While not an official diagnosis, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is becoming a more common term within the psychological sphere. It is different from childhood abuse in that there is no overt trauma, no physical involvement, no verbal abuse and name calling – nothing you could easily label or pinpoint as harmful. The word neglect means the absence of care, not the presence of trauma, and this is exactly what emotional neglect is all about – the absence of emotional nurturance.
Children are dependent on their caregivers (typically parents) for all their needs early on in life – physical such as food and clothing but also emotional, such as safety, comfort and love. Most parents are good at providing physical care and are highly aware of what that involves, however, many don’t understand well the importance of emotional care, or may not be capable of offering it to their children consistently and unconditionally.
Core Emotional Needs of Children
- Feeling safe and protected/ having stability in life
- Feeling comforted, soothed and reassured (physically, verbally and emotionally)
- Feeling seen and understood by others – in regards to their internal state, behaviour and developmental range
- Receiving unconditional support and encouragement
- Feeling the delight/joy of their parents in response to them
When children’s emotional needs are met adequately, they create a solid foundation for secure attachment which in turn helps them develop a strong sense of self, independence, ability to understand and regulate their emotions, and functional relationship management. But what does it feel when some or all of these core needs have not been met? How can you name the absence of something you never even knew you needed or had? How can you fill an empty cup if you think it is your fault it’s empty?
To understand if you have experienced childhood emotional neglect, you need to understand first what children need to develop and thrive, rather than simply survive. Often people can sense they missed out on something but are not sure how to name it. As an adult you may experience an emotional emptiness or numbness, a sense of being fundamentally inadequate, a difficulty understanding and attuning to your feelings, unreasonable guilt for taking care of your needs and chronic caretaking of others – common legacies of childhood emotional neglect. You may have an inkling that your parents did not provide you with important care due to their physical absence, emotional inability or even illness or you may believe that they were loving and caring yet carry this heavy load throughout your life not understanding what is missing and blaming yourself for the way you feel.
If you would like to understand more about childhood emotional neglect, as well as test yourself if this is what you have experienced, I highly recommend reading “Running on Empty” by American psychologist Jonice Webb or looking through her website.