Title: Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents
Author: Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents describes how emotionally immature parents negatively affect their children, especially children who are emotionally sensitive, and shows you how to heal yourself from the pain and confusion that come from having a parent who refuses emotional intimacy. Clinical Psychologist Lindsay Gibson exposes the destructive nature of parents who are emotionally immature or unavailable.
By focusing on your own self-development, you can get on the road to freedom from emotionally immature relationships
“People who engage in self-discovery and emotional development get to have a second life—one that was unimaginable as long as they remained caught in old family roles and wishful fantasies. You really do get to start over when you open to a new consciousness of who you are and what’s been going on in your life. As one person said, “I now know exactly who I am. Others aren’t going to change, but I can change.”
Favourite Takeaways – Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
Emotional intimacy involves knowing that you have someone you can tell anything to, someone to go to with all your feelings, about anything and everything. You feel completely safe opening up to the other person, whether in the form of words, through an exchange of looks, or by just being together quietly in a state of connection. Emotional intimacy is profoundly fulfilling, creating a sense of being seen for who you really are. It can only exist when the other person seeks to know you, not judge you.
Emotionally engaged parents
Emotionally engaged parents make children feel that they always have someone to go to. This kind of security requires genuine emotional interactions with parents. Parents who are emotionally mature engage in this level of emotional connection almost all the time. They’ve developed enough self-awareness to be comfortable with their own feelings, as well as those of other people.
Parents who are emotionally immature, on the other hand, are so self-preoccupied that they don’t notice their children’s inner experiences. In addition, they discount feelings, and they fear emotional intimacy. They’re uncomfortable with their own emotional needs and therefore have no idea how to offer support at an emotional level. Such parents may even become nervous and angry if their children get upset, punishing them instead of comforting them. These reactions shut down children’s instinctive urge to reach out, closing the door to emotional contact.
Children who feel they cannot engage their parents emotionally often try to strengthen their connection by playing whatever roles they believe their parents want them to. Although this may win them some fleeting approval, it doesn’t yield genuine emotional closeness. Emotionally disconnected parents don’t suddenly develop a capacity for empathy just because a child does something to please them.
People who lacked emotional engagement in childhood, men and women alike, often can’t believe that someone would want to have a relationship with them just because of who they are. They believe that if they want closeness, they must play a role that always puts the other person first.
Low Self Esteem
When parents reject or emotionally neglect their children, these children often grow up to expect the same from other people. They lack confidence that others could be interested in them. Instead of asking for what they want, their low self-confidence makes them shy and conflicted about seeking attention. They’re convinced they would be bothering others if they tried to make their needs known. Unfortunately, by expecting past rejection to repeat itself, these children end up stifling themselves and promoting more emotional loneliness.
Emotional maturity means a person is capable of thinking objectively and conceptually while sustaining deep emotional connections to others. People who are emotionally mature can function independently while also having deep emotional attachments, smoothly incorporating both into their daily life.
Communication Is Difficult or Impossible
Communication with emotionally immature people usually feels one-sided. They aren’t interested in reciprocal, mutual conversations. Like young children, they crave exclusive attention and want everyone to be interested in what they find engaging. If other people are getting more attention, they find ways to draw attention back to themselves, such as interrupting, firing off zingers that get everybody’s attention, or changing the subject. If all else fails, they may pointedly withdraw, look bored, or otherwise communicate that they’re disengaged—behaviors that ensure the focus stays on them.
They See Roles as Sacred
If there’s anything emotionally immature people are keen on in relationships, it’s role compliance. Roles simplify life and make decisions clear-cut. As parents, emotionally immature people need their children to play a proper role that includes respecting and obeying them. They often use platitudes to support the authority of their role as a parent because, like roles, platitudes oversimplify complex situations and make them easier to deal with.
Role entitlement is an attitude of demanding certain treatment because of your social role. When parents feel entitled to do what they want simply because they’re in the role of parent, this is a form of role entitlement. They act as though being a parent exempts them from respecting boundaries or being considerate.
Role coercion occurs when people insist that someone live out a role because they want them to. As parents, they try to force their children into acting a certain way by not speaking to them, threatening to reject them, or getting other family members to gang up against them. Role coercion often involves a heavy dose of shame and guilt, such as telling a child that he or she is a bad person for wanting something the parent disapproves of.
In enmeshment, on the other hand, two emotionally immature people seek their identity and self-completion through an intense, dependent relationship (Bowen 1978). Through this enmeshed relationship, they create a sense of certainty, predictability, and security that relies on the reassuring familiarity of each person playing a comfortable role for the other. If one person tries to step out of the implicit bounds of the relationship, the other often experiences great anxiety that’s only eased by a return to the prescribed role.
