By Dr Mari Kovanen

CEN refers to emotional needs of a child not being recognised and validated by the primary care giving person, usually the mother. CEN is often difficult to recognise, because it describes an absence of emotional responsiveness rather than experiencing something traumatic.

CEN can lead to the following symptoms (Neff, 2016):
– Feelings of Emptiness
– Fear of being dependent
– Unrealistic Self-Appraisal
– Difficulty with self-compassion, but plenty of compassion for others
– Guilt and Shame
– Self-Blame
– Feeling like one has The Fatal Flaw
– Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others
– Poor Self-Discipline
– Poor Awareness and understanding of emotions

Even well-meaning parents may end up neglecting their child’s emotional needs. There are many reasons a parent may struggle to be emotionally responsive such as:

  • Parent’s own lack of emotional responsiveness in childhood
  • bereavement or other traumatic event
  • mental health difficulties
  • difficulties in setting healthy boundaries with a child
  • working long hours and not being able to be present with the child whilst overcompensating with material rewards
  • having another child with special needs
  • narcissistic parent
  • perfectionist parent

How can therapy help to recover from CEN?

  • Acknowledging that even a happy childhood on paper may have lacked emotional responsiveness by the parent (this is not to blame the parent)
  • Gaining insight into one’s feelings and accepting them as part of who we are
  • Understanding the meaning of different emotions and their message about our internal world (particularly shame & guilt)
  • Learning to become self-compassionate
  • Finding ways to self-sooth and self-care
  • Learning to become more self-disciplined
  • Understanding how CEN impacts on adult relationships (e.g. fear of rejection and becoming dependent) and gradually building better relationships with others

What kind of therapy would help a client with CEN?
Psychodynamic therapy, particularly work based on attachment with early care givers, offers a good foundation for working with an individual who has experienced childhood emotional neglect. In practice this means assisting the client with making links between past and present experiences and gaining insight into the impact of early relationships on feelings experienced in the present moment. In addition, working in the here and now relationship with the therapist the client can learn about themselves and their feelings experienced in the therapy room. Gradually by having insight into their internal world the client starts healing from CEN. Experiencing a nurturing and emotionally responsive therapeutic environment will also assist the client with the other difficulties they are experiencing.
Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol, is a counselling psychologist who has a special interest in working with individuals with childhood related trauma.