Emotion is the language we use to relate to one another. We might communicate directly through both verbal and body language cues. But it’s the emotion that underpins how these exchanges are interpreted. We ultimately engage with each other through the use of our emotional vocabulary.
We do this by helping each other fulfil our emotional needs, but also through empathising with those needs if we’re unable to support them in the moment. This is the nature of making ourselves emotionally available in connection.
However, we only gain these skills through the examples given to us by our parents/guardians. We need constructive role models to provide the reference points to engage with others in true empathy.
And so, being raised by emotionally unavailable parents invariably leads to core wounding that manifests as an inability to be emotionally present with others. It leads not only being unable to discern your own needs, but also creates a lack of capacity in empathizing with others.
Symptoms Of Being Raised By Emotionally Unavailable Parents
Being raised by an emotionally unavailable parent or guardian can lead to a life of unstable friendships, strings of failed relationships, emotional neediness, an inability to self-regulate, provide for yourself, and identity confusion. This can also create core wounding around not being able to constructively express your needs. When there’s been neglect of emotional needs in early childhood, it’s known as developmental trauma, which can lead to long-term effects if not properly addressed.
Some of these symptoms include:
- Low-Stress Tolerance
- Emotional Instability with Aggression
- Poor Boundaries
- Unstable Relationships
Long-Term Effects Of Being Raised By Emotionally Unavailable Parents On Children
When there’s been a deficit of care through key care providers or parents not being emotionally available, it can create dysfunctional patterns of thinking that can seed mental health issues and an inability to relate to others later on in adulthood. Some of these include, but aren’t limited to:
Dysfunctional Relationships in Adulthood: We model our relationship and communication styles on the examples we grew up with in childhood. It’s what’s most present for us, and becomes our default mode of relating until we choose to undo our programming and create our own philosophy for how to relate. However, it’s important to note that not all children with emotionally unavailable parents experience unstable relationships in adulthood. It’s common, but not an absolute.
Fear of Abandonment in Love: If there’s been a deficit of love and affection during the developmental stages of growth due to emotionally detached parents, it can lead to children becoming emotionally withdrawn in their teenage years. They might struggle to express themselves emotionally and show love to other people because they haven’t had strong enough role models to show them it’s ok to be expressive and open with others, emotionally.
Borderline Personality and Narcissistic Traits: It can be the case – but not always – that those raised by emotionally cold parents are subjected to narcissistic and/or borderline traits. Both of these disorders make connecting with others extremely difficult. The self-centred, arrogant style of the narcissistic can make children feel estranged from their parents, while BPD characteristics can lead to frequent arguments, due the emotional outbursts that can also lead to verbal or physical aggression.
Selfishness: This can manifest in numerous ways. The emotionally void parent might view their own needs as a priority. But it can also be that they might impose rules, borders and boundaries on their child to prevent them from enjoying something they never had when they were growing up. As most emotionally unavailable parents themselves are victims of their own upbringing, they’ll bring their own projections into the relationship with their offspring.
Substance Abuse and Dependency: As the child of an emotionally distant parent enters adulthood, a new set of choices become available. By this point, they’ll be in so much pain and anguish through not having had their emotional needs met, it can lead to the use of recreational and/or prescriptive drugs. This can then start a cycle of addiction-based issues that will often last until the core wound(s) of emotional neglect are addressed.
Lack of Identity and Direction: One of the core issues facing many adults who survived an upbringing from emotionally distant parents is the idea of identity. Since there’s been a lack of any real core values, there’s nothing to anchor into as a moral code or sense of integrity. This results in there being no blueprint for future relationships. And so, those role models must be found elsewhere in a surrogate format to make up for the lack of emotional guidance during the developmental stage of growth.
Loss of Hope, Faith, and Joy: One of the most disheartening things that can happen to a child who’s survived an emotionally distant upbringing is losing all hope. Because their parents haven’t been able to express themselves emotionally, there’s often been a huge deficit of support. This can be especially hard when you feel the loss of the parent who’s still physically present, but is emotionally repressed to such an extent that it’s hard to connect with them in any meaningful way.
Signs Of Emotionally Unavailable Parents
- They don’t listen to you
- They don’t ask about your life
- They don’t validate/celebrate your achievements
- They aren’t willing to engage in activities with you
- They never give compliments
- They never spend alone/one-on-one time with you
- They focus on their own happiness more than yours
- They don’t/can’t express that they love you
- They can’t show you any affection
Signs Your Parents Were Emotionally Unavailable
There isn’t a singular way in which parents can be unemotionally unavailable. As with all conditions within the landscape of mental health, there are multiple expression that each have their own spectrums of intensity. Here are some of the core themes.
- Parents aren’t able or willing to express empathy or emotional awareness toward their child
- Parents aren’t able or willing to hold space for the emotional vulnerability of their child
- Parents aren’t able or willing to offer their child attention except in the case of illness/emergency
- Parents are prone to bouts of overreacting to minor mistakes/inconveniences
- Parents can be temperamental – sometimes being fair and kind, other times being unreasonable
- Parents can be angry or antagonistic towards their children in times of emotional distress
- Parents can be defensive and unwilling to accept different points of view other than their own
- Parents can be unwilling to accept facts that contradict their opinions
- Parents can be unwilling to self-reflect/introspect – or to look at the impact of their actions
- Parents can be very rigid and rooted in black and white thinking – unable to accept new ideas
- Parents may use their child as a confidant, but may not be able to fulfil that role for their child
- Parents will often say and do things without thinking about other’s feelings
- Parents may engineer conversations to revolve mostly around their interests
- Parents may ignore or not acknowledge the success of their child leading to invalidation
Types Of Emotionally Unavailable/Immature Parents
There isn’t just one type of emotionally unavailable/immature parent. In truth, it’s hard to fully categorise them into a group of archetypes, as there’s always going to be some cross-over between the different sets of behaviours. But the following model provides a solid grounding for being able to identify what type of emotionally unavailable parent you might have been raised by and trying to heal from now.
