Understanding Childhood Emotional Neglect

This week's episode features Dr. Jonice Webb.  She is the author of the best-selling book Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect. And has just published a follow-up to the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents and Your Children.

Because like many people out there – when you use words like trauma and neglect – they feel too strong to describe what was, yes, a challenging childhood, and so it is easy to reject looking into any subject matter around the topic, especially if you are a person who feels that you have overcome adversities and challenges. 

But if you are a person who is still committing acts of self-sabotage such as bad romantic relationships, or have feelings of anxiety or depression frequently, and you have never been able to put a finger on any particular event or experience in your life that may have contributed to them, the concept of childhood emotional neglect just might be the key to unlocking the mystery. 

In this episode, Ameé and Dr. Webb discuss the following: 

  • What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? 

  • The common types of parents who are more apt to create this emotionally phobic or neglectful environment.  

  • Now, how does someone feel like an adult if they did experience this lack of emotional connection from parents?

  • What are the outcomes & behaviors typically seen?

  • How does a person who has experienced childhood emotional neglect parent their own kids from an empty tank? 

  • Do you have to confront your own parents to heal from CEN? 

  • What's the first step to healing yourself from CEN?  


Dr. Jonice Webb's Website Dr. Jonice Webb's Facebook Page Dr. Jonice Webb's YouTube Channel Dr. Jonice Webb on Instagram Dr. Jonice Webb on Twitter




*Transcripts may contain some grammatical errors.

Amee: 00:12 You are listening to One Broken Mom, a podcast dedicated to raising awareness about mental health, parenting and self improvement. I am the host, Amee Quiriconi. One Broken Mom is not a family show. It is intended for adults only and may contain a own language. Sometimes the topics are serious but you can count on the episodes to be entertaining. Also, One Broken Mom is not offering any psychiatric or medical diagnosis. We're just here giving away useful and important information, so if you're ready to hear real talk by real people so that we can all get better together, then you're in the right place and welcome.

Amee: 00:47 Hello, welcome to this week's episode of One Broken Mom. Now it's not my norm to do an intro before my interview begins, but I had to make an exception this week for the first time since I started doing the show. I made a mistake and unfortunately that mistake was at some point before the recording actually started. My microphone became unplugged and I didn't catch that my little red light wasn't on. And so my portion of the interview that we're about ready to listen to is actually recorded through my computer mic, and not my brilliant, beautiful podcasting microphone that I have. Now. Fortunately you're going to hear that Dr. Jonice Webb, she is spot on. She's crystal clear. And at the end of the day, that's the most important thing because she's the expert, not myself. So as you come into this episode this week, and if this is the first time that you've come to one broken mom, I will tell you that this is not the norm.

Amee: 01:40 However, due to the subject matter and my guest and everything that we talked about, it was important that we continue to go ahead and publish this episode so that you can hear it. I did my best to edit it. I hope that it's going to be suitable for most of you and I just wanted to make sure that, uh, you guys understood that. Yeah, I know it. I got it. It doesn't sound as amazing as it usually does, but um, you're going to, as you listen to it, going to forget about that and really start to resonate with what Dr. Webb has to say. So anyways, as you come into One Broken Mom, keep that in mind. And again, I am always grateful to have you as a listener and so enjoy. Thank you.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 02:21 Well, today I am thrilled to have on the show Dr Jonice Webb. She is the author of the bestselling book, which I have highlighted a lot of called running on empty, overcoming your childhood emotional neglect. And she's just actually published a followup to this called running on empty. No more transform your relationships with your partner or your parents and your children. So welcome Dr Webb. Thank you. Thank you. And me for having me. It's going to feel out of order with my, um, with my episodes because this is a really great groundwork. You know, this is a baseline topic or people to springboard off of. And, um, and so when everybody goes through this, they and listens to this episode, I'm probably going to have everybody like start to listen to this one first even though it's actually going to be coming in towards the end of my first season. Um, but I want to give everybody some background of how I actually landed on your book and this topic, which is just, I mean it's really groundbreaking and fascinating.

