If you’ve grown up feeling like something was missing, you may have been emotionally neglected. You may not identify as being neglected if your physical needs were met, but the lack of emotional support left you emotionally isolated.
You may have felt invisible, dismissed, or unaccepted the way you are. This is a commonly overlooked experience among children of emotionally unavailable parents. These children grow up suffering in silence, feeling empty but not necessarily knowing what’s wrong, often blaming themselves.
Being told they are too sensitive, these children often feel dismissed and rejected, learning to avoid going to their emotionally unavailable parents for support.
They learn their parents are a source of stress rather than support. They can be unpredictable, unreliable, or too self-involved to attend to the child’s emotional needs.
From an early age, these children may take on adult responsibilities or find themselves parenting their parents. As they grow up, this behavior can lead to self-neglect by constantly putting others first.
Finding themselves repeatedly involved in lopsided relationships, doing all of the emotional labor, with people who exploit their generous nature, the fantasy of emotional connection is withheld like the ever-elusive carrot on a stick.
“If I do more, maybe I’ll finally be enough, and they will meet my emotional needs,” you may tell yourself, as you run on the endless treadmill of others’ demands.
The starved need to be needed results in constant emotional repression, masking your true nature. Toxic shame leads to lowering personal boundaries and resentment of others who constantly cross them. This repressed anger is concealed by a mask of cheeriness and determination.
If you or someone you know is burnt out and looking to heal from the distress instilled by emotionally unavailable parents, there is a way out.
I recently discovered the following book, which gives powerful insights and practical tips on how to recover from this exact issue:
It has quickly become one of my favorite psychology books. Immediately after reading it, I was compelled to reread it and summarize the insights.
As a counselor, I talk to a wide range of people, and this has been one of the most common invisible injuries. Since I couldn’t find a good summary of this book, I thought I would create one.
If you’re interested in reading the full book but can’t find the time, you can check out the audiobook version I linked above and listen to it while you’re driving or doing household work.
Otherwise, enjoy the summary!
What is Emotional Immaturity?
Throughout the book, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD demonstrates how emotional immaturity among parents leads to emotional neglect among children. She proposes several traits associated with emotional immaturity, which can be summarized as the following:
Emotional Immaturity is characterized by a fear of emotional involvement resulting in emotional distance, emotional instability, psychological inflexibility, and self-centeredness.
Emotional distance often presents as holding back from emotional closeness, fear of emotional involvement, and lacking the ability to provide emotional support to persons in need of genuine connection.
Emotional Instability presents as unpredictable emotional states and unreliability. A person may fluctuate between anger, engagement, and coldness, keeping others walking on eggshells.
Psychological Inflexibility presents as having rigid beliefs. Rather than dealing with reality, a person relies on coping mechanisms that resist reality.
Self-centeredness presents as blindness to the needs of others, using others, boundary issues, and emotional manipulation. At the extreme end, there may be diagnosable narcissism or sociopathy.
Emotional Immaturity Test
In her self-assessment tool, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD lists the traits of emotionally immature parents, which I organized into four clusters for ease of use.
She states that you may be dealing with an emotionally immature parent if you can check off more than one of the following statements.
- My parent didn’t express much empathy or emotional awareness.
- When it came to emotional closeness and feelings, my parent seemed uncomfortable and didn’t go there.
- I didn’t get much attention or sympathy from my parent, except maybe when I was really sick.
- My parent often overreacted to relatively minor things.
- My parent was inconsistent—sometimes wise, sometimes unreasonable.
- If I became upset, my parent either said something superficial and unhelpful or got angry and sarcastic.
- My parent was often irritated by individual differences or different points of view.
- Even polite disagreement could make my parent very defensive.
- Facts and logic were no match for my parent’s opinions.
- My parent wasn’t self-reflective and rarely looked at his or her role in a problem.
- My parent tended to be a black-and-white thinker, and unreceptive to new ideas.
- When I was growing up, my parent used me as a confidant but wasn’t a confidant for me.
- My parent often said and did things without thinking about people’s feelings.
- Conversations mostly centered on my parent’s interests.
- It was deflating to tell my parent about my successes because it didn’t seem to matter.
Types of Emotionally Immature Parents
Emotional immaturity tends to manifest as four general types:
- The emotional parent
- The driven parent
- The passive parent
- The rejecting parent
One or both of your parents may fall into one of these general categories. Let’s take a deeper look at what each of these types entails.
The emotional parent instills feelings of instability, producing nervousness and anxiety for all those who have to walk on eggshells. They have “stormy emotional weather,” and you never know the forecast.
