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  • Cynthia Yoo

The Impact Of Emotionally Unavailable or Immature Parents On Their Children

When we hear the term "narcissism", we tend to think "self-centered, manipulative, deceitful, and conniving". While "narcissistic personality disorder" is a real diagnosis, I'd be weary to use the term too loosely, as calling someone a "narcissist" often does more harm than good in promoting interpersonal closeness in relationships. Rather, I prefer the term "emotionally immature" to describe adults who lack the psychological capacity and coping skills required for self-awareness and accountability, especially in uncomfortable situations. In short, when it comes to emotionally immature people, it is always about them. Their emotions and self-esteem fluctuate depending on whether their needs and wants are being met in the moment. They are happy so long as they get what they want, but cannot tolerate distress. It is important to note that we all go thorough this phase of emotional immaturity. It is appropriate and expected for all children. An average 4-year-old can be characterized as having intense emotions, struggling to calm when very upset or excited, only caring about their wants and needs, and lacking empathy or regard for others. Whether children develop their emotional capacity toward emotional maturity as they become adults depends largely on their early attachment relationships. It is also possible to develop social-emotional skills into adulthood. We can always learn and grow.

Research shows that parents function as external regulators for their children. Parents who are emotionally mature can also be described as "emotionally available". They have developed the capacity for self-awareness, monitoring, and regulation - they can show up for their child aware of, responsive to, and supportive of their child's emotional and practical needs, even when they are upset. They can effectively soothe, coo, and rock their babies to regulate when they cry. Raised by these parents in the context of emotional safety, children learn to become emotionally regulated, stable, and mature. Here are some ways that emotionally mature parents interact with their children:

  • they offer their undivided attention

  • they express interest and curiosity in their child

  • they actively listen to and validate their child's experiences

  • they invite their child to engage in activities with them, centered around their child's interests and needs

  • they celebrate their child's successes with them

  • they comfort their child with validation and support when they struggle

  • they make it about their child's needs, desires, and goals - especially in upsetting situations

On the contrary, parents who are "emotionally unavailable" lack the capacity and skills to self-regulate and co-regulate with their child because it is always about them - their needs and their wants. These parents are not willfully withholding from their chidlren, but rather they lack capacity and skills. Children of these parents learn to become aware of, responsive to, and responsible for meeting their parents' emotional and practical needs in order to feel safe. They tend to internalize a range of feelings, including pain of rejection, abandonment, shame, sadness, grief, loneliness, anxiety, panic, fear, confusion, self-blame, guilt, humiliation, and/ or anger. They may develop some of the following messages or beliefs:

  • I don't deserve love or care/ am unloveable

  • I am not important/ don't matter

  • I don't belong/ I am alone

  • nobody understands me/ nobody hears me

  • I cannot trust myself/ others

  • I am the problem

  • my feelings and needs don't matter

  • I am a bad person/ a burden

  • I am not good enough/ worthless

  • I have no purpose/ useless

  • it is not safe to express myself/ I have to hold it all in

  • I am powerless/ helpless

  • if I take care of my parents' needs, everything will be ok

  • I have to do more and know more to be acceptable

  • I have to be perfect

  • I can't find comfort or safety

Children of emotionally unavailable parents pay more attention to what is happening around them than what is happening inside of them. They learn that in order to be safe or acepted, they need to meet the expectations, wants, and needs of others. These children often become capable and competent caregivers, prioritizing the wants and needs of others over their own. They often seek professions that align with this role, including health care, and they perform well. They tend to be intellectually mature - problem solving, anticipating consequences, taking appropriate action, avoiding conflict, and properly caring for others. And they tend to be emotionally immature - not knowing their feelings, tuning out their sensations, struggling when emotionally overwhelmed, not knowing what they want or need, not reaching out for help or support when needed, and experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. They never got the chance to develop their emotional skills in the context of emotionally safe and validating parent-child relationships. Children of emotionally immature and unavailable parents learn to survive by neglecting their own emotions.

It is important to note that we are not seeking to assign blame to emotionally immature parents. We are also not seeking to diagnose these parents as narcissistic or otherwise. What we are doing is acknowledging, understanding, and cultivating compassion for the human struggle of not having the capacity and/ or skills to meet our own emotional needs and those of our children.

Clinical psychologist Lindsay Gibson has published books to illuminate the universal struggle of children being raised by emotionally unavailable or immature parents. She identifies 4 Types of emotionally unavailable or immature parents. What all types have in common is that they cannot provide consistent social-emotional attunement, presence, or intimacy for their child. Children cannot feel secure in their relationship and endure long-term struggles with their sense of self, emotional loneliness, and relationships.

  1. Emotional parent - is someone who is emotionally reactive, quick to upset, and unpredictable. These parents often struggle to manage and recover from big emotions. Many struggle with anxiety - they may be intrusive at times, then quickly withdraw at other times. They bring their family into their emotional storm as other family members tend to scramble to meet their needs.

  2. Rejecting parent - is someone who appears irritable, bothered, and avoidant of emotional closeness or intimacy. In short, they want to be left alone. These parents often appear cold and can be commanding, demeaning, dismissive, and/or withdrawn. They seek their own space and time, often becoming socially isolated.

  3. Driven parent - is someone who is extremely goal-directed and perfectionistic. They are often very committed to a larger cause, often work-related, and can be very successful in their careers. They tend to be rigid, demanding, controlling, and/or intrusive.

  4. Passive parent - is someone who appears easy going, but avoids upset at all costs. They may appear to be "nice", but don't know how to go the distance to set boundaries with, advocate for, or protect their child when the situation calls for their extra care or attention. They tend to minimize problems, avoid upset, and go with the flow. The impact of this parenting style tends to be less harmful than the others, but still leaves a child emotionally abandoned and struggling with a range of negative outcomes.

Put simply, emotionally unavailable parents never developed the psychological capacity and coping skills required to effectively manage their own emotions and tend to their own needs. They have a fundamental fear of deep emotions and, as a result, pull back from emotional intimacy or closeness. They cannot show up to tend to their children's emotional needs because they cannot do for others what they don't know how to do for themselves. It is important that children of emotionally unavailable parents understand that just because their parents lacked skills and capacity does not mean that they did not care nor try their best. If you can relate to this article, there is hope yet. We can all learn to cultivate understanding, acceptance, and compassion - for ourselves, our parents, and our children. As adults, we can heal from our trauma/ pain and work to intentionally develop our social-emotional skills to be able to show up for ourselves and our children in ways that we did not learn how to do from our parents. If this is something you struggle with, working with a therapist can give you the support, insight, and tools you need to find the strength and courage to heal from your pain and break the cycle.

Books by Lindsay Gibson


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