Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
So The thing is, kids need things from their parents. They need food, water, shelter, and safety, but in addition, they need emotional connection.
People who had parents who were neglectful or abusive probably realize that they have to work through some complex childhood trauma. But for those who had all of their physical needs taken care of, it’s hard to figure out why they may feel so emotionally lonely, angry, or distant from others. They can also feel guilty for being unhappy, have a hard time trusting their instincts, and lack self-confidence. So I’m going to struggle to capture all of this in one ARTICLE, but I’m going to do the best that I can. To give you the highlights. First of all, how can you tell if your parent was or is emotionally immature?
It’s characterized primarily by having difficulties with the strong emotions of others. Some emotionally immature people are perfectly fine expressing their own emotions, even gleeful at times, although others shut down their own emotions completely. However, both of these types, when faced with a child’s disappointment, sadness, or anger, really cannot handle it.
They can be so preoccupied with their situation that they never even notice their child is out of sorts, but when they are actively approached for emotional comfort, they pull away. Or they might even get angry with the child. For having these feelings, they can be very dismissive. These parents can also be unpredictable. They can be wise at times and unreasonable at others. They can lash out at any difference of opinion and they can get defensive when they are challenged. They don’t have much self-reflection and they don’t accept blame or offer apologies when it’s warranted. Some will use their children as a confidant, but they will not provide that support back to their children. Does any of this sound familiar?
This article gives 2 assessment tests that will help you determine your parent’s level of emotional maturity and determine the difficulties that you may have had as a child with that parent.
I think the scoring is kind of a top cop-out. She just says if any of these are true, they are a sign of emotional immaturity. But as a parent myself, it’s impossible to never do any of these things unless you have the inner peace of the Dalai Lama. I am sometimes insensitive, self-absorbed, and a killjoy, but you are looking for a regular pattern of these behaviors, and the more behaviors exhibited, the higher the level of emotional immaturity. So I will say that some people have a really tough time labeling their parents as emotionally immature, particularly if you know that your parent had a rough childhood or you watch them struggle and sacrifice to give you what you need physically. Doctor Gibson points out that it is not an act of betrayal to acknowledge this about your parent. It may help you to better understand their issues and may result in more compassion towards them. But the most important thing is that having a level of awareness and acceptance of these issues may help you to do something about it for yourself so you don’t continue to perpetuate these unhealthy patterns. So there are four kinds of emotionally immature parents, emotionally driven, passive, and rejecting. Emotional parents are consumed by their feelings, and they swing between over-involvement and withdrawal. They are unpredictable and anxious, and they need others to stabilize them emotionally.
They see people, including their children, as either saviors or abandoners. Driven parents may look the most normal.
They are achievement-oriented and are very busy. They are constantly trying to perfect everything, including their children, and they can be controlling and tend to inappropriately interfere with their children’s lives. Passive parents seem to have compassionate empathy, but they are just avoiding dealing with anything upsetting. They may passively allow the more dominant parent to abuse or neglect the children without intervening. They also just give in and they will minimize issues just to preserve their peace. Rejecting parents don’t appear to want to be bothered by their children at all. They command they blow up or isolate themselves, and they never show any closeness or actual engagement in family life. Some parents are a blend of two or more of these types.
How Children React to Having Emotionally Immature Parents.
The next thing Doctor Gibson discusses is how children react to having emotionally immature parents. There are two main coping styles, externalizers and internalizers. So externalizers tend to think all of their problems are caused by something outside of them and that the solutions also come from the outside. Thus they tend to live in the moment, act impulsively, blame their circumstances, never take any responsibility, and accept and expect a lot of help from others. They also tend to seek comfort from external sources like drugs alcohol or other numbing agents. Internalizers tend to think all of their problems come from inside of them. They also believe that they can solve all their problems by being more thoughtful, more careful, more successful, and more self-reliant. They tend to be more introspective and feel more guilty. They also do too much emotional work in their relationships, giving a lot without asking all for much in return. So here’s a small complaint about this book. She does a lovely job of speaking directly to a specific kind of internalizer. And to be fair, that is the sort of person who is most apartment to read this book. Someone who is constantly striving to be more, do their work and make things better. However, the tone is a bit demeaning to externalizers who to be fair, are harder to sympathize with with their everyone else’s to blame attitude and the acting out when they are emotionally dysregulated. She makes the point that most emotionally immature parents are externalizers, but I think she missed a whole segment of internalizers who aren’t actively engaged in improving themselves and aren’t trying constantly to make the relationship with a parent work. And that is the avoid an internalizer. So these folks believe they can make a difference, but they do that by shutting down all of their emotional borders. Nothing in, nothing out. They aren’t doing too much work in their relationships because they keep their relationships entirely at an emotionally superficial level. They avoid anything that smacks of emotional intimacy and they protect themselves by being fiercely independent and self-reliant. I also think some people fall somewhere between these two poles, vacillating between being.