Amee: 03:17 Um, so a bit about, uh, where I, where I came to here, you know, as most people know the story or you know, I've been listening and following with me, you know, in the last couple of years I went through some life shifting and one of those things was to sit there. I recognize that I was repeating some patterns. There was some self sabotaging going on. And most importantly I was really conflicted and struggling with motherhood and parenting. Like there was, there were pieces of it that felt foreign and unfamiliar despite wanting, you know, to be a great mom to my kids. And one of the exercises that I did, like most people do was that I tried to figure out what was going on with the people around me know how to put labels on what they were and what they were doing. Because as most people start off on this path or when they're struggling with things, it's really easy to sit there and go.

Amee: 04:07 They're the ones with the problems and it's not me, it's them. Um, and so I thought that I needed to know how to navigate, you know, the folks that were in my circle and in my world in order to be able to, you know, pull them back or do whatever. But you know, obviously when I began to understand was that, um, I needed to understand the people around me because it was really going to help reflect back on me on who I really was. And like a lot of people that are out there, it took me a very long time to get my head around the words like trauma and neglect because those words feel so strong that people might admit to having some challenges in childhood, but they would never associate such strong language to describe, you know, growing up. And I know you know that.

Amee: 04:53 And so when I was, um, looking into the subject matter, it's easy to reject. I ran, there's no trauma, there is no neglect in there. Um, and also I think some people feel like even if they had some challenges in childhood, they were successful triumphing over them, but they got through it. They live, they got their college degrees, they got married, they got, you know, all the things that are successful and seemed to imply that, you know, hey, whatever happened to me doesn't affect me anymore. But I call this the big bud statement. But fact was I was struggling with parenting and understanding why it hurts sometimes and I am repeating bad choices and patterns and relationships. And so the truth was kind of looking at myself going, I mean, you didn't triumph over anything yet. I mean, you know, you may have felt like it was, but you're, you're still repeating some of these things and it's really important to understand where those came from.

Amee: 05:42 And so this book in this concept that you developed through your years of research and therapy and working with people that, and I love the statement, and I'm not going to take credit for it because you said it was that sometimes it's not what did happen to us as children growing up, but what didn't happen. And that struck the profound chord in me and really again laid the groundwork for how I was able to then start to go in and drill in deeper. And so I would love for you to kick this off. Talk to us about what childhood emotional neglect is and how you came to understanding this and finding this in your work and writing about it.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 06:20 Sure, absolutely. Well, childhood emotional neglect is just, it's actually quite simple. It's a parent's failure to respond enough to your feelings as they raise you. And so in this sense, it's exactly what you just said. It's, uh, it's not what your parents do to you. It's what they fail to do for you. Um, so specifically it's when they, your parents are just not tuned into emotions probably in general, but definitely to your own as a child. So they don't ask you what do you feel? They don't notice your feelings and name them for you. You look sad, what's going on? Or are you upset what happened at school today? Or even asking what happened at school today? And then really listening and hearing you. When parents don't do that enough for their child, they are sending that child of very, very powerful, unspoken message. And that message is your feelings don't matter or they're not even real.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 07:25 And what happens with the child without ever really consciously registering this, the child becomes aware that, um, the child's brain knows that the emotional, that his or her emotions are not a factor and are not welcome in their childhood home. So literally a wall is built in your brain that blocks off your feelings and you go through your childhood pretending they don't exist. But we all are wired. We're just born biologically wired with very intense emotions built into us and we have them for a reason. So if you get this message in childhood, you all off your feelings and then you go into adulthood, you know, go through adolescence and adulthood without access to this very powerful resource that we all have within us. Your living your life of um, you know, without being basically tethered to your true self, which is your emotions and that has all sorts of ramifications that play out over the decades of your life.