Four Types of Emotionally Immature Parents
Emotional parents are run by their feelings, swinging between overinvolvement and abrupt withdrawal. They are prone to frightening instability and unpredictability. Overwhelmed by anxiety, they rely on others to stabilize them.They treat small upsets like the end of the world and see other people as either rescuers or abandoners.
Driven parents are compulsively goal-oriented and super busy. They can’t stop trying to perfect everything, including other people. Although they rarely pause long enough to have true empathy for their children, they are controlling and interfering when it comes to running their children’s lives.
Passive parents have a laissez-faire mind-set and avoid dealing with anything upsetting. They’re less obviously harmful than the other types but have their own negative effects. They readily take a backseat to a dominant mate, even allowing abuse and neglect to occur by looking the other way. They cope by minimizing problems and acquiescing.
Rejecting parents engage in a range of behaviors that make you wonder why they have a family in the first place. Whether their behavior is mild or severe, they don’t enjoy emotional intimacy and clearly don’t want to be bothered by children.
When immature parents can’t engage emotionally and give their children enough attention or affection, their children cope by imagining healing fantasies about how their unmet emotional needs will be fulfilled in the future. They also cope by finding a special family role.
The process of assuming a role-self is unconscious; nobody sets out to do it deliberately. We create our role-selves gradually, through trial and error as we see the reactions of others. Regardless of whether a role-self seems positive or negative, as children we saw it as the best way to belong. Then, as adults, we tend to keep playing our role in hopes that someone will pay attention to us in the way we wished our parents had.
Playing a role-self usually doesn’t work in the long run because it can never completely hide people’s true inclinations. Sooner or later, their genuine needs will bubble up. When people decide to stop playing the role and live more from their true self, they can go forward with more lightness and vitality.
As children, we make sense of the world by putting together a story that explains our life to us. We imagine what would make us feel better and create what I call a healing fantasy—a hopeful story about what will make us truly happy one day. Children often think the cure for their childhood pain and emotional loneliness lies in finding a way to change themselves and other people into something other than what they really are. Healing fantasies all have that theme.
Two Styles of Coping with Emotionally Immature Parents
Healing fantasies and role-selves are as unique as the children who invent them. But overall, children with emotionally immature parents cope with emotional deprivation in one of two ways: either internalizing their problems, or externalizing them.
Internalizer vs Externalizer
“Children who are internalizers believe it’s up to them to change things, whereas externalizers expect others to do it for them. In some circumstances, a child might hold both beliefs, but most children primarily adopt one coping style or the other as they struggle to get their needs met.”
Internalizers are mentally active and love to learn things. They try to solve problems from the inside out by being self-reflective and trying to learn from their mistakes. They’re sensitive and try to understand cause and effect. Seeing life as an opportunity to develop themselves, they enjoy becoming more competent. They believe they can make things better by trying harder, and they instinctively take responsibility for solving problems on their own. Their main sources of anxiety are feeling guilty when they displease others and the fear of being exposed as imposters. Their biggest relationship downfall is being overly self-sacrificing and then becoming resentful of how much they do for others.
Externalizers take action before they think about things. They’re reactive and do things impulsively to blow off anxiety quickly. They tend not to be self-reflective, assigning blame to other people and circumstances rather than their own actions. They experience life as a process of trial and error but rarely use their mistakes to learn how to do better in the future. They’re firmly attached to the notion that things need to change in the outside world in order for them to be happy, believing that if only other people would give them what they want, their problems would be solved. Their coping style is frequently so self-defeating and disruptive that other people have to step in to repair the damage from their impulsive actions.
The True Self
You can think of the true self as an extremely accurate, self-informing neurological feedback system that points each individual toward optimal energy and functioning. The physical sensations that accompany experiencing the true self suggest that whatever this self is, it’s based in our biology as human beings. It’s the source of all gut feelings and intuition, including immediate, accurate impressions of other people.
People often keep playing their childhood role-self far into adulthood because they believe it keeps them safe and is the only way to be accepted. But when the true self has had enough of the role-playing, people often get a wake-up call in the form of unexpected emotional symptoms.
What Does the True Self Want?
Your true self has the same needs as a flourishing, healthy child: to grow, be known, and express itself. Above all, your true self keeps pushing for your expansion, as if your self-actualization were the most important thing on earth. To this end, it asks for your acceptance of its guidance and legitimate desires. It has no interest in whatever desperate ideas you came up with in childhood regarding a healing fantasy or role-self. It only wants to be genuine with other people and sincere in its own pursuits.