Intoxication amplifies the instability, perhaps leading to intimidation. These individuals are easily thrown off their emotional balance by mild distress and are primarily governed by emotional impulsivity.
The driven parent stays busy trying to make everything and everyone perfect. They appear to be quite normal and well-adjusted, but under the surface, they show their emotional immaturity by believing they have all the answers and they know what others what.
They appear supportive of your success but make assumptions about your desires, often pushing things on you. Their driven support comes from their own need to live up to high internal standards rooted in their own emotionally deprived upbringing. They may fear embarrassment if you underperform, leading to you feeling constantly evaluated in school or hobbies.
Driven parents are always keeping busy and worrying about getting things done. This added pressure makes you feel like you should always be doing more or doing something other than what you are currently doing. This can lead to thoughts of not being enough or insecurity regarding evaluation.
Driven parents often cross personal boundaries. Making assumptions or invalidating your interests, they often do things for you without asking for permission and become overly involved in your life, extinguishing a sense of independence.
The passive parent avoids dealing with anything upsetting. They can be easygoing, playful, affectionate, and often in good spirits but fail to protect their children when they need it emotionally.
If a passive parent gives you affection, it often comes from a self-centered place of using you to feel loved or needed, meeting their own emotional needs. Without recognizing this, you may naturally gravitate to the attention given by this parent, perhaps thinking of them as the “favorite parent.” Despite potential positive experiences, you may feel like this parent is not there in an essential way.
Passive parents turn a blind eye to abuse or neglect, retreating when times are tough. They may even leave the family if they get a chance at a better life, leaving their children feeling deeply rejected.
The rejecting parent is withdrawn, dismissive, and derogatory. They openly reject attention from their children, appearing irritated and dismissive of children in general.
They constantly have a wall around them, lack empathy, and can appear menacing and aloof. At the extreme end, they may have sociopathic tendencies and are capable of physical attack.
If you have a rejecting parent, you may find it hard to ask for what you need, resulting in an avoidant attachment style.
The Two Reactions to Emotional Immaturity
Children of emotionally immature parents commonly react in two general ways, depending on the child’s temperament:
Externalizers have an external locus of control when things go wrong, whereas internalizers have an internal locus of control. In simple terms, externalizers blame others, and internalizers blame themselves.
Although you may generally fall into one of the two categories, there may be mixed reactions since it is a spectrum rather than a binary.
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these reactions entails.
Externalizers blame others when things go wrong. They may act out, and people generally label these children as having behavioral problems. This may involve substance use, reckless behavior, or rebellion.
These children may also take on characteristics similar to emotional immaturity. Growing up, they force their needs on others, using emotional manipulation such as guilt and blame.
Externalizers present as having a visible issue, and their struggles are not easily overlooked, causing others to recommend treatment. Although they are the most likely to be confronted by others to seek treatment, they are often the least likely to get support because they tend to externalize blame.
Internalizers look within themselves for why things go wrong. They are highly sensitive and attuned to their environment, keeping strong emotions bottled inside. Wearing a mask when engaging with others, they fear truly opening up and being genuine because they believe their very nature is a problem.
Internalizers have a deep need for connection and feel painfully lonely, constantly seeking genuine emotional connection. They believe the best way to find connection is to become a likable person, putting others first, constantly over-extending themselves for others. Self-neglect is seen as the cost of connection.
Fueled by the thought of “not being enough,” internalizers seek to make up this lack of “being” through constant “doing.” They believe their value depends on how much they do, not who they are. The fantasy of winning the affection of others keeps them on this treadmill of self-neglect.
Unable to say “no,” internalizers do most of the emotional work in relationships, often feeling resentful of those for whom they have taken responsibility. Instead of expressing their anger, they wear a mask of cheeriness or a determined can-do attitude.
Since emotionally immature parents rejected their feelings, they internalize the voice of rejection, taking a rejecting attitude toward their own feelings. They downplay their suffering, often apologizing for their emotions. Feeling guilty for taking other people’s time, they feel like a burden when asking for help.
Internalizers may also internalize the voice of judgment. Harshly criticizing themselves, they remain closed off to sharing their needs or struggles, fearing judgment by others for being inadequate. This leads to feeling further isolation and embarrassment if requiring support.
If an an internalizer’s emotions are taken seriously, they are often suppressed since they are used to “getting by on vapors” regarding affection from others.
Unlike externalizers, internalizers can go unnoticed. They are often high-performing and focused on achievement. Therefore, an emotionally immature parent may see them as having no needs. If an internalizer has an externalizer sibling, this may also cause jealousy or criticism from the externalizer, due to the social comparison.
