The Invisible Scar Of Childhood Emotional Neglect

"What children need their parents to do is to notice and respond to their feelings."

Sandra McNeill
February 07, 2019 - 5:00 am

Photo: Dreamstime


(WWJ) Millions of adults are growing up feeling empty and alone, not knowing what they want in life. And they don't know why.

It was a pattern Dr. Jonice Webb of Boston noticed in her clients. They reported nothing amiss in their childhoods. They weren't physically abused. They just had a nagging feeling that something was missing in their lives.

Webb has been pioneering research into Childhood Emotional Neglect. It isn't something that happens to children growing up. It's something that should have happened, but didn't.

"What children need their parents to do is to notice and respond to their feelings," Webb told WWJ’s Sandra McNeill. "But there are a huge number of parents who don't realize this because they didn't grow up with their own feelings noticed."

It's not that parents are able to, or even should, notice and respond to everything. But when it is a pattern of inattention to the child's feelings, wants and needs, it leaves an invisible scar.

"You end up pushing your feelings down in a way, because you think they are either a burden, or they're unnecessary or irrelevant. And you kind of wall off your feelings, just to get by in your childhood home."

With their emotions walled off, as adults, these children struggle to connect in relationships with friends and lovers and to figure out what they want in life.

"So many people are unaware that they even have joy, unaware that they like something," Webb said. "They're unaware that they feel badly when they don't get certain things. How do you know what to pursue, if you don't know what makes you feel happy?"

While the adult can't access the feelings that are repressed, they are still there, Webb says. 

"The thing about walled off feelings is that they actually have a lot of power over you. Because they're walled off, they don't go away, they just sit there. And then they get touched off by things in your current life." 

When that happens, Webb said, "You feel much more extremely than makes any sense to you or the people around you because it's old feelings attached to a current event."

Many of those who suffered Childhood Emotional Neglect struggle to ever find meaning in life. They often feel guilty for other people's emotions as well. 

When they are children, Webb said, "It's sort of like being treated like your right arm doesn't exist....because you have these feelings that people around you are pretending that you don't, and/or shouldn't. That leads you to feel responsible for things that you're not responsible for."

It's a phenomenon in many families, Webb said.

"Those who are the least guilty often feel the most guilt."

Webb has written a book called, "Running on Empty, Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect."  It features a program to help those with Childhood Emotional Neglect take better care of themselves and figure out what they want, and most importantly, how they feel.

She offers a mindfulness technique that involves sitting alone and turning your gaze inward, asking yourself, "How am I feeling?"

"Every time you do that exercise, even if you don't experience a feeling, you're breaking a little chip out of that wall. So you just have to keep doing it. Just keep trying."

Webb has a checklist of symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect along with other help at