What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?
One of my areas of greatest clinical expertise and interest is “childhood emotional neglect” (CEN). As a therapist, I find that many people have never heard of the term.
This makes sense to me for a couple reasons. First of all, neglect is the absence of something. It’s essentially a void in experience. It’s maybe easier to be aware of childhood abuse because something happens – an adult causes bodily harm to a vulnerable child. Secondly, emotions are truly invisible because they happen within us. Sure, we can see happiness in a smile, but we can’t wrap our arms around it, so to speak.
If I asked you right now – “How would you define childhood emotional neglect?” – what would you say?
For some of you reading this, it might be really hard to answer. Yet some of you reading this are very familiar with what this feels like, but you’ve never had a term to name your experience.
Dr. Jonice Webb puts it this way – “CEN is a parent’s failure to respond enough to child’s emotional needs.” But, what does it look like?
Here is my take on defining CEN, with the help of one of my favorite movies – “Matilda” (1996).
Here is a scene from early in the film.
From this short clip, you can see many examples of how Matilda’s parents are extremely neglectful in a traditional sense of the word. The most obvious examples are in regard to basic safety. Her parents should not be leaving her home alone to accept deliveries. And they certainly shouldn’t be keeping her out of school. Basically, she’s lived as a “latch key” kid for some time before the story starts. These issues alone would cause a teacher, a counselor, or other adult to contact the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to report a case of endangerment.
Since this is a fictional depiction of childhood emotional neglect (or CEN), we don’t have to talk too much about safety issues. Let’s move on to examine the many ways Matilda is emotionally neglected by her parents.
1) Her father speaks to her very harshly, with a mean tone.
When Matilda’s father walks into her room, he does not say hello or greet her pleasantly. Instead, he kicks her stack of books, and speaks harshly. Now this might not seem like a very significant issue to some. You might even be thinking, “What’s the big deal? He just got home from work, he’s frustrated or tired.” I would say agree that he is probably tired or frustrated, and this contributes to his attitude. However, from the way Matilda reacts – he probably speaks to her like this all the time. Unfortunately, it has become normal for this little girl to be barked at by her father. If I haven’t convinced you yet, watch the clip again and notice Matilda’s body language.
2) Her father shows no curiosity or interest in her life.
He refuses to believe her when she explains how she has collected so many books. He isn’t curious about what she’s reading, or how she’s doing that day. From what we see in the clip, her father is “talking at” Matilda, instead of “speaking with” her. His singular focus is finding out if any packages have arrived on the doorstep that day. Again, this lack of interest in Matilda’s life seems to be a regular part of the parent-child relationship.
3) Matilda’s parents are totally unaware of her normal developmental and needs.
Her father and mother don’t know her real age. They haven’t just forgotten her birthday -they are an entire 2.5 years off in guessing her actual age! Matilda corrects them in believing she’s about 4 years old, and says “I’m six and a half” and old enough to attend school. I know, I know – this is fictional story, and dramatized for the screen. But stories can be based on real life events, or have some grain of truth hidden behind the creative writing.
4) Matilda’s parents do not seem to enjoy her existence/presence.
It goes without saying that her parents do not show her the attention that an ideal parent-child relationship should have. They don’t demonstrate in any way (verbal, physical, etc) that they are pleased to be around her, and enjoy her simply for who she is. There is no special connection that is sometimes called “an emotional connection”. They connect with her on a basic need-to-know level (“Did any packages arrive?!”) that is more common/normal for places like a workplace, or when talking to a stranger, etc.
When I watch this scene, I get the impression that Matilda’s parents have essentially ignored her emotional development since birth. They’ve obviously fed her, given her clothing, and other material comforts like a bedroom. But beyond these basic necessities, Matilda has clearly needed to fend for herself on an emotional level. And while meeting basic physical needs is important – meeting a child’s emotional needs is just as important.
And when a child’s emotional needs go unmet over time – there can be many negative consequences in both the child’s development and in their adulthood.
Although we don’t see too much of this in the short clip, Matilda’s experience of growing up in that home with those parents is one of deep sadness for her. There are many scenes later on where Matilda’s expression is sad or emotionally distant. If you’ve seen the movie, you might remember images of her sitting with her family and you can tell she is extremely unhappy, somewhat depressed, and not careful and joyful – like you might expect from a young child.
To recap – we’ve just explored some ways of observing and defining childhood emotional neglect. But there is so much more I have to share with you! In future blog posts I’ll write about things like: the negative consequences of CEN evident in adulthood, the ways CEN can impact relationships, and ways of starting to work through the unfortunate consequences of this devastating topic.
Until next time, I would like to encourage you to reflect on your own life and consider the ways you might have been impacted by CEN in your own early life.
Matilda’s example is only ONE way that childhood emotional neglect manifests. Your experience is likely different, and unique to your home, parents, cultural context, etc. However, there is probably a lot of overlap between her story and your childhood story.
If you feel like you’ve experienced childhood emotional neglect, and are possibly suffering negative consequences as an adult – please reach out to a licensed professional (like a therapist or counselor) in order to receive appropriate help for your specific needs.
You deserve to finally take care of yourself for what happened to your as a child. It still matters, and you still matter.
The contents of this blog post are in no way a substitute for appropriate forms of mental health care like psychotherapy. If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. The number for the national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7). The contents of this blog post are not meant to be considered direct health care for issues related to childhood welfare. If you suspect that a child is being harmed, please call the National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-422-4453 (available 24/7).