Internalizers focus a great deal of their energy on fixing and rescuing others. The greater the difficulty, the more they try. The more they try, the greater the difficulty. This spiraling effort is often spent trying to change people who don’t want to change themselves, leading to burnout and resentment.
Healing from Emotionally Immature Parents
You were not born to fix your parents’ unhealed trauma.From @selfhealth3
Healing from emotionally immature parents requires discovering your healing fantasy, stepping out of your role self, clarifying your values, setting personal boundaries, taking an observational perspective, and engaging in self-care.
The healing process may take time since old habits are deeply engrained, but there are things you can start doing today to begin the process.
Discover Your Healing Fantasy
Throughout the book, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD uses the concept of the “healing fantasy” to describe an internalizer’s attempt to win the affection of their emotionally immature parent.
The healing fantasy generally consists of thoughts that perhaps they will change if only you can do more. This can lead to the ineffective helping behaviors described above, overachievement, perfectionism, or falling into old patterns in relationships with romantic partners.
The first step to healing from an emotionally immature parent requires identifying your healing fantasy.
Where are you acting like a gambler chasing their losses, holding out for a jackpot that will fix everything? Take a moment to reflect on where you hold onto false hope.
Where do you tell yourself, “if only…”?
Where are you tapping the metaphorical slot machine button, constantly hoping for a different result?
What forms of endless striving are you engaged in to win the approval of others?
Letting go of your healing fantasy, you recognize their rejection is more about their past trauma or experiences with an emotionally immature parent than about your worth as a person.
It is helpful to view emotionally immature parents as emotionally phobic. If you have a fear of spiders, snakes, heights, or public speaking, consider how you would feel if someone told you that you had to engage with one of these things. This is the experience of the emotionally phobic person.
Discarding the healing fantasy requires accepting your parents for their emotionally phobic selves. This does not excuse their behavior; instead, it allows you to manage your expectations and work with reality.
Emotionally immature people may appear distressed, cynical, and constantly complain, but perhaps they don’t want to change. And in your own experience, how have attempts to change them worked out so far?
Once you have identified your healing fantasy, you can let it go and accept you are dealing with someone who is emotionally phobic.
Step Out of Your Role Self
The role self is the role you played within the family dynamic. Were you a fixer, an avoider, a comedian, an overachiever, or a rebel?
In enmeshed families where emotions are not discussed, playing rigid roles holds the family together. It is a form of dysfunctional homeostasis. By playing your role, you have a place in the family system, but your belonging comes at the cost of your genuine feelings.
Like a stage performance, everyone puts on their costume and stays in character. Talking about the deeper issues requires breaking character, threatening the tenuous sense of belonging provided by the enmeshed system.
Stepping out of your role-self requires noticing the role you play and making a conscious decision to be your true self. This does not mean opening up emotionally to emotionally phobic people. Instead, it means clarifying your genuine values and acting in alignment with this true self.
Clarify Your Values and Your True Self
Stepping out of the role self and into the true self requires trusting your gut feelings and intuition. When do you find yourself in a flow-state where time disappears? What were you like as a young child? What types of things did you naturally gravitate to? What did you enjoy doing? When do you experience moments of true joy? Clarifying your true values provides a compass for how you want to engage with others.
When stepping out of the role self, you may uncover suppressed anger. If you’re an internalizer, you may be perceived anger as unacceptable and dangerous. Since our emotions are like internal check-engine lights, repressed anger leads to unmet needs. The sense of “getting by on fumes” fits well with this metaphor.
Allowing yourself to feel anger does not mean switching into rage and resentment. Anger can focus your attention on unmet needs and motivate action to meet those needs through assertive communication or personal boundaries.
You may have grown up believing certain emotions are “good” or “bad.” Instead, viewing emotions as information, you step outside the need to repress the “bad” ones. There are comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, but they are all there to convey useful information regarding your underlying needs.
Set Personal Boundaries
Setting personal boundaries means saying “no” when you find yourself helping others at the cost of your health. It means recognizing and communicating your needs through assertive communication. Lastly, it means disengaging from toxic relationships.
In another great book on the subject, When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté says when given a choice between guilt and resentment, choose the guilt. This means noticing when guilt drives your decision to do things for others that you will eventually resent them for.
Choosing guilt means caring for yourself enough to say no. Although there may be a temporary deeply engrained guilt response, this step toward self-care heals underlying shame.
Guilt says, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I’m bad.”
Choosing short-term guilt heals long-term shame. This allows you to gain a sense of self-worth, in turn, healing the constant guilt.
