Real belonging requires us to be authentically ourselves.

Brene Brown

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

People who grew up with CEN end up feeling on the outside. It’s a sense of being alone, unable to join, separate, different. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the cause of it all, Childhood Emotional Neglect, doesn’t get talked about.

But in the last month I’ve noticed several news stories and articles that touch upon CEN, addressing it indirectly. They are all important and teach us something new. Here they are:

  1. The Story: In the Boston Globe, a headline says, “For Neglected Children, Path to Recovery is Difficult.” The article is about a house in Massachusetts in which two children, one 3 years old and the other 5 months, had been hidden away from the world by their mother. No one, not even the children’s father, knew that they even existed. They had been traumatically physically neglected.

In the article, Dr. Charles Nelson, a Harvard professor, is quoted as saying, “Depriving the brain very early in life has very insidious effects.” Dr. Ann Easterbrooks, a Tufts University professor, is also quoted: “In cases of chronic, severe neglect, you see smaller brains and difficulties in emotion regulation. You might see serious depression, anxiety disorders, and negativity,” including blunted positive emotions and emotional flatness.

The Takeaway: We know, and science has established, that extreme physical neglect in childhood affects the brain’s wiring, and has severe and damaging effects that endure into adulthood. But this article, and the research it cites, focuses upon physical neglect, not Emotional Neglect.

The Question: Let’s study the brains of Emotionally Neglected children. Let’s look at the separate effects of Emotional Neglect from the physical type of neglect.

  1. The Story: The Monitor on Psychology (Jan., 2014) referred to a study by psychologist John Cacioppo,PhD  from Social Science and Medicine, 2012. The study found a connection between feelings of loneliness and increased likelihood of death. They also found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby. In other words, being alone is not a health risk. Feeling lonely is. And it is possible to feel very alone, even when surrounded by family and friends.

The Takeaway: Loneliness is a feeling, not a state.  It is possible to experience powerful feelings of loneliness while surrounded by people who love you. And beyond that, those feelings of loneliness can have a profound effect upon your physical health. This study validates the importance of the empty, “on the outside” feelings that so often go along with CEN.

The Question: The deeper question is: Why would a person feel lonely while surrounded by people who love him? I believe that often, the answer is CEN. So is it a jump to hope that taking on your CEN and breaking down your walls could improve your physical health? I don’t think so.

  1. The Story: A study by O’Reilly, Robinson and Berdahl, 2014, looked at the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) vs. bullying. They found several very interesting and relevant findings:  First, they found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him/her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones, and are more likely to leave their job than their bullied colleagues.

The Takeaway: If grown-ups are more affected by being ignored (the adult form of Emotional Neglect) than they are by bullying (the adult form of abuse), imagine what it’s like for a child who is being ignored by his family.

The Question: Could this have implications for the impact of abuse vs. Emotional Neglect upon children? Abuse is a terrible thing for a child to endure. It has lasting effects throughout adulthood which must be addressed. But if you grew up emotionally neglected, you may suffer even more than the abused. You, like the ostracized adult in his work environment, did not feel like an important part of your family. Your suffering is real.

So children’s brain development is effected by physical neglect. It is possible to feel intensely lonely while surrounded by loving people. And being ignored is worse for adults than being bullied.

Yet widespread, subtle Emotional Neglect continues to erode the lives of thousands of children and adults. Unfortunately, since it is not visible, tangible, memorable, or dramatic, it receives no headlines and no research grants of its own.

What is it like to fall between the cracks? What is it like to feel that you don’t belong? Let’s pay attention to the children who know. Let’s ask the adults who can tell us. Let’s put our time and money into research, and give validation and a voice to those who feel on the outside.

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To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, its causes and effects, and how to heal, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.