The Emotional Parent
This is expression is rooted mostly in feelings of emotional instability that results from a sense of ongoing anxiety and nervousness for those who have to interact with them. Their moods can be heightened even further by being triggered by both those around them and the general challenges of life. This type can be highly impulsive.
The Driven Parent
The driven parent is in a constant state of perpetual motion trying to make everything and everyone conform to their standards. They’re prone to projecting and imprinting their belief system(s) onto others through advice-giving, and believing their way is the only way. They might appear to be supportive of success, but will try and push their own ideas as a way of trying to live vicariously through their child due to their own upbringing.
The Passive Parent
This parent can be thought of as having an avoidant attachment style. They’ll try to side step confrontation at all costs and having to deal with unpleasant emotions. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they can be present in a playful sense. But when it comes to providing emotional support, they can withdraw and fail to hold space for their children’s issues. Passive parents are also prone to providing love to make themselves feel wanted and to fulfil their own emotional needs.
The Rejecting Parent
The rejecting type is one of the most abrasive of all emotionally immature parents. And their behaviour can cause real harm to their children, resulting in a lot of core wounding. They’re prone to being withdrawn, dismissive, condescending and antagonistic. They’ll openly reject their children’s desire for attention and affection. This attitude makes them appear to have strong energetic barriers, which can also make them feel both intimidating and aloof. In more extreme cases, this type can also be physically abusive.
How Do You React To Emotionally Immature Parents?
There are two main reactions to emotionally immature parents, depending on the personality of the child. These are internalising and externalising. In simple terms, this means when things go wrong, externalisers will blame others for what’s going on while internalisers will typically blame themselves for what’s going on. However, you may experience mixed responses, as this model of mental processing exists on a spectrum rather than a dualistic model.
Trauma Responses Caused By Emotionally Unavailable Parents
Abusive Relationships: Because someone raised by an emotionally unavailable doesn’t have the reference point for what a healthy relationship looks like, they can fall into patterns of dysfunctional relations where they’re both the abuser and the victim, depending on their upbringing and their capacity to heal from their neglect.
Inability to State Needs: As the core needs of an adult survivor of emotionally unavailable parents have gone unmet for so long as a child – as well as being rejected when asked for – there might be a case of not feeling like their needs are going to be met in adulthood. This often leads to withdrawal, devaluation and not being able to ask others to respect their boundaries.
Neediness: This can be another big block. As the needs of the child have gone unmet for so long, the adult survivor of emotionally detached parents is literally starved of attention and affection. This can lead to overcompensating, as they seek to get their needs met, which have never been met before, making their relationship dynamics very uneven and often unhealthy.
Attachment Disorders: Being raised by emotionally absent/immature parents can also seed attachment disorders such as anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and fearful-avoidant (disorganised attachment).
Codependency: This can be another common pattern, as there’s been no real parental figure to model positive behaviours during the developmental years, there may be a sense of projection onto future friends and partners, which can lead to the further dissolution of boundaries.
People-Pleasing: Many children of emotionally unavailable parents will also resort to people-pleasing as a way of getting their needs met. Because they’ve been so starved of their core needs for so long, they’ll literally do anything to fill the void left by their upbringing.
Promiscuity: Another way people raised by emotionally detached parents find they can get some of their needs met is through sex. This can create compulsive tendencies, which causes them to lean into instant gratification because they never know when their needs are going to be met again. This constant seeking of immediacy can also lead to sex addiction.
Jealousy and Possessiveness: This can develop in both platonic and romantic relationships. As the child of emotionally unavailable parents finally creates a connection with someone in adulthood and appears to be stable, they can be unwilling to let go of that person for fear of being abandoned.
Self-Esteem Issues: There can also be a sense of worthiness that stems from never receiving adequate attention or affection from emotionally detached and distant parents. If love has never been received during developmental years, that then creates the pattern of being unlovable, which greatly impacts self-esteem.
How Do You Deal With Emotionally Unavailable Parents?
First, an understanding of your situation is required to anchor in you’re actually a victim of circumstance and the treatment/non-treatment you received from your parents is not your fault. It’s important to detach from the conditioning of shame around being unlovable or unwanted. So from there, you view the situation from a more objective point of view without the charge of your own emotions getting in the way of seeing why you were treated – and are still treated – the way you are.
The next step is pattern recognition, which requires knowing your parent’s style of communication and capacity. Once you can anchor in their lack of presence is due to their lack of capacity due to their own trauma, it becomes much easier to navigate the relationship and find a sense of closure. Gaining this understanding of your parent’s situation, while not something you can do in childhood, becomes much easier to accomplish as part of a constructive healing process later on in adulthood. It’s not your fault for not seeing this in childhood.
The key to dealing with and healing from an upbringing from emotionally distant parents is to be present with what’s being shared. And this can mean going through a grieving process, as you realise your parent(s) are never going to have the capacity to guide and mentor you in the way you require. But what’s worse than this is living under the expectation that you can change them. Unfortunately, you can’t – and shouldn’t want to – change other people. But you can change your perception of them by understanding their story and how it informs their actions. And that’s the essence of the healing process.
About The Author
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
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