As you build momentum, notice the amount of “shoulds” you tell yourself. Notice how this is potentially the internalized critical voice of a parent. Setting boundaries with your parents means setting boundaries with your own inner-critic, as well.
You can give yourself the compassion you never received. Practicing self-compassion may consist of imagining what you would tell someone you care about who is going through the same situation. Being kind to yourself allows you to heal underlying shame and step back from your thoughts during moments where the inner-critic tries to lower your personal boundaries through the “shoulds” that lead to guilt.
Take an Observational Perspective
After gaining some perspective regarding the nature of underlying shame, guilt, and the inner-critic, it can be helpful to use an observational perspective when engaging with an emotionally immature parent.
An observational perspective means stepping back from interactions within your family system and viewing the situation like a scientist. Perhaps you can imagine you’re an anthropologist like Jane Goodall, studying primate interactions. Get curious about the various roles, reactions, and scripts being acted out. How is everyone falling into their usual role selves?
With this new perspective, you can gain emotional distance from heated situations, noticing your conditioned thoughts and emotions rather than merely reacting. Rather than reacting, you now have space to respond appropriately.
Perhaps this means taking a timeout, politely saying you cannot do something, or maybe it means just doing nothing, accepting you are dealing with an emotionally phobic person stuck in a role self. Whatever the situation calls for, you are free to choose your response based on your core values.
Taking this observational perspective breaks old reactive emotional habits that keep you locked into a toxic dynamic. It allows you to step back and recognize what is really going on. Lastly, it allows you to manage your expectations and deal with reality rather than a non-productive healing fantasy.
Engage in Self-care
Many people have heard about the common self-care tips such as diet, nutrition, sleep, and making time for things you enjoy. These are pretty obvious, and if someone is an internalizer, they’ve probably been told to do these things many times. So why isn’t it enough to simply give this advice?
As you may have noticed by now, internalizers prioritize helping others over helping themselves. The ability to engage in self-care is perhaps part of the healing fantasy, perpetually postponed because there are more urgent matters regarding the needs of others. You may unconsciously tell yourself you’ll deserve self-care when you can finally fix everyone else.
Getting into the classic list of self-care tips is irrelevant if these underlying issues block motivation to engage in self-care. So why would someone continue to engage in self-neglect, even after recognizing this fact?
The most simple answer is because familiarity feels safe. We are creatures of habit, and it is very common to take self-destructive paths because they feel familiar. The sense of uncertainty and fear of the unknown keeps people stuck in suboptimal situations, settling for the scraps rather than taking the bigger, better offer of a new way of life.
If you grew up with an emotionally immature parent, emotional immaturity feels familiar. As a result, you may find yourself attracted to these types of people in other areas of your life. The people we find most charismatic are often triggering us. Therefore, instant chemistry might be a red flag that you are falling into old family patterns.
Before you can think about self-care, you’ll need to let go of these underlying attachments to unhealthy relational dynamics.
Whose validation are you seeking? Do you really need their validation, or do they need you to need their validation? Do you need to be needed? If so, are your attempts to meet this need getting you closer to genuine belonging, or are they keeping you meeting someone else’s need to be needed at your own expense.
For more on this theme, see my article, The Need to be Needed.
Characteristics of Emotional Maturity
If you’ve made it this far, you can probably relate to the sense of feeling trapped in constant emotional turmoil and unhealthy relational dynamics. Once you’ve applied some of the principles listed in the previous section, you may realize these patterns are so familiar and deeply ingrained, it is challenging to spot emotional maturity.
Although we’ve covered the red flags indicating emotional immaturity, here are the positive signs of emotionally mature individuals:
Emotional maturity consists of being realistic, reliable, flexible, non-judgmental, respectful, empathetic, level-tempered, genuine, reciprocal, and having an overall positive vibe.
Emotionally mature people are like a well-designed house. When everything is working the way it should, you almost don’t even know it’s there. If you’re used to constant flooding and leaking, you may initially feel a sense of calm and ease.
Interactions with emotionally mature people are lighter and more effortless. They are generally even-tempered, reliable, consistent, and can meet your basic emotional needs.
They are psychologically flexible and work with reality rather than fighting against it. If you decide to change plans, they respond flexibly, sharing their input and working out a mutually beneficial way forward.
They can use both reason and emotion in a balanced way, depending on the needs of a specific situation.
Emotionally mature people are not perfectionistic and recognize everyone is imperfect. This perspective allows them to demonstrate genuine compassion for others and themselves.
They treat others with respect, honoring your boundaries, and maintain your individuality.
When you need their emotional support, they listen non-judgmentally and empathetically, not assuming they know you better than you know yourself.
