What would you characterize as an emotionally detached or unavailable parent?
Would you know what an emotionally detached and unavailable parent is? For most people who have endured an unstable, abusive, or emotionally unavailable parent, emotional detachment is an inability of the parent to meet their deepest needs, relate to them, or provides support and comfort when needed. I previously wrote a similar article on this topic in March of 2016. The responses from readers and supporters is astounding. It’s also heartbreaking to know that a lot of people feel their childhood was limited by an emotionally unavailable parent (to read those comments, click here).
This article will review the topic of emotionally unavailable and avoidant parents. I will also discuss this topic in a video for the launch of my upcoming YouTube channel 1/5/18. I encourage you to sign up to receive notifications on similar videos.
Research has attempted to identify over many years the significance of parental involvement and healthy attachment of all infants and developing children. Research supports the idea that all children must have emotionally available and healthy parents in order to survive. Without this, children are likely to grow up with insecurities, fears, lack of confidence and self-efficacy, emotional voids, and even mental health conditions such as panic disorder, depression, or bipolar disorder. In many cases, adults who grew up in emotionally detaches environments may also struggle with suicidal thoughts and anger management. Other research suggests that children who grew up in emotionally unstable and abusive environments may display symptoms of multiple personality disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and dissociation or depersonalization. The toll unstable parents can take on their children is major.
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. Behaviors, emotions, or “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),
- 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 common signs of having an emotionally unstable parent include but is not limited to:
- Could care less about your well-being: It is natural for humans to believe that ALL parents are comforting, loving, and engaging with their child. It is natural for humans to believe that ALL parents are emotionally available and engaged with their child. But this simply isn’t true. We have parents who would give everything to support and love their child. But there are others who could care less about the life of their child. This can be confirmed in cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Parents harm their children in order to receive the attention of medical professionals or others who show them empathy or sympathy. The syndrome is further complicated by additional mental health challenges such as depression. Other parents may outright murder their own children or induce harm. As hard as it is to believe, these kinds of parents exist.
- More interest in social activities than family-oriented activities: Parents who are emotionally unavailable and immature may disregard the needs of their children in favor of their own desires and wants. Have you ever heard a parent say “I have to have my own life. I can’t always be a mom.” While this may be partially true, parents who firmly live by this thinking style may neglect their children in favor of partying, getting high or drunk, dating, and doing other pleasurable activities they refuse to give up. All parents need recuperation and restoration to be their best. But some parents take this way too far and indulge themselves rather than support their children.
- Has a social and home persona: I have had many young clients tell me that their parents have 2 or more faces. One of my adolescent clients informed me that her father isn’t as nice to her behind closed doors as he is to strangers. She reported once “he smiles with everyone and even looks for opportunities to help them. But when he is at home, he ignores me and yells all the time.”
- Doesn’t communicate with schools and/or other parents: Parents who are disinterested in the well-being of their children may neglect to do necessary things such as sign school-related forms or slips, call teachers back, check homework, attend PTA meetings, etc. These parents would rather the school “raise” their child. These kind of parents are “MIA” (missing in action) and the school rarely sees or talks to these parents. It is important that I distinguish between neglectful, uncaring parents and parents who are incapable of being good parents. I firmly believe that there are parents who are “unintentionally abusive.” These parents are problematic for their children but are unable to see that their actions are more harmful than good. These parents are different from parents who simply don’t care.
- Preventing the child from becoming independent: I once counseled a young adult client who informed me that she could drive because “my mother never taught me. She said it is a waste of time.” Many of my sessions with her were about the abusive and neglectful behavior of her mother. It later came out that she did not want to teach her daughter to drive for fear of her losing her daughter and being all alone. Some parents will not only reduce the autonomy of the child by holding back information but also discourage them from moving forward in their lives. These parents are emotionally devoid and selfish. These parents are also concerned with losing the only thing that depends on them or the only thing that gives them “self-worth.” I’m sure you have heard of the parents who keep family secrets in order to “protect” their child or keep them in the dark. It is a known fact that these parents believe doing this is better than being honest. The child, once an adult, begins to resent the parent for withholding significant information from them. Other parents are unintentionally causing harm by keeping secrets and only intend to protect (in a loving fashion) the child. But for the purposes of this article, I am referring more to dishonest, uncaring parents.
- Engaging in unnecessary criticism, arguing, or debates: Parents who are emotionally unstable may engage their child in multiple arguments and debates in order to prove to the child that they are in control. Some parents will even compete with their child in hopes of keeping the child submissive to them in some way. I have counseled at least 4 teens in the past 10 years of my career who had parents like this. The end result is hardly ever repairable. The adult child becomes increasingly more resentful and vowes to never interact with or see that abusive and demeaning parent again. Parents who display these behaviors can be characterized as narcissistic and in some cases, sociopathic.
- Unfairly associating the child with the “negative” parent: Divorce is never an easy situation for families. Parents begin to see each other through a negative lens and often becomes polarized in their view of the other. In some situations involving divorce, the divorcing parent may be “smeared” by the divorcee in front of the children. The divorcee seeks revenge by creating riffs between the children and the divorcing parent. If the children decide to live with the divorcing parent or seem to have a closer bond with this parent, the divorcee may begin to lash out by associating the children with the divorcing parent which means the children are accused of taking sides or coming against the divorcee. This kind of behavior can lead to the children feeling ostracized, bullied, or gaslighted.
- Using a permissive parenting style: Permissive parenting often enters the scene when one parent (or sometimes both) feel incapable of having an influence in the life of their child. It can also occur in situations where a parent feels inadequate or uncertain about their parenting duties. These kinds of parents would benefit from parenting classes or therapy to help them understand and recognize the influence they have over their children. Emotionally unstable or unavailable parents are often permissive and would rather be the child’s friend and not the parent. Permissive parents fear the child will dislike them, lose respect, or completely disown them if they hold the child accountable or make their boundaries known. These parent-child relationships barely survive and often end negatively. Permissive parenting is also very easy because there are hardly any rules or boundaries in the home. The child does what he or she pleases.
- Lacking boundaries and self-respect: We all know that children need boundaries with adults. My great-grandmother used to say “play with a puppy long enough and he will lick your face.” You cannot engage with a child in a fashion that makes them see you as an equal. Parents are never going to be equal with their parent. The parent always has a responsibility to the child which is to raise them, spend time with them, love them, and nurture their mind and heart. Parents who aren’t capable of doing this are often permissive, irresponsible, mentally ill, or completely disinterested.
- Entrapping the child with guilt, fear, or “grooming” behaviors: Guilt, fear, or “grooming” behaviors in order to keep a child feeling indebted or trapped is often a typical behavior of emotionally unstable parents. As stated above in the example of the teen who was never taught to drive, emotional dependency is a powerful way to control. Making the child feel guilty, putting them into a state of fear about life, and/or “grooming” them by being nice one moment and mean the next, are all unhealthy, controlling, and unstable behaviors that often result in the child becoming resentful. Traumatic bonding is an example of this phenomenon.
Have you experienced an emotionally unavailable parent? If so, feel free to post below as I always enjoy facilitating discussion, reading your questions and replies to each other.
To watch the video on this topic click below:
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.