Amee: 08:34 Yeah. I actually, one of the episodes I did was actually on neurobiology and neuroscience. Um, cause I think that, you know, that is also this recent understanding of that. Like you said, you know, the term being wired for that than it is, you know, there are some in neat pieces to us and that that learning experience of emotions as important as learning to walk and hold the Sippy Cup and enunciate letters. And because I find that sometimes I don't know what that means to do for my kid. And you said it really simply asking them how they feel. It goes a long way. I mean, is it, is it really, can it really be that simple? I mean, you know, to kind of start off there, I'm just saying, hey, how you doing?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 09:14 Um, it can be that simple, but it has to be followed up with listening. And actually there's sort of like this way that you can look at your child and not really see them. And I think a lot of parents, it's not their fault at all, but this is how they look at their kids because that's how their parents looked at them when they were growing up. And we all, our brains get programmed in childhood, um, for parenting and we all treat our children automatically the same way that we were treated as when we were children. So, um, it really, it's just a matter of really looking at your child and tried to figure out what is this child all about? What is my child's true nature? What does she love? What does she hate? What it triggers her, what bothers her? What is she, what are her waiting weaknesses? What are her strengths? What is she feeling right now? And then just saying to your child, you, you know, something so simple as, um, are you, are you worried about tomorrow or, um, how do you feel about doing your class presentation or what happened on the playground today? You look upset, like giving your child feeling words and validating for your child what he or she is feeling is like gold when it comes to parenting.

Amee: 10:34 Do you think that sometimes, um, because what, what struck my head is that I think as parents we think that we have to inform and tell them our kids because we'd been told what to feel. But that's that, that's how you do emotional development is by saying, no, it's inappropriate to be upset about this because we have all the logic, right? And we have all the experience and says this isn't really a scary situation. So you aren't supposed to be scared. And, and, and that feels like that's our job as appearance. What you're saying is that it's actually the opposite of that, that the kid has an, it has a feeling we've had feelings, let's talk about this. Like we had real feelings here, you know, as we were growing up and the goal of parenting isn't to tell us that it was wrong or it was inappropriate or not it, you know, not acknowledging it but honoring it and exploring it. Right?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 11:24 Yeah. I mean, I'm a parent too, and I can't tell you how I didn't know how to do it either. How many times I gave my kids the message that they were out of line for having strong feelings. I think it's just, you know, if this is what your parents did, this is what you will do unless you become aware and you override that and you do something different.

Amee: 11:45 So how does, uh, how does a healthy parent look at it, you know, and kind of a contrast to, um, one that is stumbling and I'm, I'm with you. You know, big message for my show is we're not a finger pointing at bad parents. That's not what the show is about. Like ever, ever about, because we are all, we're working with what we already knew and it's so hard. It's so hard to be fair. Right? Right. So what is, uh, you know, what's your healthy parent look like? You know, that that is in contrast again to maybe something that we saw in her own parents. And again, you know, we can all love our parents and we'll leave that there. So gold, but you know what Matt, they've been missing that the healthy parent knows what to do.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 12:26 Well, I think it's a matter of doing everything I just said, you know, asking your child, really trying to understand who your child is and what your child needs and what your child feels. Um, but there's also another side to that and I've also seen many parents go too far in the direction of indulging their child. So what we're talking about with all of this, seeing who your child really is, that's not the same thing as indulging because you can, it's really a key to say to your child, I understand why you're angry about this. I know you really wanted to go into that store. We just don't have time now. I'm really sorry honey. We have to go. We're leaving now. So you set the limit is, and that works all the way through teen years where, you know, you're saying, I know you really want it to have the car tonight. I get it. I understand how important that is to you. Unfortunately we just can't do that, which is very different than I've told you three times. No car. Right. Acknowledging the feelings at all. Um, and you know, it can, it's not like a magical solution, but it's very, very powerful when you acknowledge the child's feelings or teenagers feelings.