They approach life with a win-win mentality. They don’t want to use others, nor do they want to be used by others.
When conflict arises in a relationship, they are willing to deal with it effectively and bring it to a close rather than using emotional manipulation or long-term silent treatment.
Emotionally mature people are willing to consider your perspective and have a secure sense of self, allowing them to approach others with a non-defensive natural curiosity.
They are truthful, genuine, and forthcoming about their thoughts and intentions.
When they make a mistake, emotionally mature people are willing to genuinely apologize, demonstrating careful attention regarding your concern and describe how they intend to do things differently next time, following through with these intentions.
They are genuinely interested in you, remembering specific details regarding your interests and passions, referencing these topics in future conversations. They celebrate your individuality rather than expecting you to conform to their interests.
Emotionally mature people see you positively, allowing you to be yourself, free of the fear of judgment. When you share your emotional needs or discomforts, they take you seriously.
If you share personal details, they reciprocate, building mutual intimacy.
Although they are generally even-tempered, they can laugh and be playful. Their sense of humor is used to connect and bond rather than using it to gossip and ostracize others.
In general, they are enjoyable to be around and have an overall positive vibe.
Most importantly, they make you feel seen and understood for who you really are, not who you pretend to be.
How to Build Genuine Relationships
If you’ve never experienced a deep relationship with emotionally mature people, this kind of relationship may seem like a pipe dream.
You may be conditioned to settle, take emotional scraps, or be led on by a trail of emotional breadcrumbs. Besides the healing fantasy, it can be hard to let go of these relationships because you may think it’s all you’ll ever get. The thought of being alone forever induces fear, keeping you locked into familiar patterns.
Before letting go of toxic relationships, it can be helpful to assess those in your life, considering who fits the description of emotional maturity. Of course, no one is perfect, but the above description can offer guidance in making this assessment.
If you’ve determined there is someone in your life who is relatively emotionally mature, and you’ve been afraid to reach out for support, notice how the fear of judgment, rejection, or feeling like a burden is keeping you from doing so. Notice how although these reasons may have served you growing up, they are no longer useful when engaging with emotionally mature people.
Taking off the mask and opening up to emotionally mature people helps build an emotional safety net, allowing you to let go of unhealthy relationships.
Emotionally mature people can help you practice being yourself, so you can take this practice into interactions with others who are less emotionally mature. Rather than reacting based on old patterns, you can pause, maintain self-composure, and be true to yourself, whether people accept it or not.
You are not responsible for being parented by an emotionally immature parent, but you are responsible for the recovery process. This means recognizing others are responsible for their own feelings and communicating their needs, just as you are.
Trusting your emotions as offering useful information regarding unmet needs, you can have compassion for yourself. You can then accept that emotionally mature persons will likely respond to you with this same compassion if you reach out for support.
Letting go of old mental habits instilled by an emotionally immature parent gives you the freedom to live by your genuine thoughts and feelings. With this newfound sense of empowerment, wholeness, and self-reclamation, life feels lighter and easier.
Although you can’t make others change, you can change. You do get to start over, almost as if you’re rebirthing yourself, giving yourself the gift of living twice in one life.
This article has been an in-depth summary of the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD.
If you want even more tools on how to heal from an emotionally unavailable parent, you can check out her follow-up book, Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries and Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy.
As you can probably tell, I have been pretty obsessed with her book, given the time it took to write this summary. As a counselor, this is one of the most common themes I encounter in my conversations with clients.
This issue can often go unnoticed since there may not necessarily be a specific event identified as “traumatic.” Adverse childhood experiences do not need to be physically abusive or neglectful. As you can see, emotional neglect can have significant negative consequences and is often perceived as “normal” by those who have experienced it.
The issue is often made even more invisible because internalizers often blame themselves, carrying significant guilt or shame regarding unhealthy dynamics.
The book provides an insightful perspective, allowing the reader to see the bigger picture, giving practical tools to heal from emotionally immature parents. In the near-perfect 5546 reviews, many people share they found it life-changing, and I can see why.
If you know someone struggling with the issues outlined in this article, feel free to share it with them. Healing invisible wounds starts with awareness of the problem.
I’ve been on an audiobook binge over the last few weeks and have read a series of great books that would make the perfect follow-up to this article, so I’ve listed them below—in addition to a few others.
If you find yourself struggling with the inner critic, causing you to experience guilt and beat yourself up over “not being enough,” here are my best book recommendations:
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff PhD
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach PhD
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel MD
When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté MD
If you have further recommendations, feel free to share them in the comments! I am always looking for new audiobooks to devour while driving or doing housework!