Invisible, Powerful Childhood Emotional Neglect
By Jonice Webb, PhD
“Something’s not right with me, but I don’t know what it is.”
“I had a fine childhood. I should be feeling and doing better than I am.”
“I should be happier. What is wrong with me?”
During more than 20 years as a psychologist, I have discovered a powerful and destructive force from people’s childhoods that weighs upon them as adults. It saps their joy, and causes them to feel disconnected and unfulfilled. This childhood force goes completely unnoticed while it does its silent damage to people’s lives. In fact, it’s so invisible that it has flown under the radar of not only the general public, but also the mental health profession.
I call this force childhood emotional neglect, and have spent the last two years trying to help people become aware of it, talk about it, and heal from it.
Here’s the definition of childhood emotional neglect (CEN): It’s a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
You can see from this definition why CEN is so hard to detect. Since it’s not a parent’s act but a parent’s failure to act, it’s not an event. It’s not something that happens to a child; it’s something that fails to happen for a child. Therefore, it’s not visible, tangible or memorable.
To further complicate things, it is often caring and loving parents who fail their children this way; parents who mean well, but were emotionally neglected by their own parents.
Here’s one example of how CEN can work: 9-year-old Levi comes home from school feeling upset because he had an argument with his friends. He is feeling a swirl of emotion: hurt that his friends ganged up on him on the playground, embarrassed that he cried in front of them, and mortified that he has to go back to school the next day to face them. Levi’s parents love him very much. But on this day, they fail to notice that he is upset. They go about the afternoon, and no one says to Levi, “Hey, is something wrong?” Or, “Did something happen at school today?”
This may seem like nothing. Indeed, this happens in every household across the world, and generally it does no great harm. But if it happens with enough depth and breadth throughout Levi’s childhood, that his emotions are not noticed or responded to enough by his parents, he will receive a potent message: that the most deeply personal, biological part of who he is, his emotional self, is irrelevant, even unacceptable.
Levi will take this implicit but powerful message to heart. He will feel deeply, personally invalidated, but he will have no awareness of that feeling or of its cause. He will start to automatically push his feelings away, and to treat them as if they are nothing. He will, as an adult, have difficulty feeling his emotions, understanding them, and using them for the things that emotions are meant to do. He may have difficulty connecting with others, making decisions, or making sense of his own and other people’s behavior. He may feel unworthy or invalid in some indescribable way. He may believe that his own feelings or needs don’t matter.
CEN can take an infinite number of different forms. Levi’s example is only one. But I have noticed a certain pattern of struggles which CEN folks tend to share. The pattern includes feelings of emptiness, difficulty relying upon other people, self-directed anger and blame, and problems with self-discipline, among others.
Because the cause of CEN is so subtle and invisible, many CEN people look back upon a “fine childhood” with loving parents, and see no explanation for why they feel this way. This is why they so often blame themselves for their difficulties, and feel a deep sense of being somehow secretly flawed.
The good news about childhood emotional neglect is that once you become aware of it, it is entirely possible to heal from it. But since CEN is so hard to recognize, it can be quite difficult to see it in your own childhood.