Amee: 13:43 Yeah. So you broke down in the book and coming back to this here in generalizations of about 12 types of parents. So if somebody is trying to figure out what bucket, you know, maybe there are folks fell into and who, who are prone to create this emotionally phobic or at neglectful environment. Um, and I, you know, I'm happy to read them all off. I think everybody should get into there, but I'd like to talk about like, have you seen certain profiles, appearance, I kind of erupt a little bit more often in the work that you've done with some of the folks said you that you think other people might resonate with. Some of them are like narcissistic parents, which I actually have covered on one broken mom because that's a, it's a deeply painful, you know, that's fine. Just a little bit of neglect, but it's a wound in one. I miss you, you know, you cover permissive parenting. I've talked about emotionally immature parents, but what are some of the other ones that you'd seen that maybe a much more like common profile of, you know, let's just say the average person out there. Yeah.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 14:42 Um, so some of the other ones, basically I'll, I'll tell you about three main categories of parents because I think it's easiest to just sort of lump them together, but just to name a few others. Addicted parents, it's depressed parents, um, parents who are taking care of an ill family member for example, um, parents who are grieving. Uh, those are just a few that you didn't mention workaholic parents, but, um, you can group them into three categories, which are parents who are struggling themselves may be well meaning, but they're just struggling. Then there are parents who are self involved, self focused. That would be like the addictive parent, the addicted parents, narcissistic parents, sociopathic parents, that kind of thing. And then the third category is what I see as the, by far the biggest and that group are what I call the well meaning, but neglected themselves parents. And these are the ones who are, um, you know, grew up with parents who just didn't understand emotions and didn't pay attention to them. And for whatever reason that's how they grew up. And now they're raising you that way. They may love you, they may care about you, they just simply don't know how to really see you or see what you're feeling or respond to any of that.

Amee: 16:03 How, how does somebody look at their family to sit there and, and, and kind of categorize it or, um, and figure out which one that they might fall into. I mean, what are some examples of that? Well, meaning parents that just didn't know, I mean, well with their child, what would my child have looked like if that was my folks?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 16:21 Um, well I can't tell you how many people have said to me, my parents were at all my little league games for example. And so a well meaning parent can be very supportive, you know, derive you from soccer practice to, you know, your friend's house and pick you up and drives you all over the place. But while they're doing that, they might be on their phone listening to music, sort of like yessing you without listening to what you're saying. Um, so it's that kind of thing or it could be a parent, you know, a lot of struggling parents are also, which is the second, the first category I mentioned, you know, these are parents who might be working really hard just because financial struggle or, um, you know, struggling with their own depression or their own anxiety or their own inner conflict or whatever's going on with, with the parents. Um, it can be that they're just so taken up with their own struggles that are legitimate, that they just don't have the time or the energy to give to you. So it can be all the way from a stay at home mom is with you always, but just doesn't really see you to a parent who's never home because they're trying to put food on the table.

Amee: 17:42 Yeah. And with a struggling parent, you point out that can be a temporary situation for some people. You know, growing up, you know, I've, um, you know, as having gone through a few divorces, you know, growing up, and I've always said, like when I put myself in that situation, I can understand why you just as a, as an adult woman, it's checking out because you're dealing with your own grief, your own sadness, your own, what do I do next? And then at the same time, it really is hard to sit there and show up then for your kid, especially if you're kind of running late, you said running on empty, you don't have a full tank to begin with. Um, or in some cases, you know, I do have friends who have been widowed or um, or are suffering from, uh, having some major health crisis that happened while they were growing up where everybody kind of hit the pause button.

Amee: 18:29 And I guess that feeling that everybody seems to have, which is kids are tough and resilient and they'll get through it and they carry that as a, I don't want to say an excuse because excuse again is kind of a strong term, but they use that as a baseline of like, you know what, I can't actually push the pause button and everything's gonna be fine. But I think what you're saying here is that that doesn't necessarily happen. You know, pause button is pushed it. There can be long term effects to something like that. Is that right?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 18:58 Yes. But again, you know, pretty much any, a pause like that can be fixed if it happens. That's the great thing about this is that it is also fixable. And so if a parent, let's say, is going through a major health crisis and sort of drops out of emotional connection for awhile, and then imagine a parent who comes back from that says, you know, to their child, I've been so unavailable to you, I feel terrible about it. And I did notice what you were going through. I just didn't have the ability or energy to talk to you about it at the time. But let's talk about it now that can fix everything. Whereas a parent who just lodges back, I like, I'm healthy now, let's, you know, go back to normal. That's gonna leave a wound.

