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3 Challenges for Kids Whose Parents Lack Emotional Intelligence

2. They don't learn how to talk about, or control, their own emotions.

Key points

  • When parents under-respond to their child's emotions, they inadvertently send some powerful, unspoken messages to the child.
  • Children growing up this way assume that their feelings are useless or burdensome and are often confused about what's wrong.
  • The voices of low emotional intelligence can stick with you for a lifetime, unless you decide to challenge them.

Ten-year-old Jasmine lies alone on her bed, glad to be sequestered behind the closed doors of her room. “It could happen,” she whispers quietly to herself. In her mind, she’s reliving the fantasy that’s helped get her through her life so far: Her father answers the doorbell, and a kind, well-dressed couple explains to him that Jasmine was accidentally sent home with the wrong family at birth and that she actually belongs to them. They then take her back to their home, where she feels loved, nurtured, and cared for…

Jasmine doesn’t know it, but this is only the beginning of her struggle. She will spend the next 20 years wishing that she had different parents and feeling guilty about it.

After all, her parents are basically good people. They work hard, and Jasmine has a house, food, clothing, and toys. She goes to school every day and does her homework every afternoon. She has friends at school and plays soccer. By all accounts, she is a very lucky child.

But, despite Jasmine’s luck, and even though her parents love her, even at age 10 she knows, deep down, that she is alone in this world.

How could a 10-year-old know this? Why would she feel this way? The answer is as simple as it is complicated:

Jasmine is being raised by parents with low emotional intelligence. Jasmine is growing up with childhood emotional neglect.

  • Emotional intelligence: The ability to identify, assess, and manage one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and those of groups (as described by Daniel Goleman).
  • Childhood emotional neglect: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.

When you are raised by parents who lack these skills, you struggle for good reasons:

1. Because your parents don’t know how to identify their own emotions, they don’t speak the language of emotion in your childhood home.

Instead of saying, “You look upset, Sweetie. Did something happen at school today?” your parents absentmindedly say, “So how was school?”

When your grandmother passes away, your family marches through the funeral acting like it’s no big deal.

When your prom date stands you up, your family shows their support by making an effort to never speak of it. Or they tease you about it relentlessly, never seeming to notice or care how very mortified you are.

The Result: You don’t learn how to be self-aware. You don’t learn that your feelings are real or important. You don’t learn how to feel, sit with, talk about, or express emotions.

2. Because your parents are not good at managing and controlling their own emotions, they are not able to teach you how to manage and control your own.

When you get in trouble at school for calling your teacher “a jerk,” your parents do not ask you what was going on or why you lost your temper that way. They don’t explain to you how you could have handled that situation differently. Instead, they ground you, or they yell at you, or they blame it on your teacher, letting you off the hook.

The Result: You don’t learn how to control or manage your feelings or how to manage difficult situations.

3. Because your parents don’t understand emotions, they give you many wrong messages about yourself and the world through their words and behavior.

Your parents act as if you’re lazy because they haven’t noticed that it’s your anxiety that holds you back from doing things.

Your siblings call you crybaby and treat you as if you’re weak because you cried for days after your beloved cat was run over by a car.

The Result: You go forward into adulthood with the wrong voices in your head. “You’re lazy”; “You’re weak,” say "The Voices of Low Emotional Intelligence" at every opportunity.

All of these results leave you struggling, baffled, and confused. You are out of touch with your true self (your emotional self). You see yourself through the eyes of people who never really knew you. And you have great difficulty handling stressful, conflictual, or emotional situations.

You are living the life of childhood emotional neglect.

Is it too late for Jasmine? Is it too late for you? What can be done if you grew up this way?

Fortunately, it is not too late for Jasmine or for you. There are things that you can do:

What to Do

Learn everything you can about emotion. Start your own emotion training program. Pay attention to what you feel, when, and why. Start observing others’ feelings and behavior. Listen to how other people express their emotions, and start practicing yourself. Think about who in your life right now can teach you—your wife, your husband, your sibling, or your friend? Practice talking about your feelings with someone you trust.

Talk back to those false messages in your head. When that “voice” from your childhood speaks, stop listening. Instead, take it on. Replace that voice with your own—the voice that knows you and has compassion for what you didn’t get from your parents: “I’m not lazy, I have anxiety and I’m trying my best to face it.” “I’m not weak. My emotions make me stronger.”

As an adult, Jasmine must stop fantasizing about a solution knocking on her door. The reality is that she must learn these skills on her own.

Hopefully, she will see that she missed out on some vital building blocks, simply because her parents did not know. Hopefully, she will realize that she has emotions and will learn how to value, hear, manage, and speak them. Hopefully, she will start beating down those "Voices of Low Emotional Intelligence."

Hopefully, she will learn who she really is. And dare to be that person.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

This post also appears on PsychCentral.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

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