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How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence

Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence

When it comes to your personal life, past trauma or painful memories from adverse childhood experiences and emotional intelligence is often linked, and it can affect you or your adult relationships. Improve your EQ with self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and motivation.

Regulating intense emotions is the second step to healing.


  • Strong, distressing emotions are a normal part of life.
  • If unchecked, disturbing emotions can damage one’s health, mood, and functioning.
  • Many skills, including compassionate awareness, can help a person respond to unpleasant emotions in different, beneficial ways.

The Link Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Emotional Intelligence

Life throws each of us curveballs—hurts, disappointments, and losses. In response, we understandably feel intensely unpleasant emotions, such as grief, fear, anger, guilt, and sadness. For those who have unresolved memories of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), present challenges often stir up similar, intense emotions from the past. Now the survivor must not only deal with the present pain but also the emotional pain from the past.

Critical components of emotional intelligence include acknowledging and having the skills to settle strong, distressing emotions—understanding their source and having ways to manage them.

Dysregulated stress—arousal that is stuck on too high or too low—is central to the ACEs/health outcomes link. Importantly, intensely distressing emotions that we don’t handle well trigger, maintain and worsen dysregulated stress.

This post explores certain skills that we can learn to temper strong, distressing emotions so that we can gain control of our mood, health, and functioning. These skills will later play a key role in settling unresolved memories related to ACEs.

Ways to Improve Emotional Intelligence

1. Mindful Awareness

How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence
How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence

Imagine that you are slowly tracking what’s occurring throughout your body. At some point, your awareness rests on your knee where you notice that there is pain. Rather than bracing against the pain, which worsens the pain, you embrace it gently and kindly, holding it much as you would hold a child who is in pain until the child is ready to return to playing.

You breathe compassion into the area that hurts, and that compassion soothes and eases the pain. When thoughts arise (such as, “I can’t stand this pain,” or “I’ve got to kill this pain”) you simply bring your kind, nonjudgmental, accepting, and curious awareness back to the area where the pain is. And when you are ready, you take a more intentional breath into the area that hurts.

As you breathe out, your awareness of that area dissolves as you shift your attention to a different area of your body. Paradoxically, when we accept the pain and hold it in kind awareness, the pain often lessens, simply by changing our response to the pain.

Now imagine what would happen if you located emotional pain in your body, breathed compassion into that area without judging or fighting against the pain, and softened the pain with kindness. Research has shown that this kind of mindful awareness reduces its intensity and increases our ability to cope with distressing emotions.

Related: Self-Awareness vs. Self-Consciousness: The Confidence Perspective

2. Self-Compassion

How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence
How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Emotional Intelligence

Although sitting mindfully with distressing emotions has been shown to be very effective, self-compassion confers additional benefits. Developed and described by Dr. Kristen Neff, self-compassion begins with compassionate (mindful) awareness of one’s suffering and then encourages the suffering individual to repeat four statements to oneself, such as:

  • “This is a moment of suffering.” (This gently acknowledges pain without judging or immediately trying to fix it, each of which creates tension.)
  • “Suffering is a part of life.” (This reminds us that we are all in the same boat. Everyone suffers and wishes to be happy. We are not alone.)
  • “May I bring compassion to this moment.” (Compassion elicits huge and beneficial changes in the brain and body.)
  • “May I give myself the kindness I need right now.” (Research has shown that kindness is more motivating and produces better functioning than harsh criticism.)
  • The combination of kind awareness and self-compassion has been shown to be a powerful antidote to disturbing emotions. This approach is more effective than trying to avoid distressing emotions or trying to cover them with work, drugs, or other addictions.

Related: Self-Compassion And Meeting Yourself Where You Are

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Glenn Schiraldi

Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, has served on the stress management faculties at The Pentagon, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Teacher Award in addition to other teaching/service awards. His fourteen books on stress-related topics have been translated into seventeen languages, and include The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook, The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Resilience Workbook, and The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. The founder of Resilience Training International, he has trained laypersons, emergency responders, and clinicians around the world on the diverse aspects of stress, trauma, and resilience.View Author posts