Adult children of emotionally immature parents are often left feeling like they can't make it on their own or somehow that they're not enough. These same parents are often self-involved, and they give mixed messages to their children growing up about their lovability and individuality. Parents' emotional immaturity denies a child the deep sense of being felt and seen, which hinders a child's budding self-identity.
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The Cost of Emotional Immaturity in Parents
Emotionally immature parents rarely extend empathy or provide emotional support to their children because their parents’ needs and insecurities compete with their child’s emotional needs.
A parent who lacks emotional intelligence will continue to eclipse the adult child’s emotional legitimacy. The mixed and unclear signals can be crazy-making, causing self-doubt and a longing to be heard.
Adult children often continue to try to get their needs met through other people who lack the ability to understand another’s experience. Since feeling heard is a core human need, it can be excruciating to be raised by an infantile parent. If you are reading this blog, maybe you're trying to make sense of what you feel and gain some understanding.
Learn Emotional Intelligence Skills as a Roadmap for Healing
The opposite of emotionally immature is emotionally intelligent. And to a large degree, emotional intelligence is learned from parents while growing up. When parents are immature or even fragile, it’s difficult for children to be autonomous or claim their right to be true to themselves. Children learn to anticipate others’ emotions but be out of touch with their own.
If parents lack emotional literacy and are unable to emotionally regulate themselves, a child isn’t taught how to identify emotions, self-soothe, or self-regulate. Emotionally immature parents neglect to provide secure attachment for their children.
As Lindsay C. Gibson, a clinical psychologist, says in her book, Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents, "Once you are taught to doubt yourself, you start looking to others for direction, trusting other people's perspective over your own. Instead of knowing what you really think and feel, you become preoccupied with just being accepted."
Gibson divides emotionally immature parents into four groups:
- Passive parents who are unengaged in their child's life and often too overwhelmed to interact with the child maturely.
- Driven parents who are always busy, busy, busy either working or simply preoccupied with self-centeredness, making it near impossible to truly connect on any meaningful level.
- Emotional parents who are self-involved often neglect their children. Their infantile nature keeps them centered on themselves with no bandwidth for caring for their children.
- Rejecting parents who are emotionally unavailable and detach completely. These parents don't acknowledge their child's efforts for attention (or just enough to keep the child craving more), or openly criticize and reject their child.
Now, of course, just like any categorization or labeling, there are overlapping and common denominators in each group. In fact, a very loving parent can have some of these symptoms since they are human, but these parents show up lovingly more often and provide secure attachment rather than parents with insecure attachment styles. With the emotionally immature, inadequacies occupy their full attention and make them ill-equipped to provide secure attachment for their children.
The good news is that your childhood need not define you. You can build emotional fitness and learn to be emotionally savvy. Learning some critical emotional intelligence skills will provide you with a solid foundation for supporting yourself, give you tools to sort through conflicting emotions, heal your pain, and live more confidently in life. Emotional intelligence offers a way through the pain of feeling unheard, unseen, and invisible and lights the way to wholeness.
Consequences of Growing Up with Emotionally Immature Parents
When you have lived with an emotionally immature, unavailable, or inordinately self-centered parent, you may still feel anger, loneliness, betrayal, and abandonment might linger in you.
You'll need to develop emotional maturity and practical insights into your feelings of anger and loneliness to heal. When your emotional needs aren't met, discover ways to be more present to your feelings and emotional needs. Allow for honest insight into your pain. Stay connected to yourself without zoning out or dulling yourself.
Possible patterns developed when growing up:
- With neglectful parents, you may neglect your own emotions or self-care.
- With a driven parent who doesn't make time for their children, you may seek to prove yourself worthy of love through an obsession with work or overgiving to others.
- With immature, unavailable, or selfish parents, you may be inaccessible to your friends, partner, or children. Or you may protect yourself with defenses; being vulnerable and open can feel too threatening.
- With a reactive or emotional parent, you might avoid conflict and stuff your needs or emotions, caretaking to the people in your life.
- With a rejecting parent, you may reject yourself and deny your own needs to keep others happy.
- With difficult or autocratic parents where there is little consideration for your perspective or feelings, you may not be in touch with your needs or feel paralyzed when making decisions because you never got practice growing up.
However, no matter what kind of childhood you experienced, you can connect with the compass of your true self, learning the genuine nature of relationships beginning with yourself.
The First Step to Emotional Maturity Is Self-Compassion
One of the first steps of healing and building resiliency as an adult of a painful childhood is through compassionately loving yourself. It's crucial for you to have self-compassion and be present to yourself when emotionally immature parents are unable to be there for you. Whether your parent's behavior is self-involved or rejecting, whether they're passive or driven and ignore you and your needs, start by healing yourself through self-compassion.