Nothing out. They aren’t doing too much work in the relationships because they keep their relationships entirely at an emotionally superficial level. They avoid anything that smacks of emotional intimacy and they protect themselves by being fiercely independent and self-reliant. I also think some people fall somewhere between these two poles, vacillating between being overly emotional, accommodating, and shutting down for protection. The bottom line is you want a bit of both the external and the internal coping styles. You have to acknowledge that you aren’t entirely responsible for every situation and that you alone cannot fix it. At the same time, you have to have some sense that you can make incremental and meaningful changes to your own life, or else things will never get any better. So there’s a whole chapter on being an accommodating internalizer. They are sensitive and perception perceptive. They have strong emotions and a strong need for connection. Unfortunately, they believe that they need to put other people first to connect with them. They are apologetic when they need help, and they have a hard time asking for it. They can become easy to neglect since they aren’t acting out or demanding any attention. They feel immense gratitude for any kind of recognition at all. They are very independent, but they have a hard time trusting their instincts. For example, sometimes they don’t recognize abuse or boundary crossing in others. As I’ve said before, they do most of the emotional work in their relationships, and they tend to attract emotionally immature friends and partners. In this way, they can reenact their lopsided childhood patterns with their parents in their adult relationships. So Doctor Gibson talks about the two things that hold us back, childhood healing fantasies and role cells. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but we have these fantasies that came about in childhood about what will make us truly happy one day. We then foist these expectations onto our adult partners and we expect them to fulfill them. In addition, we were created. Or we were. We were assigned a role for ourselves in our families of origin that helped us to cope, but those don’t. Those roles don’t always line up with who we are as people. So people come into therapy for a whole bunch of reasons, but they rarely come in saying I need better ways to cope with having had an emotionally immature parent. Instead, there are other indications of problems, Depression, anxiety, anger management, relationship issues, etcetera. So I am not Freudian, but I do believe that the strength of your emotional attachment in your most primary childhood relationship affects every relationship and your entire understanding of life as you grow up. Finally, I like the doctor. Gibson gives good practical advice about changing the relationship with your emotionally immature parent for the better. So I have witnessed this change and it can be extremely difficult and wrenching. So give yourself some time and grace to get through it. The 1st and most important thing is to change your expectations about what you might get from your emotionally immature parents. Give up the fantasy that they will change and give you that positive feedback that you crave. The new connection that you will build will be about relating without expecting a relationship. The three steps are observing in a detached way, focusing on the outcome, and stepping outside of your role. So let’s take these one at a time. Detached observation. So this involves operating from a calm, detached observational frame of mind and observing the interaction as though you are a scientist. Recognize when you are feeling needy angry or vulnerable, and try to take steps to detach, detach, detach. You can always figure out a way to get some distance if your emotions start to blow up. Go for a walk, take a bathroom, play, play with a pet. The goal here is not to have a satisfying emotional exchange. Instead, you just want to be able to relate without expecting an emotional connection. Manage, but don’t engage.
Next. Focus on the outcome. So you should move away from expecting emotional connection and feedback and instead figure out a specific goal for yourself. So not I want my mom to see things from my perspective, but I’m going to say what I want, even if my mom yells. Or I’m going to tell my parents that I’m not going to be home for Christmas, or I will ask my father to speak nicely to my children. It will be a change in how you normally interact and finally stepping out of your old role, old role. Be aware of the role that you have played for your parent, whether that is confidant or helper or golden child, and step away from some of those set patterns. Realize that your parents will try all kinds of tactics to throw you off your balance and get you back under their control. Stay polite, don’t react, and try not to take the bait. The last couple of chapters tell you what it’s like to be free of your parent’s demands and how to identify partners and friends who are emotionally mature so you don’t continue to replicate old patterns. In the end. I think this book could be transformative and healing for so many, but it can be unpleasant and emotional to face all of this. It also takes a lot of self-work to continue to manage these relationships without engaging. Some people get overwhelmed reading it for the first time and they have to put it down until they are emotionally ready. If this summary resonated with you, go buy this book. It could save you hundreds of dollars in therapy and let me know what you think. Comments are always appreciated and thanks for reading.