9 Things the Emotionally Attuned Parent Says to Their Child

emotionally attuned parents

As we all swim together through the murky Sea of Parenting, I offer you some clear answers: three goals to keep in your mind at all times, and exactly how to achieve them.

If you’ve made many parenting mistakes, rest assured: You Are Not Alone.

Let’s face it, parenting is hard. For most of us, doing it right means facing our own demons. Because no one is exposed to our flaws, blind spots, or unresolved issues as much as the children who depend on us.

Unfortunately, all of those unresolved problems transfer automatically from ourselves to our children, unless we make a conscious effort to stop them. This is made more or less difficult for us parents by our own childhoods.

The Subtle But Dramatic Impact of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you grew up with parents who subtly discouraged or discounted your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect), for example, then you’ll have a natural inclination, outside of your awareness, to do the same with your children.  This is why Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN, is so rampant in today’s world. It transfers, unchecked and unnoticed, from one generation to the next.

This natural transfer process is aided by one simple fact: In today’s world, we are all focused primarily on how our children behave. We don’t want them to get in trouble at school or irritate others, right?

Although it’s very reasonable to assume that teaching a child to behave takes care of the emotional part, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, it all happens in reverse. Our children’s behavior is driven by their emotions. So the best way to help our children to behave is to teach them how to manage their feelings.

The Keys to Emotional Intelligence

There’s another key reason to focus more on emotions with our children. In the last ten years, a large body of research has found that kids who are good at recognizing, tolerating, expressing, and managing emotions in themselves and others (high emotional intelligence) are more successful academically, make better leaders, and enjoy greater career success as adults.

I know what you’re thinking: “OK, so it’s important. How do you do it? Behavior is at least concrete and visible, but feelings are hidden, messy, and confusing. What’s a parent to do?”

So let’s get down to brass tacks. As we all swim together through the murky Sea of Parenting, I offer you some clear answers: three goals to keep in mind at all times, and exactly how to achieve them.

The Three Goals of the Emotionally Attuned Parent

  1. Your child feels a part of something. He knows he’s not alone. You’re always on his team.
  2. Your child knows that whatever she feels, it’s OK, and it matters to you. She will be held accountable for her behavior, but not for her emotions.
  3. Your child learns how to tolerate, manage, and express his feelings.

Any parent who accomplishes these skills well enough is raising an emotionally healthy child and an emotionally intelligent child. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to do it well enough.

9 Things the Emotionally Attuned Parent Says to Their Child

Stop Crying Why are you crying?
Let me know when you’re done with your fit That’s OK. Get it all out. Then we’ll talk.
Alright, enough! I’m done with this. Let’s take a break so we can both calm down.
Fix the attitude! You sound angry or upset. Are you?
You need to think before you act! How’d this go wrong? Let’s think it through.
Go to your room until you can behave better. I see you’re angry. Is it because…?
OK, OK, stop crying now so we can go in the store. Look at me. Take a deep breath. Let’s count to five.
There’s nothing to be nervous about. Everyone gets nervous. It’s OK. Let’s talk.
Don’t talk to me with that tone. Try saying that again, but nicer so I can hear it.

All children have very intense emotions, but they do not have the skills to manage them. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed by their expression of feeling, it becomes very difficult for us parents to manage what we’re feeling so that we can respond the right way to what they’re feeling.

No one sets out purposely to shame their child for having emotions. But the way we respond can easily, in very subtle ways, communicate to a child that he shouldn’t be feeling what he’s feeling.

Keep in mind that virtually all children have heard everything in the first column many times, and it’s OK. It will only cause damage (Childhood Emotional Neglect) if the child receives the subtle, unstated messages listed below too frequently:

* Your feelings are excessive.

* Your feeling is wrong.

* I don’t want to know what you’re feeling.

* Your feelings are an inconvenience for me.

* You need to deal with this alone.

* I don’t care what you feel; I only care about your behavior.

If you wince while you read those messages above, don’t despair! It’s not your fault. You’re simply doing what human beings do, and responding to your children as you were responded to as a child. Be assured, it is never too late to start responding differently.

Try using the “Ideal Parent” responses above as regularly as possible, keeping in mind that you will never be perfect because no one is. Watch and see if over time your child starts to respond to you differently. Watch to see how her behavior changes as she learns how to manage her own feelings.

To learn more about emotionally attuned parenting, how to raise your child with high Emotional Intelligence, and how to prevent CEN from being passed down, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. To learn much more about how CEN happens and how to heal it, see the book, Running on Empty.

To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. it’s free.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.


