Lisa* has felt for all her life she is different from others and she has struggled to connect with her family, friends and previous partners. For those around her, she seems somehow distant and difficult to get to know. She often feels lost and tries to cope with difficult life situations by not thinking about them and “just gets on with it”.
Lisa is currently in a relationship with a partner, who is very loving and they have been together for a year, but Lisa struggles to be in a relationship and let her partner really know her. When something upsets Lisa, she often ends up using food for comfort as she feels that it is comforting her “internal void”.
Lisa grew up with parents who worked hard to provide for their three children. Lisa remembers often spending a lot of time on her own as her siblings were somewhat older than her and her parents rarely had time for her or her siblings. Her parents also believed that children should be seen but not heard and Lisa often felt that she was not allowed to express herself.
Does something about Lisa’s story resonate with you? You are not alone. There are many people around you who feel similarly. This blog post introduces Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), a concept that describes when something very important fails to happen in childhood and how it affects adult well-being.
What is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
Dr Jonice Webb (2013) has written a book about CEN, which describes twelve different parenting styles that may lead to a child’s emotional needs not being met and how CEN is presented in an adult.
In clinical work, I have come across many clients who say that they had “a perfect childhood” or at least, a childhood which includes many happy memories, but they feel, for example, a deep sense of loneliness, fear rejection in relationships and experience anxiety or low mood. 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.
How do we learn about feelings?
We learn about feelings in childhood by our parents being in tune with our needs, mirroring and responding to our needs consistently that our feelings are accepted and valuable.
Emotional Neglect may take place, for example: when a parent or other primary care-giver ignores when a child is upset or belittles his/her distress, parent fails to set boundaries that provide safety, 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.
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. Feelings are very important to us and understanding them is vital for our well-being. Feelings inform us about, for example, what is important to us, if we have to avoid danger or they motivate us to perform better.
Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect in adulthood
Dr Webb has gathered a list of symptoms that adults who have been emotionally neglected as children. Some of these are:
- Feelings of Emptiness (“I don’t know who I am or what my purpose is”)
- Fear of being dependent (“I will be rejected or let down, if I trust someone”)
- Unrealistic Self-Appraisal – difficulty to accurately describe oneself
- Difficulty with self-compassion, but plenty of compassion for others (You might be interested in reading Shrink the Inner Critic – Self-Compassion leading to a happier life or FREE Self-compassion guided meditation in the Resource Library.
- Guilt and Shame (“I don’t want to be a burden to others”, “My feelings are shameful”) You may be interested in my recent post on Steps to reducing the shame of childhood trauma.
- Self-Blame (“I never succeed and get things wrong”)
- Feeling like one has The Fatal Flaw (“internal void”)
- Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others (“self-care is selfish and self-indulgent” – You might be interested in reading my post on 9 Blocks to self-care and self-compassion.)
- Poor Self-Discipline (such as always leaving to the last minute, difficulty to take projects to the end)
- Poor Awareness and understanding of emotions (“It is better not to think about emotions and hide them)
How can you recover from Childhood Emotional Neglect?
It is possible to recover from CEN. 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.
For example, in the above case, Lisa needs to understand that the sense of disconnection is a result of her not receiving her feelings being mirrored as a child. If a parent mirrors and accurately responds to the child’s emotional needs, the child learns that his/her feelings are important, and also s/he feels connected with the parent.
When Lisa’s loving partner attempts to connect with her, she needs to accept his love and support. Rather than pushing her partner away, Lisa needs to learn to accept him and let him be close to her. 7 Steps for transforming your relationship post series talks about how to become aware of unhelpful relationship patterns and create emotional safety and closeness in a romantic relationship. Similarly, in friendships, Lisa needs to let people into her life so that she does not feel so isolated.
Lisa needs to start listening to her feelings and what they are telling her. She needs to take stock and perhaps write down what she is likely to feel in a situation. She may do this on her own or with a help of a therapist.
Learning to understand feelings can help to reduce Lisa’s need for seeking comfort from food when she encounters emotionally difficult situations, as Lisa becomes more aware of how she actually feels. In those situations, rather than turning to food for comfort Lisa needs to think about other ways of comforting herself, such as turning to her partner and friends for support, practicing self-compassion or meditation, and writing things down.
This is a short introduction to Childhood Emotional Neglect, which affects so many people. It is possible to recover from it, but it requires a commitment to learning about emotions and taking action into doing things that one may have neglected in the past, such as self-care and opening up about feelings with trusted others. You might be interested in reading my post on “5 ways to increase wholeness” and reducing the internal emptiness that Childhood Emotional Neglect can cause.
If you are looking for a therapist to support you in healing from emotional neglect in childhood, take a look at my specialty page – Childhood emotional neglect.
*Lisa’s situation is not a description of a particular client but a collection of experiences told by many people who I have worked with in the past years.
Webb, J. (2013). Running on empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
©2017 Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol. All rights reserved.