8 mins

Having emotionally unavailable parents and how it can impact your adult life

As humans, we relate to each other through the language of our emotions. Emotions dictate our behaviour, body language and choice of words – ultimately creating a dialogue that we learn to understand from a very young age. Our upbringing is a crucial period when learning how to interpret emotions, fulfil our emotional needs and relate to each other. These skills are necessary to develop healthy emotional availability as adults. 

When we are children, we look to our parents or primary caregivers to act as role models for engaging with others. When your needs aren’t met from a young age, it can be incredibly difficult to deal with. It may even cause challenges in your adult relationships. If you suspect you had emotionally unavailable parents growing up, you may feel an inability to be emotionally present in relationships, struggle with empathy and/or discerning your own emotional needs.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in this struggle, and the lasting challenges of having emotionally unavailable parents can be overcome.

Emotionally unavailable signs in parents

Often, emotionally unavailable parents struggle to provide the warmth, empathy, and responsiveness we need for healthy emotional development. Growing up with emotionally unavailable parents can be incredibly challenging, and all of us have different ideas of what emotional neglect might look like depending on our own experiences. There is no one type of emotional unavailability, but there are emotionally unavailable signs in parents to look out for.

Inconsistency in Emotional Response

Emotionally unavailable parents might offer you sporadic love and support, causing you to feel uncertain about when or if you will receive affection next. Your parents might be warm and affectionate one day, but distant and preoccupied the next, causing you to feel confused and insecure.

Lack of Emotional Expression

Some parents avoid expressing their own emotions and discourage you from doing so too. Phrases like “Don’t be so sensitive” or “Just get over it” might be familiar to you if you’ve grown up with parents of this nature. If you cry after a tough day at school, an emotionally unavailable parent might respond with, “Stop crying, it’s not a big deal,” instead of offering the comfort and understanding you need.

Dismissive or Critical Behaviour

Emotionally unavailable parents may dismiss or criticise your feelings, fostering a sense of shame or inadequacy. Maybe you were told your sadness over a lost toy was “silly” or “unimportant.”

Absence of Physical Affection

Hugs, kisses, and other forms of physical touch are vital ways we express affection both in childhood and adulthood. Therefore, it’s not surprising that growing up without these forms of affection can have lasting effects. When physical affection is rare or absent, we may feel starved for touch and reassurance.

Neglect of Emotional Needs

There may have been a noticeable gap in addressing your emotional needs. While basic physical needs might be met, an emotional vacuum can leave you feeling isolated and unimportant. For instance, you may have been well-fed and clothed but your parents never asked about your feelings or experiences, inadvertently making you feel neglected.

Having an emotionally unavailable mother

While both parents can be emotionally unavailable, the dynamic with an emotionally unavailable mother can have unique impacts. Mothers are often the primary caregivers and are traditionally expected to nurture us. When this expectation is unmet, it can create a profound sense of loss and confusion that carries through to adulthood.

Overemphasis on Independence

An emotionally unavailable mother might push you to be overly independent at a young age, when you really needed guidance and support. For instance, your mother might have expected you to take care of your own meals and homework with little to no assistance.

Enmeshment and Emotional Role Reversal

In some cases, an emotionally unavailable mother may lean on you for emotional support, reversing the typical parent-child roles. This enmeshment could cause you to develop codependent tendencies in your adult relationships.

Perfectionism and Criticism

An emotionally unavailable mother might set unrealistically high expectations, leading to a cycle of striving for perfection and inevitable failure. This constant criticism can severely damage your self-esteem as a child and adult. 

Symptoms and traits of adults raised by emotionally unavailable parents

Growing up with emotionally unavailable parents often leaves a lasting impact that extends into adulthood, shaping how we perceive ourselves and interact with others. Despite appearing outwardly fine, you may feel a persistent void or sense that something crucial is missing, stemming from unmet emotional needs. This internal vacuum can lead to difficulties in relationships, self-esteem, and overall well-being. Here are some common behaviours you might relate to if you’ve grown up with emotionally unavailable parents:

Tendency to enter abusive or unstable relationships

If you have been raised by emotionally unavailable parents, you may not have got the complete picture of what a healthy relationship looks like growing up. Because of this, it may be easier to fall into patterns of dysfunctional relationships as both the abuser and the victim depending on your specific circumstances. 