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Kat - October 8, 2021 Reply

Oh, the irony. I did the work after being raised by the WORST abusive man and distant mom (see below)

I was a great mom & can honestly say I didn’t invalidate their feelings. I knew what it was like so I started from when they were born. I told them I loved them whenever I dropped them off somewhere or they went to bed and hugged them often. My ex- began to engage in splitting behavior when my eldest was a pre-teen and was very abusive to me. I filed divorce, he hired a “Family Advocate” who threw me out of my kids’ lives because I’d worked on my childhood abuse. 10 years on I cry every day for how they’ve been hurt. (Will a course on my CEN do me any good then?)

Dad had charming refrains: “are you calling me a liar‽” (no, but you’re wrong), stonewalling (fine with me; I had 0 to say to him), outright laughing at me for asking him to not smoke in the car, near the kitchen … My mom: Stop being a H**** (bipolar neighbor) when I was upset, shrug when I’d confide in her, let my elder sister steal from me or destroy hand-me-downs (father spent all $$ on himself so we were functionally poor) “because they’re too nice for K”, bought food mostly based on what my eldest sister & dad liked. I don’t remember ever going out and buying clothes other than shoes.

Duncan - June 2, 2021 Reply

Beautiful, thank you Jonice and all who share their stories, so inspiring.

Maggie - June 1, 2021 Reply

Hi Dr jonice. Thank you so much for your amazing articles. You have helped me to understand why my beautiful and only daughter is distant with me. Through reading your books however I am learning how to communicate in a better way with her. I’m very much hoping to repair our relationship and become close. My husband and I adore our only girl, but sadly we both grew up with emotional neglect and only now I am realising what has gone wrong for us as a family. Your work is life changing and I am so grateful for having found you on the internet. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Maggie, uk.

    Jonice - June 1, 2021 Reply

    Dear Maggie, I’m so happy to hear about the wonderful work you’re doing on yourself and with your daughter. I love nothing more than to help parent/child relationships become more connected and emotionally aware, as this can make a profound difference in the lives of both child and parent. Keep it up!

Kathy - May 31, 2021 Reply

I am soon to meet with my mother after not speaking for a year. This article is so perfect for explaining my situation to someone who hasn’t done any self-work and who isn’t aware of CEN. Your book and articles have been invaluable to me as a parent.

    Jonice - June 1, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad, Kathy. Take care of yourself!

Jen - May 30, 2021 Reply

My father was a sociopath. He had a habit/hobby of saying mean things to/about me and others, and he would watch how I/others responded to the nastiness. Like it was a form of entertainment.
My mother’s mantra was, “I don’t want to hear about it!”
I’m thinking, my being a sensitive, emotional child, made for a trifecta. I’d have done better someplace else. They’d have done better not having children.
Too late. And I think U was not being fair. You have a great many articles for us “Grown-up-now what?s'” in the healing stage of post-childhood. This one just happened to be for those actively parenting.
It still helps. More information on what we didn’t get and the end result.

Richard - May 30, 2021 Reply

I was mocked for being emotional as a child but then so was my father. I was mimicked and laughed at but he, when he was in a moody emotional state, was called “big chief thundercloud”. They even made him a special indian head dress. I once tried to talk to my father about anger and tried to explain to him that I felt it wasn’t the emotion itself that was bad but it could be expressed in some very destructive ways. He said to me “I consider anger to be a despicable emotion” with his voice raised. On several occasions my mother said to me “if you are angry then go and let off steam in the garden” – even at the time (I was about eight) I knew this meant “if you are angry go and f- off till its over. I don’t want anything to do with it or you when you are in that mood” All this I think Dr Webb underlines your point of how things run in families. I don’t have any children. Even if I had a willing accomplice whom I deeply loved I would be frightened of the damage I would do my offspring. The first important step though is to bear in mind the excellent points you have made. I will say one more thing. Wheras it is sometimes necessary, indeed loving, to discipline a child in the correct manner (no assault) it is never ever ever OK to mock a child. It does the most incredible damage and can leave them feeling furious and humiliated for the rest of their life. This is why people like you are so important. Thank you so much.

    Jonice - May 31, 2021 Reply

    Dear Richard, thank you for sharing your own experience with your family’s treatment of your feelings. I’m glad you’re able to see the deep impact of it and I hope you will continue to heal yourself.

      Richard - May 31, 2021 Reply

      Thank you so much Dr Webb. I wish you every success with the absolutely crucial work you do

Weena - May 30, 2021 Reply

“You know better than to ask that.”
“I think you know the answer to that [stupid question].”
“We don’t say things like that.” “We don’t talk about those things.”
“We don’t use those kinds of words. Leave the table now.”
“The teacher told me [your problems] and I agree that it’s all your fault. You deserve to fail.”
“If you get hurt it’s your fault. Don’t come crying to me.”
“You will marry the garbage man when you grow up. You deserve to live in garbage.”
(Silence. Silent treatment. Stonewalling.)
….I’m just quoting my own parents here! I sure had to make up a brand-new script for my own kids and, believe me, it did NOT include any of the above or any of yours, Jonice!
I like to think I did a lot better as a parent; but me, I struggle with enormous depression/anxiety probs as an adult due to the verbal treatment I received as a child. I also know that my parents got THEIR script from THEIR parents.
We can break that chain.
We need to.

