Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when parents fail to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs as they raise them. This simple, invisible parental failure delivers a powerful message to the child: Your feelings don’t matter.
Since our emotions are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who we are, a child suffering from emotional neglect takes in an even deeper, more traumatic message: You don’t matter.
Here are 10 casual questions to ask a child that can actually tell you if they’re being emotionally neglected:
1. Do you need help? If he says no, ask: Will you tell me if you do?
2. Do you want help? If she says no, ask: Will you tell me if you do?
3. Are you angry?
4. Are you feeling hurt (or sad or afraid or some other emotion)?
5. What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
6. What’s your least favorite thing about yourself?
7. What are you best at?
8. What do you want?
9. What do you need?
10. How did that mistake happen?
Why do these questions work — and how?
1. Asking is the opposite of CEN
First, since a key element of Childhood Emotional Neglect is the message that your parents are not interested in you and do not know you, the simple process of asking your child these questions is the exact opposite of CEN.
2. Assessment of surprise
Second, you can assess by your child’s reaction whether he is surprised to be asked these questions by you. If she is surprised and taken aback, you might surmise that your child doesn’t regard her relationship with you as involving this level of interest and depth. This tells you that perhaps you haven’t been asking her enough meaningful, personal questions in the past — and that now is a good time to start doing so on a more regular basis.
3. Ability to look inward
Third, is your child able to answer your questions (if young, with some amount of help and discussion, of course)? This will tell you how well he’s able to turn his attention inward and consider his internal qualities, assess his feelings and needs, and come up with information about himself.
4. Corresponding observation
Fourth, do your child’s answers correspond closely with your observations of her? If not, this may mean that either your observations of your child are a bit off or that she does not have good self-awareness and self-knowledge.
Keep in mind that most children and adults would struggle with some of the questions, so please do not expect exact or easy answers from your child.
Overall, do you get a sense that your child knows you’re there for him? Knows himself?
Is she aware that she has feelings and an age-appropriate sense of what her feelings are? And is she willing to ask for and accept help when needed?
If so, these are all signs of a non-neglected child.
5. Being aware and interacting
Many emotionally neglectful parents love their children deeply and have no idea that they are emotionally neglecting them. Often, parents who are emotionally neglecting their children are only failing to notice their children’s emotions enough because they were raised this way by their parents.
But sadly, no matter the cause, growing up with this message subliminally delivered to you from your parents day after day takes its toll and continues to affect you through adulthood.
To cope, an emotionally neglected child will automatically push his or her emotions down and away so that they won’t become a burden on your parents. This conditioned behavior sets you up for a set of very specific struggles as an adult.
Adults who grew up with emotional neglect feel, on some deep level, that they don’t matter. They lack proper access to their walled-off feelings. And since their emotions are their biggest and best source of connection, fulfillment, and direction in life, this leaves them with a deep and lasting sense of aloneness, emptiness, and lack of fulfillment.
No loving, caring parent wants this for their child.
1. Not being enough
Built into the definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect is an important reason why many parents find this concept quite scary, and it’s all conveyed by the word “enough.” Are you giving your child enough love or enough emotional support?
Enough is hard to judge. And what’s enough for one kid may not be enough for another.
So how do you know if you’re emotionally aware, emotionally responsive, and emotionally validating enough to raise your child to be connected, healthy, and happy?
2. Knowing when to ask
Fortunately, there’s an excellent way for you to find out if your child is receiving enough of all of these vital life ingredients from you — just ask!
You can ask the 10 questions, and they will be incredibly revealing if you pose them to your child at various times over a week or two. Believe it or not, you can ask your child those questions regardless of their age, all the way from toddler to adult.
3. Understanding the results — and what to do next:
Once you’ve asked your child the questions, you may be feeling relieved, concerned, or uncertain. Either way, you’re probably wondering what to do now.
Here’s the beauty of this little experiment you have done with your child: The questions themselves are not only the test. They are also your answers!
Keep the 10 questions in your mind as you go through your days, and watch for opportunities to ask them. Each time you ask your young, adolescent, or adult child one of these questions, you’re not only conveying your interest in his emotions and his deepest self, but you are also helping him to know and value his own emotions and his deepest self.
No matter how much you love and care for your child, noticing and responding to her feelings and emotional needs is essential. So when it comes to Childhood Emotional Neglect, your very act of asking these questions is both CEN prevention and the cure.
Jonice Webb, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and best-selling author of two self-help books. She specializes in childhood emotional neglect, relationships, communication issues, and mental health. Dr. Webb has appeared on CBS News and NPR, and her work has been cited by many publications.