Skip to Content

17 Signs of an Emotionally Unavailable Parent

An emotionally unavailable parent is emotionally absent, although they may be physically present. The two types of emotional unavailability are nonchalance and hostility. Signs of such parents include a flat tone of voice, avoidance of eye contact, and lack of interest in their children’s activities. Causes of emotional neglect range from mental health issues to addiction and childhood trauma.

Children of emotionally distant parents show symptoms developmentally, emotionally, behaviorally, psychosomatically, and mentally. Healing can be achieved through acknowledging, accepting, gaining support, participating in positive activities, and receiving help.

mother looks at laptop while daughter writes, emotionally distant mother trauma

What is an emotionally unavailable parent?

An emotionally unavailable parent is physically present but emotionally detached. These emotionally absent parents keep an emotional distance from their children, interacting with them only when necessary, and remain uninvolved in their children’s lives. Emotionally unavailable parents do not provide the emotional support or guidance that a child needs to develop healthy emotional regulation, social competence, and coping strategies.

What is cold mother syndrome or cold father syndrome?

Cold mother syndrome or cold father syndrome describes a parent who is consistently cold and emotionally distant. Warmth and nurturing are lacking in the parent-child relationship. Emotionally distant mother is another name for cold mother syndrome. Other names include absent parent syndrome, distant parent syndrome, and detached mother syndrome.

What are the types of emotional unavailability in parents?

There are two types of emotional unavailability in parents – nonchalance and hostility.

  • Nonchalent parents: Characterized by their lack of initiative and indifference to their children’s well-being.
  • Hostile parents: Conspicuous hostility and dominance towards their children.​1​
17 cold mother syndrome symptoms

What are the signs of an emotionally unavailable mother or father?

Here are 17 signs of an emotionally unavailable mother or father.​2​

  1. Speak with a flat tone of voice
  2. Avoid eye contact
  3. Not interested in their children’s activities
  4. Avoid spending time or being involved with their children
  5. Unresponsive to their children in times of distress
  6. Always seem busy or preoccupied with something other than their family
  7. Rarely hug or smile at their kids
  8. Do not express love in words or actions
  9. Reject their children’s display of affection
  10. Dismiss or ignore their children when they display emotions
  11. Do not praise or offer positive feedback
  12. Do not encourage
  13. Do not find emotional connection comfortable
  14. Are critical of children’s mistakes
  15. Have depression
  16. Have addiction-based issues
  17. Have a childhood history of emotional or physical abuse

Do I have cold mother syndrome?

You may have cold mother syndrome if you feel emotionally detached from your child or are emotionally unavailable to them. If you have trouble meeting your child’s emotional needs, seek professional help from a licensed therapist, counselor, or psychologist.

What causes cold mother syndrome?

There are 7 causes of cold mother syndrome.​3–5​

  1. Mental health issues: For example, depression or anxiety
  2. Personality disorders: For example, avoidant personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder
  3. Addiction: For example, drug abuse or alcoholism
  4. Immaturity: For example, emotionally immature parents
  5. Life stress: For example, work, marriage discord, or divorce
  6. Lack of empathy: Parents struggle to make emotional connections when they lack empathy.
  7. Childhood trauma: Parents with a history of child abuse are emotionally unavailable due to preoccupation with their childhood trauma issues.

What are the effects of emotionally unavailable parents?

The effects of emotionally unavailable parents include developmental impairments, internalizing symptoms, externalizing symptoms, psychosomatic symptoms, and lower mental well-being. These “cold mother syndrome symptoms” are on par with the detrimental impact of sexual and physical abuse on a child.

Here are 25 effects of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents.​6–15​

  1. Alexithymia (Difficulties in identifying and communicating personal feelings)
  2. Cognitive deficits
  3. Speech delay
  4. Development delay
  5. Low self-esteem
  6. Social Anxiety
  7. Depression and suicidal attempts
  8. Eating disorder
  9. Emotional dysregulaiton
  10. Inability to focus (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptom)
  11. Dissociation
  12. Attention-seeking behavior
  13. Conduct problem
  14. Angry outbursts
  15. Aggression and defiant behavior
  16. Delinquency
  17. Stomach ache
  18. Headache
  19. Sleeplessness
  20. Insecure attachment
  21. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD)
  22. Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED)
  23. Poor boundaries
  24. Parentification
  25. Difficulty in relationships

How do you know if you were emotionally neglected as a child?

Feeling emotionally numb, detached from self, or disconnected from surroundings are common symptoms of dissociation, which is linked to childhood emotional neglect. Additionally, persistent feelings of depression or unexplained emotional outbursts may also be signs.

However, these symptoms alone do not necessarily confirm a history of emotional neglect. A trained mental health specialist is essential for an accurate assessment. Self-diagnosis can be misleading, and a professional can provide a comprehensive evaluation.

Are emotionally unavailable parents abusive?