    Jonice - May 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear Weena, I am so sorry that you received those harmful messages. I’m glad you can see that they are harmful and now you can heal.

U - May 30, 2021 Reply

You don’t offer a shred of support for people who already HAVE grown up and received those messages! And no, they aren’t given subtly. Useless article.

    Jonice - May 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear U, most of my articles and both of my books are direct support and help for those who grew up with parents who gave those messages. It’s not possible to cover every aspect of Childhood Emotional Neglect in every post. Check the rest of the blogs on this site to learn much, much more.

    C - May 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear U. For adults who have suffered abuse and/or neglect, you could look up meetings of ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics and dysfunctional families’ (ACA or ACoA). They are held worldwide, are free to attend and are held live and online.

    Rosie - May 30, 2021 Reply

    Wow you need to read Dr Jonice’s books and stuff more widely. There’s loads of help here for those of us pulling ourselves out of the CEN quagmire.

    It’s so easy to criticise isn’t it. I’m sorry you went through it all too. There are solutions here, and you do have to do the work. You and your life are worth the effort.

John - May 30, 2021 Reply

This article is to the point and very helpful! I come from a design background which is why my attention is drawn to the format of the 2 columns and headings. The layout adds to the effectiveness because the content becomes more memorable and therefore actionable. Saving this page for future reference 🙂 Thank you!

    Jonice - May 30, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad, John, and that’s why I made the list that way. Take care!

Daria - May 30, 2021 Reply

This is a great “cheat sheet” of helpful responses, and I appreciate your “good enough” approach! I wish I’d had this when our kids were young and at home, but I will keep it for babysitting!

    Jonice - May 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear Daria, I’m glad to be helpful. Keep in mind it’s never too late to emotionally enrich your relationships with your own children too, even if they are adults.

Anna - September 23, 2015 Reply

I feel like my spouse and I are actually doing a good job at using most of the suggested phrases already. I do struggle with bed time though. My four-year-old son often says he’s scared and says he wants us to stay with him until he falls asleep. I don’t believe this would be helpful for anyone – I don’t want him to depend on us to fall asleep. But when I read the line “You need to deal with this alone.”, I felt a pang of guilt! We always go see him when he calls to us from his bed, reassure him there is nothing to worry about and then leave his room. Should we be doing things differently? Thanks 🙂

    Lisa - September 18, 2016 Reply

    I know your question is long past now and am sure you figured out what works for your child. I just wanted to point out that saying “there’s nothing to be afraid of” is one of the no no comments she mentions. By saying there’s nothing to be afraid of negates the child’s feeling afraid and tells him he’s wrong to feel that way.

Carrie - September 17, 2015 Reply


Great prep for people like me who plan on having kids one day. Thanks.

Little Bee - September 16, 2015 Reply

Thank you for this clear informative article. I do at times feel overwhelmed by my children’s stronge emotions. Would like improve the family tradition.

nik - September 15, 2015 Reply

wow i really wish my parents had read this when they had me. they always expected me to meet a plethora of unatainable behavioral expectations, things that conflicted between the two of them. for example, dad wanted me to lose weight and get perfect straight As, while mom was too afraid of the chance that my mild-moderate asthma would flare that she would never let me participate in physical activities, and was too preoccupied with policing my health to get me to school on time. meanwhile, i was expected to be passive and happy and never, ever be upset.

a lot of their emotional neglect and abuse could be summed up as “you will behave the way i tell you to”, “you will feel the way i tell you to” and “any negative unapproved feelings you have are not valid”

but hey, they didnt mean to neglect/abuse me, so i’d better behave and feel the way they want me to.

Suz - September 13, 2015 Reply

Instead of ‘perfect parent’ maybe ‘reasonable parent’ may have been a better header for that column. minor quibble in a useful and helpful blog.

    Stacy - September 13, 2015 Reply

    I was thinking the same thing. Or maybe “What We All Say” and “The Better Approach.” I like the idea, but putting a “perfect” label on it doesn’t seem productive to me.

      Jonice Webb PhD - September 13, 2015 Reply

      The reason I titled it “Perfect” is because I think that parents have enough guilt to deal with, and I want it to be clear that none of us is perfect. But we don’t have to be. All we have to do is try. However, since it’s bothering readers, I’ll change it! Thanks for your comments.

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