Deficits in emotion intelligence (EI) are a key component of early-childhood callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Children’s EI may be influenced by their mother’s EI through both familial genetic and environmental mechanisms; however, no study has directly tested the role of maternal EI in the development of CU traits. This study investigated whether maternal EI had a direct relationship with children’s CU traits when controlling for the potential influence of parenting affect and other psychiatric diagnoses. Mothers and their 3- to 5-year-old preschoolers (N = 200) were recruited as part of a parent–child interaction—emotion development therapy treatment trial for preschool clinical depression and comorbid psychopathology. Using data collected prior to treatment, regression models tested whether maternal EI was related to children’s CU traits, which specific aspects of maternal EI were most strongly associated with CU traits, and whether associations held after accounting for observed parenting affect. Maternal EI (p < 0.005), specifically the ability to understand others’ emotions (p < 0.01), was significantly associated with children’s CU traits. This relationship was specific, as maternal EI did not predict depression or oppositional defiant disorder. Both maternal EI and observed negative parenting affect were independently and significantly related to CU traits (p < 0.05) in a combined model. Given that maternal EI and observed negative parenting affect were independent predictors of CU traits in preschoolers with comorbid depression, findings suggest that current treatments for CU traits that focus solely on improving parenting could be made more effective by targeting maternal EI and helping mothers better model emotional competence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2303-2311
Number of pages9
JournalEuropean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2023


  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Early childhood
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Maternal factors
  • Parenting


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