Amee: 19:43 Yeah. And I'm, I'm glad you say that. That gives me goosebumps because I, you know, I do, I'm a, I'm a message of hope that because some of us do carry some guilt over our own, you know, like, oh my gosh, I totally messed up and now would want to do. And the fact that you can actually go back, it's just like, I want to hear it. Every parent that's actually already gone through this. Like I didn't, I didn't do what I needed to do. You know, she's the expert. She's telling you, you can't actually go back and make some repair moves. Um, and it, it, I guess it could be, it could be hard. I mean it's not like an instantly fixes it. I mean, cause I think I, I, you know, one conversation isn't necessarily going to do it probably depending on the gravity of the, we'll call it neglect because that is the word. Even if Sony neglects their kid, but if it's on, if it's been long term, it can take some time to go back and keep working through that with your child. Especially I think teenagers.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 20:35 Yeah. That's actually one of the reasons I wrote the second book because there were so many people who were saying, now that I understand that I was emotionally neglected, I can see how I've played that out with kids. And you know, they are, they might be small, they might be teenagers, they might be adults now, but what, what can I do because I feel terrible. And, um, so there are ways to reach out to your child, whatever their age and start treating them differently and talking to them differently.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 21:02 Some of them you can talk about it to directly. Some of them you can't and you don't have to, but you really, I'm a strong believer that you can fix whatever emotional neglect, damage you've done with your child. You can fix it.

Amee: 21:17 Good. That's good news, everyone. So let's talk about the adults today. I mean, so you have a practice where you started to recognize and see some common, uh, signs and behaviors and people. And so what are those that, uh, and then as an adult is showing when they come in to talk to you about this and you're saying, listen, this is, this is, this is a sure sign that, you know, you had some lack of emotional connectedness with your parents. I mean, what are those typical things?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 21:49 So the signs are what I started to see in my, my patients over a lot of different kinds of settings. You know, I was saying very different varieties of people over a decade of practicing or more. And I started to realize that there was this certain set of, we'll call them characteristics or symptoms that kept reoccurring and people who seem to have nothing else in common. And this is why I started thinking what could be causing this? And it's how I realized it's because they had all grown up without their emotions being acknowledged as children. And the, what I was seeing as the pattern was a sense of sort of like emptiness, a feeling of being somehow different from other people. Like something is not quite right with me, but I don't know what it is. I can't put it into words. And I later gave that the term the fatal flaw because people who grew up emotionally neglected just inherently feel like there's something wrong with me and it's got to be my fault because I don't see any explanation for it.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 22:54 Um, so there's that and sort of feeling of being disconnected from other people and alone in the world, a fear of asking anyone for help or emotional support. Um, sort of like this, I could do it on my own and I will, uh, kind of way of living life and, um, uh, kind of a lack of awareness of their own feelings and emotions. Um, and a real way that I can see that in the therapy room with my clients is when people have very low emotional vocabulary. So for example, if I say, what do you feel right now to a client? And they say, um, well, here's what I said to that person. You know, it's like there's just that, that question, what are you feeling? Or what did you feel just doesn't even compute. And you know, there's a whole continuum of that. Some people will start with a thought instead of a feeling, some just we'll crack a joke, some will just squirm in their seat and, you know, try to change the subject. But it's this acute discomfort with feelings and everything about feelings.

Amee: 24:05 Yeah. And you talked about too in the book, um, you know, sometimes people, they respond and react with being a more indulgent, you know, or self indulgent. And maybe to the point of getting out of control and, and that, that, that kind of landed with me at a personal level because again, as I was sitting there going through and trying to understand the people around me, I was, um, I found myself being around people that were more indulgent of their own needs. And as you point out, a person who has had some emotional neglect or you know, maybe a lot of emotional collect are really good at taking care of everybody else. That that was a piece of probably linked to a parent who had their own emotional needs, not kind of acknowledged. And so they're using their children to do that for them. I mean, does that sound like a fair statement there?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 24:54 Yeah, that could be a narcissistic parent or it could be a parent who was neglected themselves and just is so unaware of their own feelings that their feelings come out, you know, Willy Nilly at their kids or towards their kids or about, you know, or they need their kids to like sue them. So there are many different ways that if you're not aware of your emotions and purposely managing them, they can damage your kids.