How to Avoid Getting Hooked by an Emotionally Immature Parent
The first step in gaining your emotional freedom is to assess whether either of your parents was emotionally immature. The only achievable goal is to act from your own true nature, not the role-self that pleases your parent. You can’t win your parent over, but you can save yourself.
When interacting with emotionally immature people, you’ll feel more centered if you operate from a calm, thinking perspective, rather than emotional reactivity. Start by settling yourself and getting into an observational, detached frame of mind. There are any number of ways to do this. For example, you can count your breaths slowly, tense and relax your muscle groups in a systematic sequence, or imagine calming imagery.
Relatedness vs. Relationship
Observing allows you to stay in a state of relatedness with your parents or other loved ones without getting caught up in their emotional tactics and expectations about how you should be. Relatedness is different from relationship. In relatedness, there’s communication but no goal of having a satisfying emotional exchange. You stay in contact, handle others as you need to, and have whatever interactions are tolerable without exceeding the limits that work for you.
In contrast, engaging in a real relationship means being open and establishing emotional reciprocity. If you try this with emotionally immature people, you’ll feel frustrated and invalidated. As soon as you start looking for emotional understanding from such people, you won’t be as balanced within yourself. It makes more sense to aim for simple relatedness with them, saving your relationship aspirations for people who can give something back.
The Maturity Awareness Approach
Once you’ve gotten the hang of being observational rather than relationship oriented, you can turn your attention to maturity awareness. This approach will grant you emotional freedom from painful relationships by taking the emotional maturity of others into account. Estimating the probable maturity level of the person you’re dealing with is one of the best ways to take care of yourself in any interaction. Once you peg a person’s maturity level, his or her responses will make more sense and be more predictable.
If you determine that the other person is showing emotional immaturity, there are three ways to relate to the person without getting yourself upset:
- Expressing and then letting go
- Focusing on the outcome, not the relationship
- Managing, not engaging
Expressing and Then Letting Go
Tell the other person what you want to say in as calm and nonjudgmental a way as you can, and don’t try to control the outcome. Explicitly say what you feel or want and enjoy that act of self-expression, but release any need for the other person to hear you or change. You can’t force others to empathize or understand. The point is to feel good about yourself for engaging in what I call clear, intimate communication. Others may or may not respond how you want them to, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you expressed your true thoughts and feelings in a calm, clear way. That goal is achievable and within your control.
Focusing on the Outcome, Not the Relationship
If your goal involves empathy or a change of heart on your parent’s part, stop right there and come up with a different goal—one that’s specific and achievable. Remember, you can’t expect immature, emotionally phobic people to be different from how they are. However, you can set a specific goal for the interaction.”
Focus on the outcome, not the relationship. As soon as you focus on the relationship and try to improve it or change it at an emotional level, an interaction with an emotionally immature person will deteriorate. The person will regress emotionally and attempt to control you so that you’ll stop upsetting him or her. If you keep the focus on a specific question or outcome, you’re more likely to contact the person’s adult side.
Managing, Not Engaging
Instead of emotionally engaging with immature people, set a goal of managing the interaction, including duration and topics. You may need to repeatedly redirect the conversation where you want it to go. Gently ease past attempts to change the topic or bait you emotionally. Be polite, but be prepared to address the issue as many times as it takes to get a clear answer. Emotionally immature people don’t have a good strategy for countering another person’s persistence.
Their attempts at diversion and avoidance ultimately break down if you keep asking the same question. As a reminder, also manage your own emotions by observing and narrating your feelings to yourself, rather than becoming reactive.
Stepping Out of an Old Role-Self
The ability to step back and observe not only your parent but also your own role-self is where emotional freedom begins. When you see how you’ve gotten stuck in a role-self and are trying to make a healing fantasy come true, you can decide to do it differently.
As children, we absorb our parents’ opinions and beliefs in the form of an inner voice that keeps up an ongoing commentary that appears to be coming from inside us. Often this voice says things like “You should…,” “You’d better…,” or “You have to…,” but it may just as frequently make unkind comments about your worth, intelligence, or moral character.
Everyone internalizes their parents’ voices; it’s how we’re socialized. And while some people end up with a supportive, friendly, problem-solving inner commentary, many hear only angry, critical, or contemptuous voices. The unrelenting presence of these negative messages can do more damage than the parent him- or herself. Therefore, you need to interrupt these voices in the act of making you feel bad so that you can separate your self-worth from their critical evaluations.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.