Yes, emotionally unavailable parents are abusive when severe childhood emotional neglect occurs. Psychological abuse is defined by the American Professional Society on Abuse of Children (APSAC) as “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs.”​16​

Is cold mother syndrome abuse?

Yes, cold mother syndrome leads to emotional neglect, which is a form of psychological abuse in severe cases. The American Professional Society on Abuse of Children (APSAC) reportedly defines psychological abuse as “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs.” Therefore, a cold mother or father who consistently shows a lack of emotional availability demonstrates harmful interactions that meet the maltreatment criteria.

Can an emotionally distant mother cause trauma?

Yes, an emotionally distant mother or father can result in emotional neglect, causing psychological trauma in children.​17​

How to heal from emotionally unavailable parents

To heal from emotionally unavailable parents, here are 5 steps.

  1. Recognition: Healing begins when you recognize the harm done to you. Issues were rooted in your parents’ emotional needs, not your inadequacy. A significant obstacle to healing is the belief that you are responsible for your parent’s emotional inaccessibility; if you behaved differently, they would have been able to love you more. However, this is not true. You are not responsible for their emotional availability or the lack of it. 
  2. Acceptance: Accept that only they can change their behavior. Your abusive parent may never get better or change, but what matters most is that you do.
  3. Build a Support Network: The importance of seeking out and building a network of emotional support is particularly important for people who grew up without proper emotional support. An excellent place to start is by seeking out friends who show understanding. A support group of people with similar experiences can help you feel understood, validated, and less isolated. Sharing your story lets you hear what helped others who have been there before.
  4. Plan and Do Positive Activities: Positive activities can increase positive emotions and help you feel more normal. Positive activities may include doing fun things, exercising, meditating, and helping others.
  5. Professional help: Seek mental health care whenever possible. Public resources are available in every state to help those who cannot afford therapy. An experienced therapist or psychologist can help you make sense of the past. They can also help you develop new ways of looking at yourself and relating to others to build meaningful relationships.


  1. 1.
    Baldwin AL, Kalhorn J, Breese FH. Patterns of parent behavior. Psychological Monographs. Published online 1945:i-75. doi:10.1037/h0093566
  2. 2.
    Egeland B, Sroufe LA, Erickson M. The developmental consequence of different patterns of maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 1983:459-469. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(83)90053-4
  3. 3.
    Gottman JM, Katz LF. Effects of marital discord on young children’s peer interaction and health. Developmental Psychology. Published online May 1989:373-381. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.25.3.373
  4. 4.
    Feshbach ND. Empathy: The formative years– Implications for clinical practice. Empathy reconsidered: New directions in psychotherapy. Published online 1997:33-59. doi:10.1037/10226-001
  5. 5.
    Dix T. The affective organization of parenting: Adaptive and maladaptative processes. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1991:3-25. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.3
  6. 6.
    Cole-Detke H, Kobak R. Attachment processes in eating disorder and depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1996:282-290. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.64.2.282
  7. 7.
    de Jong ML. Attachment, individuation, and risk of suicide in late adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online June 1992:357-373. doi:10.1007/bf01537023
  8. 8.
    BYNG-HALL J. Creating a Secure Family Base: Some Implications of Attachment Theory for Family Therapy. Family Process. Published online March 1995:45-58. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1995.00045.x
  9. 9.
    Berant E, Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. Mothers’ Attachment Style, Their Mental Health, and Their Children’s Emotional Vulnerabilities: A 7-Year Study of Children With Congenital Heart Disease. Journal of Personality. Published online December 7, 2007:31-66. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00479.x
  10. 10.
    Hattori Y. Social Withdrawal in Japanese Youth. Journal of Trauma Practice. Published online September 12, 2006:181-201. doi:10.1300/j189v04n03_01
  11. 11.
    Field T. The Effects of Mother’s Physical and Emotional Unavailability on Emotion Regulation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1994:208. doi:10.2307/1166147
  12. 12.
    Infurna MR, Reichl C, Parzer P, Schimmenti A, Bifulco A, Kaess M. Associations between depression and specific childhood experiences of abuse and neglect: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online January 2016:47-55. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.09.006
  13. 13.
    Hagborg JM, Tidefors I, Fahlke C. Gender differences in the association between emotional maltreatment with mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in Swedish adolescents. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online May 2017:249-259. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.02.033
  14. 14.
    Hornor G. Attachment Disorders. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. Published online September 2019:612-622. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2019.04.017
  15. 15.
    Aust S, Härtwig EA, Heuser I, Bajbouj M. The role of early emotional neglect in alexithymia. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Published online May 2013:225-232. doi:10.1037/a0027314
  16. 16.
    Glaser D. How to deal with emotional abuse and neglect—Further development of a conceptual framework (FRAMEA). Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online October 2011:866-875. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.08.002
  17. 17.
    Hibbard R, Barlow J, MacMillan H, et al. Psychological Maltreatment. Pediatrics. Published online August 1, 2012:372-378. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-1552


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *