William* is a man who on the outside looks like he has everything going on for him. He has a good job, a partner and children. William has always felt like there is something missing in his life but he cannot pinpoint what that might be as there is no obvious reason to complain about his life. William’ partner has often said that she finds him distant and when she asks for his attention, he feels uncomfortable and withdraws. His partner has started to complain more and more and this sounds like “nagging” to William. Recently, William has been questioning whether this relationship is right for them, perhaps someone else might be a better fit. William grew up with practical parents who encouraged him to be independent at an early age. They provided food and shelter, but there were no hugs and emotions were certainly not talked about in the family. In his adult relationships, William often felt that women were needy and demanded something of him which he would not be able to give them, open communication and emotional depth.

Laura’s* life is guilt-ridden and lives with a lot of anxiety. She has always seen her role as a nurturer and someone taking care of other people. She ensures that everyone around her is looked after and often leaves herself last, which means that she has very little to give to herself. Her cup is often empty and she is feeling increasing low as well. Life is starting to feel bleak. She has always felt like she is alone. She sees friends but she has always felt like she is sitting on the outside and other people have this secret knowledge about relationships and how to maintain them.

A key feature of Childhood Emotional Neglect is the continuous feeling of being alone even when in a company and struggling to form relationships that involve a deep connection with a partner. Even if one is in a relationship it is really difficult to connect on an emotional level and let one’s partner know oneself fully.

If you identified with something in the stories of William or Laura, you are probably wondering could you ever feel connected and content in your life? I wanted to write this post to continue talking about CEN and how you can recover and learn to reparent yourself. Essentially this is about giving yourself what you didn’t receive as a child. I will also refer to some useful books to help you on your journey of recovery.

Common experiences shared by people who have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect:

Some of the experiences have been listed by Dr Jonice Webb in her book “Running on empty” and I have also added some that I have observed in my clinical work:

  • Internal Emptiness
  • Fear of being dependent
  • Difficulty to accurately describe oneself
  • Difficulty with self-compassion, but plenty of compassion for others
  • Feelings of Guilt and Shame
  • Self-Blame and chronic self-criticism
  • Feeling like one has The Fatal Flaw or feeling of an “internal void”
  • Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others
  • Poor Self-Discipline – frequently being late, difficulties with money
  • Poor Awareness and understanding of emotions
  • People pleasing – prioritising others’ needs
  • Either too rigid or too porous boundaries.
  • Feeling the disconnection in relationships – other people seem to have the secret key to establishing and maintaining a connection in relationships

The key to ending the loneliness and emptiness caused by CEN is in learning to track emotions in the body and name them, breaking down barriers put up and having healthy boundaries.

Steps towards recovering from CEN for being able to live in an open-hearted state and wholeheartedly embrace life experiences and relationships:

  1. Acknowledge childhood emotional neglect
    – Become aware that what you received as a child was not enough to equip you to understand your internal emotional experiences and relationships.
    – Reflect on your childhood relationships and the messages you received about emotions and being emotional as a child
    – Reflect on who you could or not turn to as a child for comfort
  2. Start tracking your emotional experiences – Find a quiet place.
    – Sit and close your eyes and do a body scan to understand your felt sense.
    – Start from your feet upwards making a note of any sensations in your body.
    – Which feelings do you associate these bodily sensations? Don’t worry if it feels difficult to start with, just persevere. This is new to you and it needs practice.
    – Visit the Resource Library for 5 Steps for getting to know your feelings and dealing with them – worksheet
  3. Name the feelings (fear, anger, grief, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, disgust)
  4. Accept and acknowledge the message of your emotional responses – emotions are really a way of your system (body & brain) to communicate to you about your internal world
  5. Develop healthy boundaries and communicate those in your relationships

Too porous boundaries – you struggle to say “no” when you really wished you would be able to do it, but instead you feel that you have to just go along                    with others’ requests

– Start practicing saying “no” even in front of a mirror and test our different ways of saying no.
– If English is not your mother tongue, say “no” in your original language. Two-year-old toddlers learn to say “no” and if you were not allowed to say “no”                 as a child, you may struggle with it as an adult.
– Then start practicing checking with yourself “what’s ok with me and what’s not ok with me” as Brene Brown suggests.
– Start asserting yourself and setting boundaries with a person who you feel safe with.

Too rigid boundaries – you struggle to let people get to know you
– Reflect on what were the messages you learnt about people and trust in your early relationships
– Start to notice your pattern of keeping people even trusted people at arms’ length.
– Embrace your vulnerability and test out sharing something vulnerable with a trusted friend or a partner
– Start saying more “yes” as a new habit when you might have instinctively said “no” in the past

4. Give yourself what you didn’t receive from your parents
– Start feeding your inner child with experiences that are fun and playful
– Practice self-compassion (the Resource Library has a guided meditation)
– Practice good self-care with taking care of your physical (enough sleep, exercise, and good nutrition), emotional and psychological needs

Further resources and books on helping to end the emptiness and loneliness of Childhood Emotional Neglect and learning to recognise and understand your emotions:

Running on empty by Dr Jonice Webb

Living like you mean it by Dr Ronald J. Frederick

It’s not always depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel


I hope you found this helpful in starting to address the loneliness of your inner child, who graved for a loving and emotionally connected adult to guide you through powerful emotional experiences. If you wish to do more work to put an end to your feelings of loneliness and emptiness and learn about your emotions with the help of psychological therapy, please take a look at my Services page. More self-help resources at the Resource Library.

©2019 Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol. All rights reserved.