Do you know an emotionally avoidant and detached parent/guardian? If so, what makes that person so emotionally unavailable? Is it a mental illness, personality disorder, or something else such as a job, career goal, or educational endeavor? Whatever it is, having an emotionally unavailable parent or guardian can lead to a lifelong journey of unstable or failed relationships, emotional neediness, empty voids, identity confusion, poor attachment to others, low self-esteem and self-efficacy (the feeling of mastery), etc. Research has identified the importance of all infants and developing children having an appropriate, warm, and loving attachment to a mother figure during the developmental years. Without an appropriate, warm, and loving parental figure, children are likely to develop multiple personality, emotional, and psychological difficulties. For many of my clients, the absence of a loving parental figure has resulted in an increase in psychiatric symptoms, school and academic difficulties, fear of abandonment, and many other challenges. This article will discuss the aftereffects or consequences of growing up without an emotionally available parent.
Parents who are emotionally unavailable are often immature and psychologically affected themselves. As difficult as it is to believe, emotionally unavailable parents have a host of their own problems that might go back as far as their own childhood. There is often a deficit in parents who are unable to meet the emotional and psychological needs of their child. In a sense, some emotionally void parents deserve sympathy as they are often emotionally burned adults who have no way of coping with their own emotional and psychological needs. As a result, these kind of parents become one of the following: rejecting, emotionally distant, immature, self-centered or narcissistic, or driven to succeed in life. These adults are not emotionally what their stated (or chronological) age says they are. They are pseudo-mature in many ways which often pushes the child to become adult-like and emotionally independent before their time. The parent maintains negative patterns of behavior due to lack of self-awareness, often affecting the child in more ways than one, while the child sinks further and further into despair. Sadly, these same kids develop into emotionally needy teens and adults who are longing for the love, security, and affection they never received.
Symptoms often representative of adults who are emotionally immature and detached include but are not limited to: rigidity (unwillingness to be flexible when needed), low stress tolerance (inability to tolerate stress in a mature manner), emotional instability with aggression (anger outbursts characterized by threats of physical aggression, suicidal gesture, cutting behaviors or other acts of self-harm), poor boundaries (desiring to be their child’s friend instead of a parent), unstable relationships (multiple partners or friends who create more trouble than peace), and attention-seeking (looking for accolades, recognition, or support at all costs) among many other characteristics. Tragically, the affected children often develop into teenagers and adults who also struggle with life.
Some of the consequences of growing up under immature and emotionally void parents include:
- Affected adult relationships: Believe it or not, our childhood(s) affect our relationships and how we interact with others later in life. If we were loved and cared for appropriately, we will most likely exhibit those same traits as adults. If we were abused and neglected, we will most likely develop characteristics to protect ourselves as adults such as being defensive or overly protective. Some adults become angry or struggle with long-term relationships which leads to a series of short-term and unstable relationships. It is important for me to mention that not every child with an emotionally unavailable parent will develop into an adult with problems. Some adults develop into better people than their parent(s) could ever be. Every situation is different and the variables in the lives of children with emotionally unavailable parents are also different. However, for the most part, children with emotionally void parents often develop into teenagers and adults with problems themselves.
- Fear of attachment and love: Children who have developed under an emotionally void parent will most likely develop into a teenager and adult who struggles to emotionally attach to others and receive/demonstrate love. While working within a nonprofit agency in which my clients tended to be abused (emotionally, physically, and sexually), I noticed a pattern in which many of these clients struggled not only to maintain appropriate peer and staff interactions, but also struggled to connect with me and other mental health professionals. Trust is a major component of positive emotional attachment. When you haven’t experienced the love, affection, and protection of a loving adult, you are more likely to develop defenses or protective mechanisms that keep you separated from other people in some way. Unfortunately, defense and protective mechanisms can prevent the individual from engaging appropriately in therapy or trusting that they can be happy and feel secure in their relationships.
- Borderline and narcissistic personality traits: Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are two disorders that can negatively affect everyone in connection to the sufferer. The unstable, emotionally labile moods often characteristic of BPD can lead to frequent arguments, paranoia, blaming, and physical or verbal aggression. The self-centered, overly confident, and arrogant behaviors of NPD can make developing children feel estranged emotionally from that parent. Without proper treatment/therapy, these two disorders can destabilize the household and many relationships.
- Selfishness: I’ve often regarded selfishness as a personality deficit as it is a characteristic that is not admirable. Not being able to share with others can lead to an inability to be emotionally detached and immature behavior. I previously had a 10 year old client who enjoyed playing games on his iPad after school. His mother, who has a childhood history of abuse, reported that she would not permit him to play on his iPad after school. Of course, many parents do not want their children to play games until homework or chores are completed. But to my surprise, this was not the reason for restricting access to his iPad. She eventually admitted that she did not like him touching her iPad because she had spent so much money on it and liked the fact that it still seemed brand new. She further reported that, as a child, she rarely had anything of her own and felt a need to “protect” her investment. This kind of selfishness resulted in many years of parent-child conflict. As her son grew older and began to question her behavior(s), he became even more resentful of her and eventually asked to live with his father. The relationship was destroyed.
- Substance abuse/dependency: In order to cope with pain and sorrow, many people turn to substances that “takes them away” or “dulls the pain.” Sadly, recreational use or prescription use of drugs become a habit and the need for self-medication becomes an addiction. Once an addiction happens, the life of the user then becomes more complicated as relationships, employment, and other important areas of life no longer seem important to the substance abuser.
- Lack of identity and direction: A former adolescent female client once asked me the following question almost every individual session we would have: “how do you know what kind of relationship you should have if all of the relationships in your life have been abusive or exploitative in some way?” I would always respond by highlighting the importance of having a strong foundation of morals and identity. Without understanding who you really are, you are more likely to follow the crowd and allow anyone with the slightest bit of interest of you into your life. When you know who you are, what you want, and what is best for you, you are likely to be more careful in choosing other individuals to be apart of your life. A lack of identity can lead to a series of unstable and shallow relationships that are short-lived.
- Loss of hope, faith, and joy: For many adults who were raised under an emotionally void parent there is a deep feeling of loss and grief. The “loss” of a parent who is still living and breathing can seem like the most tragic experience. To look a parent in the eyes or hear their voice and yet feel so far away, is tragic. The inability to connect to the very person who brought you into this world is tragic. It is like a tease. It is like a distant fantasy. Sadly, the adult child begins to feel a sense of grief and loss of hope, faith, and joy. Sometimes adult children internalize their emotions and begin to feel depressed, suicidal, or self-injurious. This is often when substance abuse begins.
It is truly sad that a child’s life can be affected by the emotional and psychological instability and unavailability of a parent. It’s as if this belief gives the unstable parent more power than they deserve. But decades of research confirm that children must have the experience, during early childhood development, of a warm caregiver/guardian in order to develop the appropriate skills (the ability to be emotionally available, connect with other individuals, understand the rules of social communication, etc.) needed for later in life.
Do you have questions regarding this? Have you experienced this? If so, feel free to post below as I always enjoy reading your questions and replies to each other.
As always, I wish you well
Heller, S. R. (2016). Maternal Deprivation: The effects of the fundamental absence of love. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from, http://pro.psychcentral.com/maternal-deprivation-the-effects-of-the-fundamental-absence-of-love/0011091.html.
McLeod, S. (2007). Simpy Psychology. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Retrieved online 3/1/2016 from, http://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html.