Raised By Parents With Low Emotional Intelligence


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 her to 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 twenty 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 ten she knows, deep down, that she is alone in this world.

How could a ten-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. She is growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Emotional Intelligence: The ability to identify, assess and control 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 emotional awareness and skills, you struggle for good reasons.

3 Effects of Being Raised By Parents With Low Emotional Intelligence

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

So instead of saying, “You look upset Sweetie. Did something happen at school today?”, your parents absent-mindedly 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. Since 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.

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

So 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.

How it All Affects You

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 situations that are stressful, conflictual, or difficult.

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:

  • 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, she must now 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 and hear and 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 it.

If you identify with Jasmine, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect for more information about how you may be affected by your parents’ low emotional intelligence and how to build your emotional skills.


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Steph - August 4, 2020 Reply

This article is my life. I’m 38 and struggle because of it. My question is, can one have low emotional intelligence and have narcissistic traits as well? One of my parents seems to have this my entire life. It’s really been a struggle.

    Jonice - August 5, 2020 Reply

    Dear Steph, many narcissistic people have very low EI because they aren’t aware of feelings at all. Other narcissists, if they also have sociopathic traits, have a high EI which they may use to manipulate others’ feelings. Either way, as their child, it will definitely feel like a struggle.

Mary B. - August 11, 2019 Reply

So true. Then I married a man who had more emotionally ignorant parents. He is in a different world most of the time. I was told many times as a child that I was “not important”; he (my father) was important. I’m used to being neglected emotionally and am almost a total introvert. “I love mankind; can’t stand people.” Have grown used to it. At 68 years old, I’m not going to change. So happy I know the truth. I can deal with it.

    Jonice - August 11, 2019 Reply

    You can absolutely change Mary B. You only have to want it badly enough to do the work.

Norbert - September 28, 2017 Reply

I have written to Dr. Webb before but don’t remember about what. My wife and I are both Adult Children of Holocaust Survivors. My wife insists that she “can take care of herself” and does not need therapy. I have been in therapy on and off for thirty years. My last therapist said she was treating me for CEN. One of the issues she was trying to work on with me was “owning my emotion”. I do not even understand what that means let alone doing that. The way I saw her type of therapy was that she did not bother to know me by listening to how I see things and deal with them. She wanted me to learn how to deal with emotions before she even understood me. I do not know if I am just wrong?

    Maria - July 13, 2018 Reply

    Dear Norbert, I am so sad for you that there doesn’t seem to have been a reply to your comments. It sounds like you want to be heard and seen just where you are. Although your therapist has the best intentions if you are not happy talk to her and if there is no change. Change your therapist. I really recommend Internal Family system therapy. It also coaches you with support to look after the parts of you that your parents couldn’t and is very gentle. Good Luck

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