Amee: 25:22 Yeah. And it's self indulgent piece. And I'll point this out, you know, it's not, it's not my most attractive and most endearing quality myself, but I do and I've admitted to people like, um, you know, there is this piece of me that is very self centered. You know, and I, and I've, that's one of those things. I've sat there and I've gone, what's the, what's the positive elements of that? How do I, how do I lean into those parts of it? And it's narcissistic at times. I think it gets pushed to narcissism when you're under stress, you know, you become more narcissistic. All everybody does. But the idea that I, I remember shortly before I got your book, I'd read through all my journals that I had written when I was like, you know, late elementary school and into my middle school years. And it was this resoundingly desire to be seen that I just felt generally in world and life around me.

Amee: 26:13 Nobody actually was paying attention to me. And I was going to show them. And that statement feels really, you know, again, it can come off as narcissistic, but I felt like that's where I was in this balance of this quest to be seen, but yet also constantly being driven to people that were never going to see me because I was replaying, like you said, that that experience and I was used to having in my life over and over again of surrounding myself with people that actually just in the end with neat, neat and in some way that was going to be how it was going to be seen was to show them. Um, and so is that a, is that a behavior that you've seen with other, with other people that may be feeling emotionally neglected that they become doers because maybe that's the way that they can get some attention kind of drawn in their direction and they don't get it, that it's an emotional connection that they're trying to get not tangible, you know, doing something for someone?

Dr. Jonice Webb: 27:02 Oh yes, absolutely. I think it's very common if, if you're, you know, if you grew up emotionally neglected and you're out of touch with your own wants and needs and feelings, then first of all, it can make you very vulnerable to people who basically you're not taking up your affairs space in the world. You're holding yourself back and you know, your own needs back. And then it makes you more appealing to people who will take up a lot of space. So, um, it makes you more vulnerable to big personalities or narcissistic folks who want to, you know, who feel most comfortable being in charge and having their own way. Um, so that's one of the problems, but also when you ignore your feelings, the only ones that really get through are the powerful ones. So, you know, in order to break through that wall of feeling has to be really intense and then it will just like come out. And so what, you might be ignoring yourself all the time and then just lose it occasionally. In a way. It's very mystifying so they can get, um, you know, it's just different for everybody, but yet the same in a very interesting way.

Amee: 28:14 Right, right. Um, self care is another one of the things that you point out that sometimes if somebody has been emotionally neglected growing up, they don't know how to define and take care of themselves and that can be expressed through self care. Simple things. Like I said, I shared this with other people. You know, I always made excuses that there wasn't enough money to, you know, take, you know, go to the dentist on a regular basis or you know, whenever. And I, you know, like I said, I brushed my teeth and floss so it's not like I had a terrible thing, but the whole act of taking that regular maintenance of my own body, that was the unappealing, I don't want to say unappealing ways. It's easy to go get your hair styled, get your nails done, get all the pretty parts to it. Because again, you're trying to draw attention to yourself, but then the maintenance that doesn't seem to have an upside to it. Right. Just to, you know, go get the oil changed and the tires rotated. That kind of work. I was always hard for me to do that on my own, so we had to remind me to do it or I just never did. And then you said that that can be a common element of somebody that if they're struggling with their own self care, but that's probably linked back to not knowing how to decide that those were important for them.

Dr. Jonice Webb: 29:22 Yeah, I think it all goes down. You know, if you boil it down, it's do I, am I deserving of care because, um, you know, getting your hair and your nails done is what everybody sees as you're walking through the world and that, you know, you can see in porn, but if you're disconnected from your feelings, what's important inside of you? Um, does it matter? Uh, if you have healthy food to eat, does it matter if you get enough exercise? Does it matter if you get enough rest? How valuable are you? How much does your health and your energy and your, um, you know, wellbeing matter. And so I think for a lot of emotionally neglected people, they don't really know how to judge that for themselves and they just feel they're so repressed inside that it's hard for them to feel that any of that even matters.

Amee: 30:19 What is your, you know, the next step for somebody that you know, feels that this is where they're at. How do you get started on this path of starting to fill that tank up and, and, and working on changing that part, um, for yourself too. I mean, because it's hard to acknowledge emotions in yourself when you didn't have any training on how to do it. So, I mean, your book is obviously one of the most valuable ways to do it, but what is, what is the advice on how you start people down this path?