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Emotionally Unavailable Parents: The Pain And How To Heal 

Having emotionally unavailable parents as children can leave lasting impressions on through adulthood if they are not attended to. It is not the duty of a child to form a bond with a parent. If one (or both) parents or caregivers are too unavailable to attend to their child’s wellbeing due to emotional immaturity, trauma or self-absorptionthe child is less likely to develop emotional maturity themselves.

Why is this the case? If a parent acts as if the child’s needs and emotions are a nuisance or are too much to handle, kids may then interpret their emotions and themselves the same way: I am too much, there is something wrong with me, I need to contain this. Emotionally unavailable parents can be hard to actually spot or identify even if you grew up with them because they may not have necessarily outwardly abused you (though that can certainly fall under the emotionally unavailable or neglect category).

These parents may have been super attentive when it fit their own needs to do so (like in front of other people), but become cold and distant when you really needed something and in the small moments of day to day life. Although this blog is just a general overview of the emotionally unavailable parent…the effects can be far-reaching. I will attempt to dive into several aspects of this damage in this week’s blog.

Practically speaking, if you feel lonely in a crowd of people, if you feel fulfilled in many areas of your life but feel unnamed emotional pain, or if you feel like you aren’t worth enough to express your own needs to others…you may have dealt with an emotionally unavailable parent while growing up and consequently had your own emotional development stunted.

Characteristics of the Emotionally Unavailable Parent 

Again, even if you’ve had an emotionally unavailable parent, you may struggle at times to articulate just what happened to you or identify any specific incidents that have shaped the way you feel and respond yourselfI will attempt to create an outline of what this may have looked/felt like and how that then impacted a child’s responses.  

Emotionally unavailable parents often:
  • Get angry or dismissive when children expression emotions or punish them
  • Expect children to give them only positive attention
  • Have trouble with meaningful conversations/emotional connection (just state facts)
  • Appear insensitive to the needs of others (e.g., starting to vacuum outside your door at 6 am – jolting you awake)
  • Show shallow emotions
  • Deny physical comfort and reassurance
  • Are hot and cold toward the child, so they never know when they will be given a crumb of emotional attention/reinforcement 

Effects of Dealing with Emotionally Unavailable Parents

What this means is that you’ve been robbed, in a way, of developing into your authentic self. Expressing yourself to the fullest has been stifled. You may not necessarily realize how much having a parent like this has influenced you. There are likely some effects that may not be serving you well. Here are some to be aware of.

Having an emotionally unavailable parent may result in you: 
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Avoiding conflict to your own detriment
  • Staying in unhealthy relationships/friendships
  • Feeling that you are “too much” or “too needy”
  • Fearing intimacy/finding it hard to trust people
  • Not allowing yourself to express your own needs/feelings
  • Taking responsibility for the emotions of others
  • Taking it upon yourself to “fix” situations
  • Blaming yourself for other people’s bad behavior
  • Feeling emotionally unfulfilled and not understanding why
  • Fearing your own emotions as if they will overtake you
  • Developing anxiety, depression, or physical ailments

The above list can be scary…but each and every one of those struggles (and beyond) can be worked through. If you do want other resources on this topic, please check out the following books. They may be helpful for you, but they may also bring up a lot that you may want to process with a therapist. This can often be a very difficult process to work through on your own.

Adult Child of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents
– Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD

The Drama of the Gifted Child
– Alice Miller

Tips For Starting to Heal 

First and foremost, acknowledging that your parents did not adequately attend to your emotional world (likely because they too had emotionally unavailable parents and did not work through it) is the essential first step toward healing. It doesn’t mean that you are saying your parents are evil or even bad people, but it does mean that you stop making excuses for their dismissive behavior toward you.

This can be really hard if you’ve been weaving a story in your mind of how great they are/were, especially if they have met your material needs. But that’s not all a child needs. They need someone to take interest in their emotional world. Acknowledging your parents’ shortcomings is the first step to ridding yourself of blame and responsibility for being too emotional, too difficult, etc. You are fine as you are. If you have areas you want to work on and grow, that’s great, but it is important to stop blaming yourself or other peoples feelings/responses.

Starter tips for healing from emotionally unavailable parents:
  • Notice when you take responsibility for others’ emotions/bad behavior. Challenge that. Remind yourself that we are each responsible for ALL of our own behaviors and responses
  • Try to label the emotions that you feel. Sit with them. Write about them. Get to know them
  • Get in touch with the sadness/anger/resentment/pain you feel regarding your parents. Explore each emotion not as a source of blame on another person but an element of your development, your relationship and your experiences
  • Figure out what your needs are in relationships/friendships and write them down. Think about what it would be like to express them honestly and fully. Assess if these are getting met in your current relationships and how that can be changed
  • Think about what comes up for you when you think about being completely seen and heard by another person. Contemplate your own belief in you deserving that experience
  • Remember, your siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, etc DO NOT have to agree with your experience. They may have had completely different relationships with each other. They may have had different factors that played into their development and emotional resilience. You are NOT to compare yours to theirs. You are both entitled to your emotions

We’re Here For You

Healing these emotional wounds from childhood take time. You may feel like you can’t do it all by yourself and that is perfectly normal. Working with an Angelus therapist can help you to tease apart what unhelpful thoughts and patterns may have arisen from having an emotionally unavailable parent, and the two of you can work to restructure those in healing ways. Make an appointment with Angelus today to start or continue your journey toward healing childhood wounds. We can be reached by phone at 724-654-9555 or on our on our Get Started page. With offices in New Castle, Hermitage, and virtual based sessions, we can work to make your treatment fit your needs. This can be the first step towards creating control and healing in your life.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services

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