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  • Writer's pictureDr. Susanna La

Understanding the Impact of Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

When our need for connection and care in times of distress (e.g., scared, overwhelmed, unwell) is neglected, we feel emotional pain, loneliness, and even emptiness (Gibson, 2015). While last week’s blog focused on signs of an emotionally immature parent, today’s blog will explore the impact of emotional neglect. As a child, we likely did not have the vocabulary or understanding when our parent(s) were emotionally unavailable to us. Some may be more affected, especially if we are highly sensitive and empathic. As an adult, there are some helpful indicators and patterns we may want to pay attention to help heal our inner child.



Signs of Emotional Neglect

Below is a list of hardships you may have experienced growing up with emotionally neglectful parent(s), and some are adapted from the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents:

  • Feeling unheard/unseen, rejected, and/or abandoned

  • Unable to go to parent(s) for comfort when having a hard time

  • Not being able to use your voice to express yourself

  • Being told you are ‘too emotional’ or ‘too sensitive’

  • Made to feel guilty or things were your fault

  • Needing to ‘work for’ your parents’ affection

  • Getting the message you are ‘not enough’

  • Growing up too early to care for own, parents’, and/or siblings’ needs

  • Making more of an effort to understand and communicate with your parents than they did/do

  • Acting as a certain version of yourself and unable to show your authentic self

Creative Coping

When we experience emotional abandonment as children, we come up with creative ways of coping to try to get our needs met or even to disconnect from those needs. The creative coping strategies we develop as children tend to stay with us into adulthood, especially if we haven’t developed new coping skills. Without awareness of the impacts of our childhood pain, we tend to replicate some of the patterns listed below in our current relationships:

  • Being a people-pleaser - accommodating to the needs of others before your own

    • This can be a way to prevent rejection

    • This can also be an attempt to ‘earn’ love and care

  • Being a helper - this is a form of connection with others

    • Typically one-sided without expecting mutual support

    • This role can make it difficult to ask for help due to feelings of shame and/or guilt

  • Being a high-achiever - excelling in school or work as a way to gain acceptance

  • Having a lack of boundaries - taught to ignore your discomfort, which can lead to disconnection from the self

    • Lack of validation of emotions can create uncertainty about your own opinions

    • Not listening or trusting your own instincts

    • Not being able to use your voice

  • Seeking emotionally unavailable friends/partners - tend to repeat familiar patterns and can seek relationships with people, who are similar to your parents

    • You may also believe in order to be loved, you have to fulfill certain roles (e.g., being a helper or caregiver)

  • Being extremely self-reliant - believing the only person you can rely on is yourself

    • Some may avoid emotional intimacy in friendships and relationships out of self-protection

    • If parents are unable to understand and/or fulfill your emotional needs, it can feel like no one can

If this blog resonated with your lived experience, you may feel sad, frustrated, angry, etc. All feelings are normal and valid in response to emotional neglect and rejection. As humans, we are wired to want emotional closeness and safety; we are worthy of being understood and to experience true empathy from others. While we cannot choose the families we are born into, we can understand how we have been impacted as well as make meaningful connections in our current and future relationships.


If you are interested in developing healthier relationship patterns, you can reach out to us here.


Stay tuned. Our next topic is “Do You People-Please?


References:

Gibson, L. C. (2015). Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.


Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.

Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.



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