Unable to state emotional needs

When your emotional needs have gone unmet, or even rejected, for such an extended period of time, you might not feel like your needs will be met as an adult. This can lead to withdrawal from close ones, devaluation and inability to set boundaries.  

Neediness

Unmet emotional needs as a child can also lead to feeling starved of attention and affection as an adult. You may overcompensate when entering relationships by displaying needy behaviour, resulting in uneven and unhealthy relationship dynamics. 

Development of unhealthy attachment styles

Attachment types develop early in life, often in response to how our emotional needs were met as children. If you have been raised by emotionally absent parents, unhealthy attachment styles may develop.

Codependency 

Without a consistent parental figure to model healthy behaviours in childhood, it could cause you to project onto future loved ones, creating a sense of codependency in relationships. 

People pleasing

Many children of emotionally unavailable parents often adopt people-pleasing behaviours to get their needs met. Due to the prolonged absence of your core needs, you may go to great lengths to fill the void left by your upbringing.

Promiscuity 

Sometimes, you may take part in compulsive sexual behaviours in an attempt to meet your emotional needs. By seeking out this type of intimacy regularly, sex addictions can also develop. 

Jealousy and possessiveness

Once you reach adulthood, you may feel possessive in platonic and romantic relationships out of fear of being abandoned.  

Self-esteem issues

Not receiving the right amount of attention or affection from parents growing up can impact your sense of self-worth. Many children of emotionally unavailable parents feel unlovable and have self-esteem issues as a result. 

Rigidity and low stress tolerance

You may display rigidity in thinking and behaviour, struggling to adapt to new situations or ideas. You might have a low-stress tolerance, often reacting with anger or withdrawal in day-to-day situations.

Identity confusion

A lack of emotional support and guidance can lead to confusion about one’s identity and direction in life. Without strong core values and a sense of self, you may struggle to find your place and purpose.

How schema therapy can help

Schema therapy addresses deep-seated patterns called schemas; self-beliefs that form during childhood and influence our later lives. The emotional deprivation schema, for example, arises from emotionally unavailable parents who were neglectful or dismissive, leading us to believe that our emotional needs will never be met in adulthood. This can cause the range of behaviours listed above. Schema therapy helps us recognise these patterns and transform maladaptive coping mechanisms into healthier ways of meeting emotional needs.

Coping and healing from the effects of emotionally unavailable parents

Coping and healing from the effects of emotionally unavailable parents begins with understanding the profound impact on your emotional health. It’s important to remember that what happened in your childhood isn’t your fault, and it’s never too late to address any lasting effects. Therapy plays a crucial role in this journey, offering essential support in navigating these complexities. A therapist can guide you to develop emotional awareness, cultivate healthier relationships, and enhance your self-esteem. Seeking therapy is a proactive step towards healing from the impacts of emotionally unavailable parenting, offering the support and tools you need to build healthier relationships with yourself and others.

Book an assessment today and begin your journey towards a more emotionally fulfilling life.

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

27 June 2024

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Athena Lazaridou

Athena is a Pilates instructor with 8 years’ experience in the field. After completing a Power Pilates Mat Certification in Athens, she went on to complete the Full Comprehensive Classical Pilates Certification with Equinox in Kensington.  She has been teaching Pilates at Equinox for the past 6 years in addition to her own private clients who she trains both face to face and virtually.

Athena has a passion for helping people get stronger and fitter as well as helping those recovering from injury regain their strength and mobility.  Over the years, she has worked with athletes to incorporate Pilates into their training and improve performance. Athena has also worked with prenatal and postnatal women who may be experiencing depression or other mental health difficulties and used Pilates to facilitate a positive impact on their mental health.

Athena is very passionate about improving physical and mental well-being and has recently incorporated Sound Healing into her work, as she believes it to be one of the best ways of ‘letting go’ and releasing stale energy whilst increasing greater self-awareness.