl grows up, she will feel a deep discomfort within herself and a deep feeling that something is missing — it’s her emotions.
Lacking the emotional skills that her parents failed to teach her, her marriage may tend to be distant and lacking in intimacy, and her ability to recognize and respond to others’ emotional needs may be as difficult as recognizing and responding to her own.
The great news is that behind the gray cloud that hangs over our CEN girl, a silver lining glows. Since we know what caused her gray cloud, we also know how to get rid of it.
Since her parents ignored her feelings, she can begin to pay attention to what she feels and accept that her feelings not only matter but are essential to her health and well-being. Since her parents failed to teach her how to name, tolerate, listen to, manage and share her emotions, she can now learn those emotion skills for herself. And she can begin to use them.
Since she’s been blaming herself for her deep feelings of emptiness and discontent, she can now realize that it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it or cause it. This will free her up to attack the problem and correct it.
As soon as our girl looks carefully enough she will see that her emotions are a reflection of her deepest self. She will see that her emotions are her friends, and will fill her, direct her and connect her. She will find the answers to the questions that she never knew to ask. And she will realize that the answers were inside her all along.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible, so it can be difficult to identify if you grew up with it.
To find out if you suffered from Childhood Emotional Neglect, take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how CEN affects your relationships and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.