Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is something observed in so many adult clients I meet every day. Yet, most clients I work with have little idea they may be in receipt of such symptoms; after all, CEN is about the dreadful abuse and neglect sometimes reported in the news, isn’t it?
CEN doesn’t have to mean ‘neglect’ in such media reportable terms. It most often isn’t about intentional harm of the child, or a single traumatic event, but in either scenario we are not apportioning blame, for that solves little. We are instead exploring causality of emotional dysregulation, and the subsequent behaviours observable in you, the adult today. What wasn’t taught?
[Current parents of young children may wish to consider anything affecting their own parenting styles as a result of their own childhood!]
Firstly, we will use ‘Josh’ as an example of how we sometimes manage our child’s distress. Josh is eight and comes home from school looking sorry for himself. The parent asks Josh “What’s wrong?” to which he replies, somewhat tearfully, that he lost his lunch money during the morning play. The two following possible responses by the parent could be typical and determine, along with the countless other communications over these formative years, how Josh manages emotions, and his subsequent behaviours when he becomes an adult…
Get up to your room! I’ve told you to be careful and now this. I don’t want to see you again today!
Oh no! You must be starving. Let me fix you something to eat and then you can tell me what happened.
In the first example: Josh learns that, for subsequent life problems, it’s probably best to internalise his emotions; to avoid expressing himself and so becomes emotionally dysregulated, bottling up emotion after emotion… until he either causes harm to himself, or others, in a subconscious attempt to manage his emotional constipation! He may get ‘explosive’ for little obvious reason, or ‘implode’, withdrawing and becoming depressed and anxious.
In the second example: Josh knows he has been heard; he experiences empathy and validation for himself and the event. Josh learns he can share what troubles him and formulates a healthier view of the world, himself – and his place in it. Relationships, as an adult, are more likely to be harmonious; his self-esteem, healthier. Ultimately, Josh will be more resilient to the impermanence of life.
These two examples are opposite ends of a spectrum. There are many, many more possibilities that are less obvious and this is clear when I ask relevant questions of clients.
The Past and its Teachers
Many clients believe, when asked, that they had a good upbringing and some will have! However, none of us parents are perfect; we do the best we can with what we have! As parents, we were taught examples of parenting by our parents, and they, by theirs.
It’s not so much what was taught, as what wasn’t! It is the unseen and subsequently unrecognised lack of teaching and validation that creates emotional havoc in the adult. – Dr Jonice Webb
Now let’s use Selina as an example. Selina grew up with parents who worked hard but her mother struggled with bouts of depression and her father could be short-tempered. Selina remembers noticing the atmosphere change at times and feeling fearful, not knowing what might come next. Her parents also believed that children should be seen and not heard and Selina often felt that she was not allowed to express herself. So Selina learned that her feelings were unimportant and worse, that she appeared to matter less.
Does something about ‘Josh’ or ‘Selina’s’ story resonate with you? You are not alone; there are many people around you, who feel similarly.
An Invaluable Resource!
Here, I have explored Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), a concept that describes when something very important fails to happen in childhood – and how it affects adult wellbeing. And along my travels discovered Running on Empty – a wonderful publication written by Dr Jonice Webb for parents and adults who feel somehow emotionally disjointed. In this book, she describes twelve different parenting styles that may lead to a child’s emotional needs not being met – and how CEN is observed and experienced in the adult.
Clients who are yet to explore their formative years may feel, for example, a deep sense of loneliness and emptiness, fear of rejection in relationships, and experience anxiety or low moods. Love is a difficult concept!
CEN is not about a significant event that happened in childhood, but more about what failed to happen in childhood; a child’s emotional needs being met.
Feelings and Emotions
Why do we need feelings? Feelings (emotions) keep us informed in the world as we go about our daily business. Feelings give us physical cues that we may be happy, sad, bad, frightened, etc. There may be a need for action, or acceptance! If I’m hungry, I can eat; if I’m thirsty, I drink; if I feel lonely, I can connect with someone. But some emotions may also be a mistake!
We learn about feelings in childhood by our parents being in tune with our needs, mirroring and responding consistently that our feelings are worthy and valued. As children, we send out a signal when we communicate and what comes back validates us – then, and in the future.
Alternatively, if we receive a negative response, or just as bad, nothing at all, then we fail to build a full picture or identity, and this leads us as adults to feel ‘empty’, ‘incomplete’ – like something is missing, always searching for something to complete our picture.
CEN may take place when…
For example, a parent or other primary caregiver ignores when a child is upset or belittles his or her distress. A parent may fail to set boundaries (permissive parenting) or constantly prioritises the needs of another child, or the parents own needs, or the parents are preoccupied with other things and fail to let the child know that they and their feelings are important too.
Dr Webb explains that many parents who fail to understand their child’s emotional needs are well-meaning parents who have been emotionally neglected themselves and are unaware of how they can help their child to learn about feelings.
Signs of CEN and Recovery
If you’d like to explore if or whether CEN has impacted your life, Dr Webb has suggested a list of symptoms that adults, who have been emotionally neglected as children, may experience. I too, use these as part of the assessment process as these answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced emotional neglect as a child. Jonice has created a CEN Questionnaire which you are free to take.
You may ask “So, how can you recover from CEN and is it possible?” The first step in recovering from CEN is to become aware of how parents’ failing to respond to feelings, as a child, impacts on current mood and relationships.
‘Josh’ and ‘Selina’ need to understand that their sense of disconnection is a result of them not receiving their feelings being mirrored as a child. If a parent mirrors and accurately responds to the child’s emotional needs, the child learns that their feelings are important, and subsequently feels connected with the parent.
When Josh or Selina’s loving partner attempts to connect with them, they need to accept any love and support. Rather than pushing his partner away, Josh needs to learn to accept her and let her be close to him. Similarly, in friendships, Selina needs to let people into her life so that she does not feel so isolated.
Josh and Selina need to start listening to their feelings and what they are saying. They need to take stock and, perhaps, write down what they are likely to feel in a situation. They may do this on their own or with a help of a therapist.
An Inability to “Express”
The inability to express our emotions can manifest in unhealthy behaviours and learning to understand our feelings can help reduce the need to seek comfort from food when we encounter emotionally difficult situations. We can learn to sit with, and process, difficult emotions. In those situations, rather than turning to food for comfort we need to think about other ways of comforting ourselves, such as:
- turning to our partner and friends for support
- practising self-compassion or meditation
- writing things down
Would you like to recover from Childhood Emotional Neglect?
This is a short introduction to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), which affects so many people. It is possible to recover from CEN, but it requires commitment to learning about emotions – and taking action into doing things that one may have neglected in the past, such as self-compassion and opening up about feelings with trusted others.
I can provide a warm, collaborative environment that can help you to start taking steps towards understanding your feelings and cognitively restructuring that internal void you may feel. Contact me if you would like to investigate how CEN has impacted your feelings and behaviours.
Myself and other therapists, who specialise in CEN, can be found on Dr Jonice Webb’s CEN Specialist List.