What does it mean to have self-compassion? It means being kind to yourself when you are struggling or having a hard time. It means accepting that you may feel helpless or lonely at times when your parent is unable to give you what you need. Being present to your own emotions and pain when your parent is clueless about how to be present to you and your experience is having compassion for your experience.
Being kind to yourself will help buffer the hard truth that you cannot change them, only yourself and your response.
How to Lovingly and Firmly Deal with Emotionally Immature Parents
Below are some emotional intelligence skills that will be helpful and some tips to assist you in taking care of yourself to create a healthier, more meaningful relationship with your parents. As you practice these actions with your parents, they will also help you in all relationships.
Set healthy boundaries and limits with your parent(s).
Parents don't have to change for you to be happier and lovingly accept them for who they are. It's essential for your well-being to learn skills to care for yourself within the relationship, such as setting healthy boundaries.
Setting boundaries is part of learning emotional intelligence so that we don't get bullied in life. Decide your bottom line and communicate it respectfully, firmly, and lovingly. Effective boundaries also give your parents the specific ingredients to be successful if they choose to be in a relationship with you differently.
For example, your parent yells at you, a boundary could be "I'm unwilling to be spoken to like that." or "I love you, Mom/Dad, however, when you yell at me, I feel disrespected and scared. When you get angry next time, I'm going to say, 'When you're ready to speak respectfully, I'll be in the other room.' If you don't stop, I'll leave."
When your parent(s) criticizes you, say, "I don't want to be criticized. It hurts and I am unwilling to continue the conversation unless you stop." Then stop talking until they apologize. If they keep criticizing you, leave. If they shift to be more loving, extend the time.
Another limit that may be helpful is giving yourself a time limit to be around them or a problematic behavior, like shaming you.
Be respectful and clear about your boundaries. Finding win-win solutions is crucial in emotionally healthy relationships. It doesn't mean you have to give up your self-care; it's about recognizing your parents' limitations as well as yours while also requiring respect and reciprocity.
Just remember, a boundary isn't about rejecting someone; it's about taking care of yourself! Boundaries are kind; they just need to be set with kindness before our emotions build.
Related reading: "How to Set Healthy Boundaries for a Happy Life."
Deep dive: For a more thorough guide to learning how to set boundaries, check out our online mini-course. Give the gift of boundaries to yourself!
Treat your parents as mature adults that can handle the fullness of YOU.
One of the primary reasons people don't change is that others move around them, pretending to go along even though they may want something different. When we give in and "keep the peace," we've also allowed ourselves to be trained to act a certain way around them.
The only time a person reassesses how they are behaving in a relationship is when they feel respected, AND we advocate for ourselves. If we're unwilling to lean into discomfort and conflict, we can't hold the other person accountable to behave better or get our own needs met.
It's futile to try to change our parents. We can only control our responses to them. Love them, but love yourself first.
Practice being true to yourself whenever you're with your parents. Be diplomatic and respectful but don't censor yourself. How are they ever going to know you unless you share and show them yourself? Be true to YOU, first and foremost.
Empathize with your parents when your choices disappoint or upset them.
When we advocate for ourselves or set boundaries, sometimes it can be upsetting, especially for parents who have certain expectations of us. If your parent reacts, empathy can diffuse the situation.
For example, your parents say they're going to visit you, so you take off work to spend time with them. Then they cancel at the last minute—it's disappointing and infuriating! So you decide to set a boundary by encouraging them to come but not taking time off work.
Possible empathetic responses when you set boundaries and your parents are hurt, disappointed, or angry:
- "It sounds like you're disappointed about my plans."
- "It looks like you’re saddened by ."
- "I can see that my decision has disappointed you. And it's important to me to do what's right for me."
- "Do you have any thoughts on how we can work to create more
reciprocity and balance?"
These empathetic responses show understanding of their feelings and the situation. Empathy paves the way for a deeper sharing of feelings and helps build a mutually satisfying relationship. This type of communication enables both parties to share their perspectives and desires without power struggles or hurt feelings.
Balance self-empathy and empathy for your parents by expressing yourself without getting defensive. This behavior shows maturity and respect. When we empathize, it also allows for more authentic dialogue about how our actions affect each other in relationships.
Children of emotionally immature parents need to learn how to find love in themselves and give self-compassion because their parents often are unable to support them in a mature, loving way.
Give compassion and love to yourself, and you'll be much more likely to have better results with your parents. Honest insights lead to self-awareness and begin to plant a fresher and more confident lens for your experiences.
To learn more about emotional intelligence or to receive coaching, contact us at support@Heartmanity.com.